Every political leader and government goes through a phase when their spin doctors feel they need a relaunch. For some, the relaunch comes after a number of good years. For Theresa May, her relaunch came on the anniversary of her becoming Prime Minister – and after a rather tumultuous year.
As relaunches go, this wasn’t the standard speech where a leader at least gives the impression that they are moving onwards and upwards. Instead, it felt as though May was trying to make the best of a decision to downsize that she hadn’t taken. She couldn’t even promise to implement the recommendations of the Taylor Report, which she launched alongside her promise to stay on the path that she set out in her first speech in Downing Street a year go. Instead, her language around this review into employment rights was all rather vague, with lines like ‘substantial piece of work’, ‘contribution to the public debate’ and ’this report will provide the stimulus’. In politicalese, this is a polite way of thanking someone for working so hard on something that you know you don’t have the political capital to implement.
When Matthew Taylor agreed to conduct the review, it was under a Tory majority government and with a second Labour leadership contest in as many years starting up. Signing up a former Downing Street strategist from the Blair years was supposed to show that all the energy and key thinkers on the left were coming over to the Tories. But now, May is having to plead with the left to engage with this report so that its greatest achievement doesn’t remain being a ‘contribution to public debate’ (Taylor must be wondering that if this is all May can offer his review, he might as well have just written a blog post and spent the rest of the time eating crisps).
But it’s also worth wondering what May would have put in her relaunch speech after a successful snap election. Sure, she has had to drop some controversial policies such as scrapping free school meals for infant school children and plans to expand grammar schools. But even a ruthlessly honest and downbeat Prime Minister wouldn’t celebrate an increased majority by promising to prise fish fingers out of the hands of babes. One of the problems with her election campaign is that May gave voters very little reason to be excited about voting Conservative. There was little sense that she wanted a big majority so she could push ahead with big social reforms, more that she could ignore the complaining about Brexit from Labour and the Lib Dems. Now she’s having to pay those complaining opposition parties a lot more attention than before. Perhaps the greatest difference between a majority May relaunch and what we saw today would have been merely that she could have promised to implement Taylor’s proposals, rather than make vague noises about how nice his report is. And perhaps that lack of excitement about reform is one of the reasons why May is in the position she is in now.