ConHome Diary: One Year On...
8 Jun 2018 at 15:33
Today marks the first anniversary of the 2017 general election result. I think we all remember the sense of astonishment we all felt as it became clear that Theresa May’s majority was disappearing down the swannee. Looking back on the last twelve months, it is difficult to do so with any sense that it has been a year of achievement. Number Ten can point to wins at the December and March EU summits, but they appear to be proving rather illusional given the current state of the Brexit talks. In domestic policy terms, again, there seems to have been little sense of activity or dynamism. Some parts of the media try to imply that this is the most right-wing government in history, yet in many areas like health and business, the narrative seems to be that ‘nanny’ knows best. Five cabinet ministers have resigned. The rail system seems to be in a permanent sense of chaos. Violent crime is mushrooming. I could go on. And yet all the polls show the Conservatives are a few points ahead of Labour. In any normal political circumstance Labour would be 10-20 points ahead. Peak Corbyn. Indeed. And yet few people in the Labour Party appear to recognise this as a problem for them. Unfortunately, it also engenders a sense of complacency among some Conservatives, almost as if being able to govern is some sort of divine right. Conservatives cannot just rely on Labour to lose the next election by themselves, even though it’s perfectly possible that might happen. There has to be a vision. The Prime Minister displayed that vision on the steps of Downing Street on the day she became Prime Minister. She needs to rediscover that sense of domestic policy mission and be able to communicate it, not just to her MPs, but to the country at large.
After twenty years the Cabinet has finally agreed that a third runway at Heathrow should be built. I’ve been following this story since around 1993 (25 years ago!) when I organised a big conference on runway capacity in the South East. The arguments haven’t changed a lot in that time, to be honest. Personally, I wish the government had had the same vision as Boris Johnson and decided to build a brand new, state of the art airport somewhere in the south east. Boris wanted to build it in the middle of the Thames Estuary, but despite it having many attractions it was never really treated very seriously by Sir Howard Davies’s Airports Commission. But imagine this as a scenario. Theresa May isn’t Prime Minister any longer and Boris succeeds her. Can we imagine a scenario at his first cabinet meeting where he announces he’s withdrawing the Heathrow expansion plan, and asks the cabinet for their support in proceeding with plans to build Boris Island? What japes!
PMQs this week was a painful experience for Tory MPs to watch, as yet again the PM floundered on Brexit, which ought to be a subject on which she should wipe the parliamentary floor with Corbyn. But for the third time in a row she failed to do it, and Corbyn managed to ask questions to which she had no answer. You could almost feel the sense of deflation on the Tory benches. It could be argued that there are things that the PM can’t say in public for fear of undermining the government’s position but the tactic of answering a question from Corbyn by changing the subject and asking him a question back is not one which looks good to the watching public.
As the train timetable debacle on Northern Rail unfolded riding to the rescue of customers was Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham. In calling for the Transport Secretary and Northern to be sacked, he somehow failed to mention that the franchise is managed jointly between TfN and DfT. Laughably, Burnham is on TFN’s board. Despite his influential position, sources report that until recently he had failed to attend a single board meeting. No wonder he is happy to grandstand. Perhaps sending an open letter to the chairman of TFN this week was another opportunity for him to blame someone else rather than to fix the problem he should have seen in advance and been resolving himself – but if you don’t attend board meetings I suppose it’s difficult to be on top of the subject. I don’t think it’s unkind to say that given Andy Burnham is advocating that he is given additional powers to run the railways in and around Greater Manchester, he has rather undermined his case.