DAN HODGES: Face it, Theresa, those rich boys were right

As Theresa May stumbled through another chaotic week of Brexit confusion, a Commons capitulation on welfare reform and a trouncing at Prime Minister’s Questions, a Labour MP shook his head and grinned. ‘You can tell George Osborne isn’t in Downing Street any more,’ he said.

A few months ago I asked a Minister the big difference between serving under Mrs May and David Cameron. ‘When you go and see Theresa over an issue it’s all about the substance of policy,’ he explained, ‘but with George or David it was always “where’s the politics in this?”’

Back then it was seen as an endorsement – Mrs May the grown-up was calling time on the Westminster game-playing of the rich, posh boys of the Cameron clique. But speak to Ministers now and the statement is inverted. ‘Where’s the politics?’ they plead.

A Labour MP and Tory Minister have both said the difference in politics between the May and Cameron governments is clear to see

Nowhere to be seen, is the answer. Take the Universal Credit fiasco. There’s an irrefutable case for overhauling benefits. Excluding pensions, £130 billion is spent annually on welfare, despite the fact we are a society nearing full employment. There is significant public support for reform. And yet when invited to make that case – the case for its own policy – the Government ran away, ordering Conservative MPs to abstain on the issue.

Under Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, the complaint was that they ‘weaponised’ the Government’s agenda, using it to drive a wedge between themselves and their opponents.

But under Mrs May, the opposite is happening. The Prime Minister is currently engaged in a process of unilateral political disarmament.

People complained the David Cameron and George Osborne 'weaponised' the government's agenda

People complained the David Cameron and George Osborne ‘weaponised’ the government’s agenda

On welfare she has a policy of reform but is no longer willing to appear as the reformer. On Brexit her position is ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.

But again, she is unwilling to draw that red line in front of her European negotiating partners. On energy pricing she has committed to a freeze for consumers. But she is yet to publish a draft Bill because she wishes to consult the very companies responsible for this rip-off. Speaking to Tory MPs, many think the Election result has left their party gun-shy. ‘We’ve spent the past four months with our head in our hands over the fact we won,’ said a backbencher.

Some Ministers believe there is now a dangerous disengagement at the top of Government. They were aghast last Sunday to see a briefing from Philip Hammond indicating that he would be getting down with the kids, axing pensions relief, and offering tax cuts for younger voters. ‘This is the problem with having both a Prime Minister and Chancellor who aren’t political,’ one Minister conceded. ‘Yes, if you want to tackle decades of intergenerational unfairness this is a great idea. But if you ever want to see another Tory majority, it’s madness.’

That’s partly true. But another major problem isn’t a divide at the top of Government, but within it.

Ministers and MPs point to a growing chasm between Downing Street, the network of departmental special advisers, and the Press and political support provided by party headquarters.

In an environment where the Civil Service obsessively polices every Ministerial statement for overt party political content, the ability of the central party machine to craft and drive the agenda is crucial. And since 2015, the Tory machine has fallen apart.

'Mrs May¿s problem will not be solved by a spot of arboreal airbrushing,' writes Dan Hodges

‘Mrs May’s problem will not be solved by a spot of arboreal airbrushing,’ writes Dan Hodges

‘It’s a shambles, one Minister complained. ‘HQ is totally hollowed out. All the good people left or were sacked. It’s just a bunch of kids over there.’

In an attempt to address this, a frantic process of hiring is under way. There is talk of a November party ‘re-launch’. Strategising has re-focused on ditching the old ‘tree’ logo and replacing it, possibly with a ladder, to underline a commitment to social mobility.

As New Labour showed, rebranding can be an effective tool. But Mrs May’s problem will not be solved by a spot of arboreal airbrushing. The Election exposed the extent to which she detests the squalor of the political bear pit. But if she didn’t want to indulge in base politicking, she needed to recognise that before becoming Prime Minister.

The days when she could glide serenely above the fray as grandmother of the nation are gone. The opportunity to hit the reset button at conference was squandered. So now she is going to have to roll up her sleeves, and get her hands dirty in the Westminster mud.

If she feels a policy is politically unsustainable, she should dump it. But if she persists, she must sell it vigorously and in a way that draws a razor-sharp dividing line between herself and Jeremy Corbyn.

Theresa May needs to draw a razor-sharp dividing line between her policies and Jeremy Corbyn's 

Theresa May needs to draw a razor-sharp dividing line between her policies and Jeremy Corbyn’s 

She also needs to pick a side. Mrs May is either the Prime Minister who stands up for consumers, or the Premier who stands up for big business. She can’t be both. If she believes energy prices need capping, then cap them, and let the squeals of the corporate giants sell the policy for her.

And hardest of all, she has to admit to herself the rich, posh boys were right. All the talk of controlling headlines and ‘setting the narrative’ weren’t an indulgence but a vital component of modern governance.

‘The way she’s lost the argument on the economy and the deficit, after all the time we invested in it, is almost criminal,’ one former Cameron adviser told me this week.

Mrs May famously said ‘politics isn’t a game’. Correct. It’s a war, and for the remainder of her premiership it will be a war of attrition. The time has come for her to weaponise her Government.


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