A balancing act

Few Prime Ministers take office at a time of their own choosing. Political or economic difficulties, or both, propel them into Downing Street and consume them from the moment they arrive. All those idle dreams of great deeds and a legacy saluted by the world vanish down the plughole of the present. The only Prime Minister of the last half century to have taken office in wholly propitious circumstances was Tony Blair.  

When Theresa May first stood outside No. 10 last July and declared her personal manifesto, my first thought, possibly my only thought, was to wonder how on earth she was going to achieve any of it. The apparently intractable problems of Brexit loomed. The country was divided as seldom before. The economy remained mired in deficit and debt, and Brexit seemed likely to make things worse before they got better.

Now she has called an election. Few Prime Ministers have had so much cause to argue that long-term plans need to be put on hold for the moment, that the focus needs to be on making the short term work. Politically, the Red Sea has parted before her, which one has to say is almost entirely down to luck. She could have walked serenely across it without making waves. She has chosen not to do so.

Instead, she has decided that, if she is going to make the difference to Britain that she wants to make, she needs to start doing it now, no matter how difficult the circumstances: otherwise, it won’t happen at all. In this assessment, she is surely right. But it remains the bravest of gambles, not least because she didn’t have to take it.

Her starting point is that the country has become unbalanced. This is nothing unusual. All societies that are not under totalitarian rule fluctuate constantly, moving from one imbalance to another, seldom achieving equilibrium for more than a fleeting moment. Sometimes the imbalance becomes severe, and then governments need to intervene decisively. Theresa May believes that now is such a moment.

The last time this happened in Britain was in the 1970s. Then, most people concluded that the trades unions wielded disproportionate power over the economy, over the government, over the country. In medieval terms, they had become over-mighty subjects. Since it was the Labour Party that had enabled this to happen, the country felt – irrationally on the surface, but in fact quite logically – that it was the Labour Party who should rectify the problem. It was when Labour failed to do so that the country turned to the Conservatives, and to Margaret Thatcher.

Since then, that imbalance has been removed and a new one has been created. There is no agreed equipoise between, on the one hand, the need for the creation of wealth and for the reward of those who create it and, on the other, the need to have a society that most people feel operates fairly. Both these things are essential. But, wherever one thinks the balance should lie, most people now think we are some distance away from it.

The wealthy elite and the politicians who champion them can talk all they like about the fact that the very rich now shoulder a much larger share of the tax burden. That may be statistically true, but it doesn’t address the gut feeling that they are still profiting excessively at the expense of the nation. One could turn the argument around and ask why the super-rich now have so much money that they can afford to bear such a large tax burden without becoming noticeably poorer. A healthy tax system takes most of its income from the middle classes, where the numbers are, because they should be prosperous enough to afford it. Britain’s middle classes are not prosperous enough to afford it at the moment.

There needs to be a rebalancing. And just as, in the ’70s, voters gave Labour the first chance to clear up what was principally its own mess, they now appear likely to give the Conservatives the first chance to clear up what is principally their own mess. (Although the roles of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown should not be forgotten.) It would appear that Theresa May is determined to seize the opportunity to address the need for a radical change.

It will not be easy. Conventional wisdom in the ’70s said that it was madness to upset the unions. Conventional wisdom now says that it is madness to upset corporate financiers and lawyers and ludicrously overpaid directors, especially with Brexit around the corner. There is always a risk in taking on over-mighty subjects. But it proved not to be madness in the ’80s, so maybe it will prove not to be now. And in any case, sometimes a bit of madness is necessary.

It is becoming clear what is in the Prime Minister’s head. I think she feels that Brexit will, of its own accord, throw most of the cards up in the air, with no one having much idea where they will land. In which case, perhaps she reasons, let’s throw all the other cards up in the air at the same time. Let us, in short, have a revolution in Britain in which we try and change all the things we don’t like about our country. When the dust of Brexit settles, let us find we are living in a subtly different country.

I am biased. I have long been an admirer of Theresa May, and have hoped for years that she would become Prime Minister. In next week’s blog, I will attempt to explain why. When she did become Prime Minister, she was damned with faint praise. She was extremely competent, it was said. Very hard-working. On top of her brief. Rather inflexible. No sense of humour. All in all, quite dull.

That assessment is unravelling. Even her enemies must now admit that she is strong, confident and courageous. She is fighting this election in a way she did not need to fight it, and which may well cost her votes. Whether she is right or wrong will depend on your viewpoint, but she has been brave and she has been honest. In my opinion, her politics have very little in common with Margaret Thatcher’s, but both women have shown the intelligence to recognise a moment and the guts to seize it.