Bernard Ingham: What Theresa May needs to do now

Theresa May is preparing for her first Tory conference as party leader.
Theresa May is preparing for her first Tory conference as party leader.
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It’s time for the Prime Minister to start consulting her colleagues, rather than being the sole arbiter of policy.

SUPERFICIALLY, things could not look rosier for Theresa May before her first party conference as Prime Minister this weekend.

Neil Kinnock, at the age of 74, doubts whether he will live to see another Labour government. Jeremy Corbyn may have increased his majority as leader but his speech to the Labour Party conference today will not add up to a row of beans. He is merely the veneer on militant, totalitarian nastiness.

The Liberal Democrats are no more than ticking over. Ukip is in trouble after Nigel Farage’s departure. The loony Greens are simply camouflaged hard Lefties.

Meanwhile, paralysis seems to have overcome the vast majority of Labour MPs who rightly think Corbyn is a disastrous leader.

The only trouble is that the Tory Party is no longer the Brigade of Guards, loyal to a fault.

Their de-toxification as the party of landed privilege – in other words, toffs – has produced too much public brawling.Apart from the pace of Brexit, they are even arguing over whether there should be more grammar schools.

Some gilt has come off May’s gingerbread in the two months since she was elected leader.

She is certainly tough and direct, and is commendably weaning the media off the rent-a-quote, dance-to-any-camera tendencies of the Cameron tenure. But the Government is at once too centralised and fluid.

I could scarcely believe my ears when told that the PM had intervened to review the now approved Hinkley Point nuclear power station without apparently telling the Department of Business until the last minute. It looked very untidy.

She has also felt it necessary to publicly slap down the Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – for their views on how, or how soon, we shall become a self- governing, independent nation again.

None of this will raise Government or party morale. In the longer term, it will make her job even more difficult when it is already clear this is going to be the devil of a government to lead without an opposition worthy of the name.

The problem is that governments get lackadaisical and self-indulgent without strong opposition. It should also be remembered that politicians are sensitive plants with elephantine memories when it comes to settling scores.

Whatever you may think of them, they are only too human.

So, how should Mrs May handle the party conference in Birmingham with the media pathetically braying that her policy of speaking only when she has something to say is leaving them to trawl through what her closest advisers have said in the past as a guide to her views now?

On the basis of recent events it is not only the media who do not seem to know what she is about. Nor do her Ministers – unless, that is, they are testing her out, as they may be over Brexit.

The Ice Maiden, as Mrs May has been called, may not have the histrionics and passion of Margaret Thatcher to get an audience going, but that will not necessarily reduce her fund of public goodwill, as evidenced by the opinion polls.

Nor will her Government’s apparent abandonment of the Cameron/Osborne aim to bring public spending and taxation into balance by 2020, though I think that is her first serious mistake with the nation still borrowing £70bn a year.

To disarm critics like me, she has to start consulting colleagues instead of being the sole arbiter of policies.

She then has to show how, without worsening public finances, she will sever us from the EU by 2020; drastically reduce immigration; spread rising economic activity and greater equality of opportunity across the nation and improve essential services.

She is currently the nation’s only hope of rising prosperity – and, indeed, of a properly defended nation that brings a hard-headed approach to international relations, terrorism and closely controlled overseas aid.

In short, she must run a more collegiate government or she will wear herself out.

We also need a much more rounded account of her approach to government, her guiding philosophy and some sort of vision for the next 10 years.

Above all, the public yearn for competent, sensible government.

In this context it was a bit much for her to ostentatiously tell the top military brass to sort out the hounding of troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and Northern Ireland at public expense, only to wreck Services morale and fill the pockets of lawyers.

After all, the politicians set up the damned inquiries. This stupidity does nothing for government reputation.

Mrs May’s fundamental task, starting with this weekend’s party conference, is to recover public trust in politicians. If she fails, we’re all lost.