Brexit and the policy to revive grammar schools demonstrate the directionless mind of Theresa May. By replacing Cameron, Britain has moved from one wandering tactician to another.
David Cameron tells us that the Theresa “Brexit means Brexit” May is something of a jellyfish. This resonates with Labour observers who witnessed her pledge of socialist-style reforms on entering 10 Downing Street, then saw her embody Margaret Thatcher at her first PMQs. She is an enigma, but she could dispose of that label if she simply told us what she wants from the EU negotiations.
Liam Fox says he wants to push for trade liberalisation with the rest of the world to make Britain a beacon of free trade but this is against the trend globally. Both Clinton and Trump are hostile to Obama’s Asian trade deal, as well as TTIP with Europe. The EU/Canada trade deal will be ratified, but only because it is already complete. The change in political mood would make it impossible to get started today.
A WTO-imposed trade tariff would add 10 per cent in foreign tax to goods or services leaving Britain for foreign shores, including the EU, the US, Africa and Asia. Yet Fox wants us to be a beacon by refusing to apply a tariffs against imports. By entering such a situation, we would not be a beacon, but a victim.
The EU is not the only baffling muddle this new government has got us into. May’s promises jar with her promise of more grammar schools. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the eleven-plus exam was billed as a predictor of future achievement in education. Those who passed would be educated for management at a grammar while those who failed would be educated for manual work at a secondary modern. It lost credibility when so many children at secondary moderns got ten O-Levels while many in the grammars received none.
Children who grow up in a house full of books tended to pass exams at age 11. Those who bonded with their father in the carpentry workshop or with their mother over a sewing machine, tended to fail. It was realised that children discover their academic potential in their teens. Thatcher understood this, May does not.
The only thing that is clear about Theresa May’s politics is her contempt for her predecessor. Some of this is reasonable. George Osborne’s obsession with balancing the books was due to his inability to admit he was wrong. However, May’s tenure is not an end to austerity. It’s just an end to the zealotry.
When analysing May, the most confusing issue is not the shapeshifting, but the simple absence of a direction of travel. The term “Brexit means Brexit” was probably developed as a promise made to MPs during the leadership contest. Her Grammar school policy was probably a back-firing intention to give red meat to the right. The austerity-light is a reflection of Osborne’s failure, and an absence of any new direction from her or her chancellor.
The only thing we can see for sure is the vacuum of direction that surrounds the prime minister like an aura. Lack of a clear objective creates a tactician rather than a strategist. David Cameron tried to have objectives, but both the Big Society and the pledge “greenest government ever” were without conviction. When they fell by the wayside, his leadership became tactics and more tactics – until his downfall with the tactic of the referendum.
George Osborne had an objective with the deficit, but lacked pragmatism when the policy failed. In fact he quietly reversed much of his austerity when the economy was going down the pan in 2012, but continued with the rhetoric for fear of being humiliated by admission. This amounts to the same.
The big question for Labour is whether there will be an imminent general election. If my argument above is correct and Theresa has little to offer but tactics, then the election could be more likely, as it would be a good tactic. Nothing could be better for diverting attention, than an election against an opposition who themselves have failed to agree on a coherent EU policy.
This demonstrates that divisions in Labour are far more than a PR disaster. If it’s our vacuum versus their vacuum, they will win.