Profile of an ex-Prime Minister: Theresa May becomes the voice of Conservative conscience

24 Jun

“I think she has enhanced her reputation since leaving Downing Street, where she never looked comfortable.”

So said Andrew Mitchell, former International Development Secretary, of Theresa May, former Prime Minister.

Mitchell observed that as the only former PM in either the Commons or the Lords, she is “an important parliamentarian”:

“The first point is that she’s stayed in the House. Her interventions are incredibly telling. She speaks with enormous authority, she speaks up for her constituents, and she basically tries to keep the Government straight.”

Another former minister, an old friend of May, remarked on her “morality”, and added “there is a difference”.

He meant there is a difference between her and the present Prime Minister. Her contributions in the Commons, presented in easily accessible form by Hansard, display several qualities not always evinced by Boris Johnson.

She offers almost nothing in the way of entertainment, but concentrates on the matter in hand, to which she applies her prosaic but furiously logical mind, her mastery of detail and an icy Anglican conscientiousness.

These qualities did not suffice to make her a successful Prime Minister, but help fit her to hold the present incumbent to account.

When in her view he is behaving badly, she is on hand to tell him so. And because she is generally the first backbencher on the Conservative side to be called, he can quite often enjoy the pleasure of listening to her, and had to send her a note of apology after a recent occasion when he fled the Chamber just as she rose to speak.

The causes which command her attention include the Government’s handling of the pandemic; the proposed relaxation of planning laws; the abandonment of the 0.7 per cent manifesto commitment on international aid (no doubt one reason for Mitchell’s approval); sentences for causing death by dangerous driving (she wants life); modern slavery; mental health; domestic abuse; and various other tough, complicated, unfashionable matters on which she got a grip as Home Secretary.

As MP since 1997 for Maidenhead, she has always, as one long-term observer says, “been allergic to more houses in Maidenhead”, and can be relied on to demand: “Why can’t they put them somewhere else?”

Her majority at the general election of 2019 was 18,846, but in 2001 fell as low as 3,284. Nobody had to tell her the Lib Dems posed a danger in Chesham and Amersham.

May as PM found it impossible to assemble a sufficient coalition of parliamentary or popular support, but loss of office has liberated her to become the voice of a certain kind of Tory conscience.

She expresses a dutiful, deeply felt, traditional conservatism, and strives to expose the various ways in which, to some Conservatives, the present government is scandalously disreputable and unprofessional.

Here she is last September on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill:

“I cannot emphasise enough how concerned I am that a Conservative Government are willing to go back on their word, to break an international agreement signed in good faith and to break international law.”

And here she is in the debate on 10th June on the aviation, travel and tourism industries, when Robert Courts, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport, was on the receiving end of this reproof:

“This is a disappointing debate, because one year and one week ago this very issue was raised in this House… One year on, we are no further forward. Indeed, we have a devastated industry, jobs lost and global Britain shut for business.

More than not being any further forward, we have gone backwards. We now have more than 50 per cent of the adult population vaccinated—it is a wonderful programme—yet we are more restricted on travel than we were last year. In 2020, I went to Switzerland in August and South Korea in September. There was no vaccine but travel was possible. This year, there is a vaccine but travel is not possible. I really do not understand the Government’s stance.

Of course, it is permissible for a person to travel to countries on the amber list, provided that it is practicable for them to quarantine when they come back, but Government Ministers tell people that they must not travel and cannot go on holiday to places on the amber list. The messaging is mixed and the system is chaotic. Portugal was put on the green list, people went to the football, then Portugal was put on the amber list, leaving holidaymakers scrabbling for flights and devastated families having to cancel their plans… 

Business travel is practically impossible: global Britain has shut its doors to business and investors. In a normal pre-pandemic year, passengers travelling through Heathrow spent £16 billion throughout the country, including at places such as Legoland Windsor, which is partly in my constituency. That has been lost…

If the Government’s position is that we cannot open up travel until there are no new variants elsewhere in the world, we will never be able to travel abroad ever again…The Government may say all they have, as the Minister has, about the importance of the aviation industry, but they need to decide whether they want an airline industry and aviation sector in the UK or not, because at the rate they are going, they will not have one.”

