Theresa May is a lucky Prime Minister. Lucky because she has got Brexit. As the events of the past few days demonstrate, Brexit camouflages the lack of vision and purpose at the heart of this Government.
This is not the conventional view in Whitehall and Westminster. There ministers, officials and MPs speak of little else of the enormity of the task of disentangling Britain from the thicket of rules, regulations, relationships and, above all, attitudes that have sprung up over our 40-plus years of membership of the European Union.
And, of course, at a purely practical level they are right. Developing a new trading relationship with the EU, striking trade deals across the globe, devising distinctive domestic policies on immigration, the environment, fishing and farming, maintaining cooperation over defence and security matters, and crafting a new post-Brexit economic model – to name just some of the more obvious challenges – amount to a formidable in-tray. But at least they give Mrs May and her ministers something to get their teeth into. They can busy themselves by being extremely busy and not trouble themselves over much with that pesky “vision thing”.
The dominance of Brexit on the political landscape also pays tactical dividends. Philip Hammond’s ill-judged assault in his first Budget on the self employed – raising their national insurance contributions by £280 a year for those earning £30,000 – was roundly panned in the press and by many Tory MPs. But by this weekend a lot of the steam was going out of the protest, partly because Mrs May has kicked it into the long grass but also because of Brexit.
With the Government poised to trigger Article 50, the Brexit train is coming fast down the track. The media and political focus has swung away from Hammond’s double blunder – an attack on the self-reliant, entrepreneurial grafters who make up much of his party’s core vote and a naked breach of a manifesto promise not to raise NI – and is back on the mammoth battle over Europe. Mr Hammond, who ruined his reputation as a safe pair of hands in one fell swoop, can count himself fortunate that Brexit overshadows all it surveys.
But what of the counter-factual? What if there had been no referendum last summer terminating British membership of the EU? What would be the point of a May government then?
Back in January, the PM had a stab at answering this question with her “shared society” speech in which she suggested that the focus of her administration would shift from the individual to the collective, in which there would be a greater emphasis on the responsibilities we all have for one another and on building stronger communities and families. It did not sound particularly Tory and it certainly failed to animate either her supporters or the media. The speech sunk without trace, rather like David Cameron’s abandoned and forgotten mission to create the big society.
She has also spoken about the plight of the “just about managing” and of her determination to create a society that works for everyone. In her party conference speech last year, she conveyed a distinctly un-Thatcherite message by extolling the power of the state to do good.
But none of it has amounted to a clear statement of her intentions or pointed to a concrete programme for government. Even the plan to revive grammar schools, the one controversial and distinctly right-wing policy she has championed, looks like getting bogged down in arguments about social mobility and instructions to new and existing grammars to set quotas for the admission of poor pupils, an approach that necessarily blunts the meritocratic beliefs that underpin selection. In a post-Brexit world, Britain is going to have to make the most of the talent at its disposal – and that certainly includes identifying and stretching the brightest children in the land.
This drift to the soggy centre also lay at the heart of Hammond’s Budget miscalculation. Not only did he break a manifesto promise and turn his guns on his own people, as Norman Lamont pointed out, he has turned his back on the “Thatcher radicalism” we need to curb spiralling welfare bills. Lamont rightly urged a shift from tax-funded welfare to rewarding people for saving and for insuring themselves. Instead, we got a proposal that “goes against the entire grain of Conservative policy since 1979”.
Which brings is back to Brexit. That is not a political philosophy demanding deep original thought and the immense challenge of turning abstract ideas into a practical programme for government alongside the language to communicate it with flair and conviction. But Brexit does add up to a to-do list – and it won’t be easy.
Mrs May is lucky that she has been presented with such a big, obvious dragon to slay.