May-ism revealed – plus ca change?

7 August 2017

Over the weekend, we learnt as much about “May-ism” arguably as at any other moment of its life so far. Because the 2016 Conservative leadership campaign was cut unexpectedly short, Theresa May did not have to make the normal series of speeches which would set out her thinking across the range of policy. The policy-light approach to the 2017 General Election (on the part of the Conservatives) had the same consequence. In the last two days, two of her senior advisers both set out their thinking.

For both Nick Timothy and Will Tanner, the key idea was that the Government should stand for “change” in a time of popular discontent with the status quo. As Nick Timothy put it, the message they wanted to convey was, “we get the anger, we get the need for change, we’re on the side of change”. (Nick Timothy went on to say that the Conservative campaign was a mistake, in these terms, because it emphasised continuity and “stability” rather than change.)

Most interestingly, “change” means a shift away from free markets. For Will Tanner, the pro-market liberal consensus is “crumbling”. The ideal State is “strategic, not small”. For Nick Timothy, it means reforming “dysfunctional markets” and bringing an industrial strategy to other parts of the country.

The question is, are these advisers offering much change at all? They certainly aren’t proposing the “untrammelled free markets” criticised in the Conservative manifesto, but not many people are. The current state of UK government doesn’t feel like the libertarian vision that they fear. The tax burden is rising and the tax code has become so long and complicated that even experts can’t understand it. The financial sector has become more regulated in both the UK and the US (and indeed the Financial Times reports on its front page today that institutions have paid more than $150 billion in fines in the US relating to the financial crisis ten years ago). Successive governments have run “business” or “industrial” policies under different names, always with a wish to rebalance economic growth across the country. It is hard to see that May-ism represents the radical change that the country seeks.

For public services, the question is always whether governments will give the space for services themselves to get with necessary change. Nick Timothy and Will Tanner did exactly that as special advisers in the Home Office, abolishing targets and empowering Police and Crime Commissioners. May-ism, however, points in different directions. Between them, the authors speak of an “agile”, “responsive” and strategic” State and praise necessary NHS and social care reform. In contrast they praise increases in the NHS budget and emphasise that the State should not be “small”. These differences can be terminal for good public services policy since public service leaders want clear messages from the top.

As it happened, the interventions followed two absolutely key moments in the health and education debates last week. Professor Tim Briggs said that the NHS should sort out its manifest inefficiencies before receiving extra funds. DfE research found that extra funds (or funding cuts) had made little difference to pupil performance. It just looks strange to hint towards big budget increases in the light of this.

In my own view, the 2017 General Election showed that the electorate is desperate for new ideas in public services. Talk of a “big” and directive State pushes government away from all the radical and exciting thinking that public-private partnership can now deliver, particularly in technology. The question is whether the May-ite economic approach is that much of a change, and whether its public services policy is coherent. Still, it is greatly to their credit that the former advisers have identified the mood for change in the British electorate and decided to take it head on.

Andrew Haldenby, Director, Reform 

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