“What’s her game?” people ask, but her style of debating is effective because there is no sign of any game being played. She is in deadly earnest.

“Most of the time I think she’s right and therefore effective,” the old friend and former minister quoted above said. “She shifts the dial.

“But one warning: don’t do too much of it.”

The obvious danger, he added, was that she would “turn into Ted Heath”.

It would be impossible for May to reach the stratospheric level of grumpiness maintained for a quarter of a century by Heath after he was overthrown by Margaret Thatcher, but one guesses she finds little to admire in her successor.

Heath – in the words of Douglas Hurd, who worked for him – struck, when attacking Harold Wilson’s style of government in the introduction to the 1970 Conservative manifesto,

“a note of genuine puritan protest, which is familiar in British history, sometimes in one party, sometimes in the other… It is the outraged assertion of a strict view of what public life is about, after a period in which its rules have been perverted and its atmosphere corrupted.”

Sir Keir Starmer hesitates to sound unrelentingly high-minded. May has no such qualms. At the time of the 1970 general election she was 13, and had already started working for the local Conservatives as a volunteer.

Another of May’s old friends says of her and Johnson: “She must despise him, and she must look at him and think how can he be there and I was dumped so humiliatingly.

“But honestly, I have no idea what goes on in her brain – nobody does.”

Yet in this week’s Spectator, James Forsyth offers a hint of what is going on there:

“I’m told that when May was canvassing at the Chesham and Amersham by-election, she took a certain pleasure in telling the campaign team about voters who said they weren’t voting Conservative because of Johnson.”

Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party, places the change in May’s demeanour in perspective:

“One might almost feel that it was worth the agony of the premiership to get this serene and rather impressive elder stateswoman. She is a powerful rebuke to Blair, Brown and Cameron who scuttled off indecorously after leaving Number 10. She is demonstrating again that ex-premiers can find a useful role in the Commons, which Heath’s unseemly behaviour had rather suggested might be impossible in modern politics.

“She remains at the political service of the nation, as no ex-premier since Douglas-Home has realistically been. Arthur Balfour left No 10 in 1905 after a disastrous three-year premiership with the party divided and in deep disarray. Rehabilitation followed quite quickly, and he held major offices in later governments, finally retiring at the age of eighty.  Here is an example for Mrs May to keep in mind.”

If the Government won’t force the Tory shires to build more houses, perhaps it should bribe them instead

18 Dec

There was something soul-crushingly inevitable about announcement that the Government is going to abandon the algorithm at the heart of its planning reforms. But how big a setback is it?

To hear them tell it, not much. The core overhaul of the planning system – summarised here by London YIMBY – remains in place, including the part where areas are ‘zoned for growth’, a process that will, as Housing Today puts it, “grant automatic permission for development in certain areas”.

But ‘zoning for growth’ is only useful if you do it where the demand is. It is quite clearly a mechanism for brute-forcing a degree of much-needed development past the “more homes yes, but not here” brigade. Yet following a mutiny by Conservative backbenchers, Robert Jenrick has abandoned the algorithm the Government had been using to decide where such zones should go.

We don’t yet know what is going to replace it, but we do know that it will fall much less heavily on leafy, Tory-voting shire seats in the South East – a tactical victory for MPs such as Theresa May, whose Maidenhead constituency is now spared the shadow of a few hundred new homes.

The go-to solution for these MPs seems to be more development in urban areas. But this is clearly parcel-passing, and the problems are various. In London, where the demand really is, it will likely mean another unpopular application of ‘zoning for growth’ to push for densification in the (also Conservative-voting) suburbs. Otherwise it entails, as Bob Seely suggested in a piece for this site, shifting housebuilding targets northwards (where the demand isn’t) in the vague hope that economic regeneration will follow.

Unless you have ‘simultaneously build more houses and make no dent in the housing shortage’ on your housing policy bingo card – and given the state of British housing policy, you might – this likely isn’t a good idea.

In any event, given the backlash it will likely spark (Google ‘garden grabbing’ for a foretaste of it) it seems probable that the Government will eventually retreat from this as well, raising the spectre of a wholesale surrender of any effort to fix the Southern housing shortage by shifting the focus northwards under the rubric of ‘levelling up’.

