Theresa May’s MPs are now constantly pressuring her to come up with a ‘vision’ of what she wants to do, whether it be on Brexit or on the domestic front. Those who are more sympathetic to the Prime Minister’s caution, though, argue that her vision is constrained by the parliamentary arithmetic. Why try something that just isn’t going to get through the House of Commons?
One answer would be that May wouldn’t lose all that much by trying and failing than she thinks. As I wrote last week, she is currently more in danger of weakening her authority by not trying at all. But another is that the Prime Minister could work with that parliamentary arithmetic to get reforms in place using a cross-party consensus.
Today’s Liberal Democrat report suggesting a hypothecated NHS and social care tax highlights one key area where, with careful groundwork, the Conservatives might be able to make some ground. Everyone produces worthy talk about cross-party working when discussing the health and social care systems, yet the past three decades show that a lasting consensus isn’t easy to reach on this matter. It should be obvious, given the parties do ultimately have very different views on the size of the state, the rate of taxation, and inherited wealth.
But that isn’t to say that May shouldn’t try. MPs such as Norman Lamb, Liz Kendall and members of her own side including Sarah Wollaston have been trying to persuade the Prime Minister of the merits of a cross-party approach to funding for both the NHS and the social care sector, but haven’t seen much enthusiasm in return. Neither, I understand, are Labour frontbenchers particularly keen to go beyond calling for cross-party talks to actually working on a genuinely cross-party basis, as a number of senior figures want to avoid helping the Conservatives in any way and on anything.
While there are informal talks taking place between those who do really want a long-term sustainable settlement for health and social care, May does eventually need to take a lead on this. Similarly, she could identify other areas for cross-party working where she makes it more difficult for the parties to turn on one another than in the past. The obvious solution to this would be to avoid announcing any policies near an election. That’s what did for the Prime Minister’s first attempt at social care reform, and that’s what did for Labour’s social care proposals in 2009, too: it was just too irresistible for the government’s opponents to leap all over the policy and denounce it, rather than doing anything more constructive. The pressure should be on Labour and the Lib Dems to back policies which they’ve worked on up to the point of announcement, rather than use them as a political football.
The other barrier to this sort of cross-party working is that the Tory Secretaries of State in charge of departments needing reform will have to have some kind of confidence that the Prime Minister backs them. Given the botched reshuffle in which May tried to move some of them, there’s a fair bit of work to be done there, too.
But May’s survival is far more dependent on MPs from parties other than her own, particularly given the deep splits in the Conservatives at the moment. If she is able to start achieving serious reforms with the help of others, then she may find that the resentment among her own MPs starts to die down.