Tory MPs seem to be ignoring the warning of Benjamin Franklin, made just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that: “we must all hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately”. But for the time being Theresa May remains Prime Minister, and thanks to the Parliament Act, the government is difficult to unseat. She does however, after another dreadful week, need to reassert her authority not just for her own self-esteem or for the sake of the Tory party, but actually for the country as a whole. The UK needs a functioning government. What can she do? Here are three things.
First, she and her Chancellor Philip Hammond need to present a credible Budget next week. It needs to be credible at a macroeconomic level, in that the sums need to add up. Fortunately the overall tax revenue projections for this year look somewhat stronger than they did in the spring, creating more of a cushion for things to go wrong than seemed likely a few months ago. It should be possible to maintain some progress towards reducing the fiscal deficit while easing the squeeze on public spending.
The key to the Budget, if it is to help restore some authority to the Prime Minister, is that it should project a wider vision. What are the Government’s real priorities? What are the electorate’s real priorities? We don’t really know the former but it is easy to sketch some of the latter. Young people are profoundly worried about housing, and the proportion of owner-occupiers is shrinking every year. The student fees mess needs to be tackled. Infrastructure needs investment. Social care needs better funding and organisation. And so on. The Budget needs to show that the Government is aware of these concerns and starts to develop imaginative policies to tackle them. There is no magic wand that it can wave, but voters are not asking for that. They ask for direction and competence, and that is what the Government must provide.
The second area where the Prime Minister needs to give direction is over the negotiations with Brussels. Leave aside for the moment the issue of whether there should be a parliamentary vote on the eventual outcome of the deal, for there is something far more pressing: the divorce bill that has to be paid before trade negotiations can begin. There is still a gulf in the numbers, and there is the particular issue of the Irish border. But however distasteful it may be, it probably makes more sense to deal with the money swiftly and get that out of the way. If the commission negotiators are seen to be overly greedy in their claims, that tells Britons something about Europe that they need to know. As for Ireland, this calls for the sort of ingenuity on all sides that led to the Good Friday Agreement.
The third thing that Theresa May needs to do is to promote the talent within the Tory party. One of the legacies of David Cameron has been the quality of the new intake of MPs of 2010 and 2015. That will be the group who carry the party forward into the 2020s and beyond. They need more visibility in the sense that the electorate needs to know more about them so that it can judge whether they are really any good. The paradox here is that a bit of succession planning would actually strengthen the position of the present leadership by showing it has a long-term perspective, rather than a fire-fighting focus.
It may turn out that Theresa May’s position is untenable. But she is the Prime Minister and she has the power of that office. There are things she can do and she needs to do them.