If so, that would stand in a long and counter-productive Conservative tradition of trying to solve the problem without aggravating any of the vested interests in the Party’s electoral coalition, such as the repeated efforts of Chancellors from George Osborne onwards to solve a supply problem by pumping more demand into the market via schemes such as Help to Buy.

Yes, housing is a complicated problem and issues such as excessive credit – which we tackled in the ‘Homes’ section of the ConHome Manifesto – are part of it. But if your goal is to spread genuine property ownership, then jury-rigging mechanisms for getting cut-price assets into the hands of first-time buyers runs into the same problem that Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to create a ‘shareholding democracy’ did: how do you stop people selling them on at full price? Laws restricting the scale of mortgage lending to more old-fashioned levels may be part of the answer, but its absurd to pretend that they’re an alternative to building more houses.

Addressing the housing shortage – and once again for those at the back, the Southern housing shortage – has to be a strategic priority for the Conservatives. The current situation is delaying home-ownership, family formation, and otherwise reshaping society in ways antithetical to conservatism.

Not only is this squeezing the Party’s position in London, where the Tory vote in many seats has collapsed even since 2010, but it will spread the issue across the South East and the East of England as more London-based workers trade a longer commute for more affordable housing. Where Brighton and Canterbury have lead, many more true-blue seats could follow.

But what to do? Some of the Conservative-leaning think-tanks have their ideas. Alex Morton, the head of policy at the Centre for Policy Studies and a housing specialist, is working proposals to make an obligation to build part of planning permissions, to prevent developers banking the land value uplift without doing anything in return.

A paper for the Adam Smith Institute suggests the right ‘YIMBY’ policies could unlock up to five million homes in London alone, and they have elsewhere floated the idea of building ‘commuter villages’ near existing railway stations, effectively replicating the ‘Metroland’ project which saw swathes of north-west London effectively built by the Metropolitan Railway. But it isn’t obvious that London’s main commuter lines could take this extra pressure (at least until High Speed ‘it’s-capacity-really’ 2 is finished), and in any event a proposal that involves building on the green belt is politically-speaking just a thought experiment.

Policy Exchange also lean towards densification, drawing on the work of the late Sir Roger Scruton’s lamentably-named ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’.

However rather than trying to brute-force development through in the teeth of local opposition, which is what ‘zoning for growth’ aimed to do, this agenda aims to win public support both by making sure new developments are attractive (cue the lamentations of architects) and by making sure existing homeowners profit from new developments:

“They propose that we allow streets to hold a vote on whether to let homeowners redevelop their homes. If a two-thirds majority support it, homeowners would receive planning permission to add floors to their homes and to take up more of their plot area. The limits on what streets should be able to grant themselves would be those of traditional European cities: five-storey buildings in a terraced format. Many streets would probably choose to go up to these limits in order to maximise the increase in property values.”

Stuffing the mouths of vested interests with gold is a British policymaking tradition – it’s how Labour sold doctors on the NHS, after all – and is probably going to be essential if the Government intends to succumb to Tory MPs’ demands that planning be ‘locally-led’. The alternative is waiting until Labour get into office and unleash a housing programme drawn up with no regard whatsoever to the interests and preferences of Conservative voters and MPs. Which, at that point, some might feel they deserve.

Whatever path he chooses, the clock is now ticking for Boris Johnson. If he wants the new planning system to have had any impact on the situation in the country by the next election, he really needs to have it on the books by the end of 2021. Otherwise new applications and so on won’t have time to get through. But if he rushes into a second policy that gets thrown out by MPs, that’s very likely to mark the end of any serious efforts at planning reform in this Parliament.

As I noted recently with regards to green targets, this country has a very bad habit of endlessly putting off difficult infrastructure decisions. That the Government is still dithering over expanding Heathrow suggests this hasn’t changed. The Prime Minister’s tendency towards procrastination is well-known.

But solving the housing crisis is not just of national but of existential political importance to the Tories in a way our ports, airports, and road network frankly aren’t. Johnson needs to make a decision; it needs to be the right decision; and it needs to be soon. If he isn’t prepared to be Britain’s house-building Bonaparte, the Prime Minister needs to be clear what Plan B is.