Theresa May hasn’t shown any dedication to fighting social immobility so far – now’s her chance
The prime minister has to persuade the electorate that she meant what she said when she promised to tackle intergenerational unfairness and to assist families who were ‘just about managing’
The prime minister’s television interview on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday highlighted the problems facing the Conservatives as they head into their annual conference in Birmingham. For a start, more than half of the time was taken up by questions about Brexit.
As we argued in our editorial yesterday, the government has to focus on issues other than Brexit if it is to be a credible force at the next general election. At the top of this list is the need for young people to have the prospect of being able to buy their own homes. The problem for the government, and for the party, is that Brexit occupies so much bandwidth that just about everything else gets pushed aside.
It is a problem for the government in that the civil service is grindingly preoccupied both by the negotiations themselves and planning for different outcomes, including a no-deal Brexit. It is problem for the party in that the issue is an open wound, a daily reminder of how divided it is, and how Theresa May’s personal position is under threat. The salvoes from Boris Johnson may bounce off her armour but they will have scored some direct hits among the rank and file of the party’s elderly membership.
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The interview highlighted another difficulty of the prime minister: that she is associated with policies that are either unpopular in themselves, or demonstrate incompetence in execution. An example of the former is the squeeze on funding for schools. The prime example of the latter was the treatment of many of the 1950s and 1960s immigrants from the West Indies, the Windrush generation, so called because the first ship to bring this group was the Empire Windrush, back in 1948.
Her response to the first charge, about school funding, was to point to the parlous financial position the government inherited from Labour in 2010. But that was eight years ago and the government claims to have fixed public finances. Her response to the second – the misery inflicted on people who had come to this country to help rebuild it after the Second War, only to find that by bureaucratic muddle there was no record that they were legally here – was to apologise. The trouble with apologies, while welcome in themselves, is that they can never fully compensate for the wrongs done. Worse for Ms May, the incompetence happened on her watch at the Home Office.
The government has to look ahead. Given the decent state of public finances – a deficit that is running well below the forecast of the Office for Budget Responsibility made in the spring – there will some funds available to increase public spending in the forthcoming Budget on 29 October.
But the proposition that the Tories must offer to voters is not just a slight, if welcome, easing of the squeeze on spending. It has to show that it is committed, utterly and single-mindedly, to fostering a fairer society. Increasing the taxation of foreigners who buy property in Britain might be a small step in that direction. But what is really needed is for the prime minister to put at the front of her policies some of the ideas she promised on the steps of 10 Downing Street, when she became prime minister. In particular she has to persuade the electorate that she meant what she said when she promised to fight social immobility, to tackle intergenerational unfairness and to assist families who were “just about managing”.
“As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us,” she said.
Indeed. But first she will have to win over her listeners when she speaks to the conference on Wednesday. The challengers for her office scent blood. She has little time to reassert her authority. If she fails it will be someone else who is making the case for the “bold new positive role” for the country – and she knows it.
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