Bernard Ingham: An anniversary to forget... but Theresa May must grasp future

MARK this coming Friday. It is the first anniversary of Theresa May's near-disastrous general election that eliminated rather than reinforced her Commons majority. She has not known much joy since.

Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip arrive for a church service near her Maidenhead constituency. This week marks the first anniversary of the election that saw Mrs May lose her Commons majority.
Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip arrive for a church service near her Maidenhead constituency. This week marks the first anniversary of the election that saw Mrs May lose her Commons majority.

Let’s face it, the Government and the Tory party are in a fine old mess. It might be terminal if Labour were not led by Jeremy Corbyn. Even a disunited, fractious Tory government is preferable to that alternative.

In all probability, that means Mrs May has four more years before the next election to get things right.

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But what if Corbyn were replaced by a moderate? That may seem unlikely, given Momentum’s grip on the party across the country, but Mrs May cannot rely on Labour remaining stuck in its destructive, Marxist ways.

One of the casualties of the interminable Brexit negotiations, if they can be graced with that word given the intransigence of the EU, is rational political discourse.

An acceptable Brexit next year would, of course, transform the situation and Mrs May might then be mistress of all she surveys. But – and there is always a but – will she know where she is going after that and will her party follow her?

There is no sign of her responding to my call months ago for the appointment of a series of searching inquiries into various aspects of government policy.

Instead, they are muddling through with Left and Right at each other’s throats – and not just over Brexit – the PM apparently bent on compassionate Conservatism, Chancellor Philip Hammond seemingly ready to ditch “Thatcherism” for the sort of near-socialist interventionism long favoured by Michael Heseltine and ex-Minister Priti Patel complaining the party is “very, very lazy” in the battle for ideas.

Lots of talk, but no direction.

So, what do the Tories need to do to get back on track?

Well, they must not be as simple as Margaret Thatcher could be. “Get the policy right”, she used to say “and presentation will take of itself”. It ain’t necessarily so, as I told her when the entirely defensible poll tax came along. It was the very devil to sell.

In short, the Tories, especially when faced with social media campaigns and fake news, must decide what they stand for soon and develop a hard-sell plan for post-Brexit. They are hardly at the starting post.

Capitalism red in tooth and claw does not help them. The behaviour of the City and banks in their endless exploitation of the customer is often a downright disgrace. You would not imagine they and wider business rely on the consumer in view of today’s rip-offs and miserable standards of service.

It is entirely understandable why Mrs May showed her concern on taking office about the welfare of the many set against the actions of the few.

But none of this, Chancellor please note, means ditching Thatcher’s vision of an enterprising Britain. She would be as aghast as I am at the excesses of capitalism which flout the spirit of the law and fair play. The Tories should aim to secure a low tax regime, consistent with a budget surplus to pay off rising debt, that exalts responsible free enterprise and comes down hard on irresponsible crooks.

That would contrast with Corbyn’s oppressive, confiscatory – and eventually fatal – ideas. It would also win in 2022.

If you know where you take your stand – on a balanced budget, low taxes, free trade and responsible enterprise – you are halfway to a manifesto.

But the Tories also need to show concern now – not in 2022 – about immigration, parental responsibility, education at all ages, a regularly overspending local government that uses the council tax payer as a pawn in its game with central government, the concept of public service and the public services, including the police since a failure to enforce the law will eventually wreck the nation; and the NHS and care of the elderly.

It would also be a boon if the Government gave a lead to society on political correctness which is daft in two respects: it inhibits free speech – free speech is not automatically abusive – and persuades the public that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

In other words, the Tories need to bring common sense to bear on the conduct of public affairs. This is why I want to see a whole range of inquiries appointed this year to tell us what is wrong with society and how the fabric of the nation can be restored.

If the memory of June 8, 2017, won’t stir Mrs May, what will?