May Gets Down to Business

Later today Theresa May will formally enter 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister. It is expected that she will announce the first major appointments to her new Cabinet this afternoon or early evening. Ahead of then we look at the core values and principles that will underpin her approach. We also reflect on the state of the Labour Party following last night’s decision by its National Executive Committee to allow Jeremy Corbyn on to the leadership ballot without the need to secure nominations from MPs or MEPs.

The end of the Notting Hill set

Mrs May is not and has never been part of David Cameron’s inner circle. Indeed she is not identified with any particular set or clique. The era of the so-called Cameron chumocracy is over. Expect to see a frontbench team that reaches more broadly across the party, involving both Leavers and Remainers, more women and MPs from less-privileged backgrounds.

A close knit team of advisers

While May does not belong to any particular wing or group within the Conservative parliamentary party, she does boast a close knit and loyal team of advisers led by Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. They will be crucial part in shaping Number 10, fashioning her style of government and developing a political programme. While the sudden curtailment of the Tory leadership campaign has increased the pressure on her to set out a clear vision for Britain, particularly in the context of Brexit, it is important to remember that she has been working to this end for a number of years.

May’s conservatism

Theresa May is a pragmatic Conservative. Although she doesn’t sit comfortably in a standard definition for a Tory politician, she has traditional views on free markets, but has more interventionist sympathies than Cameron. She has already talked of the Government protecting British businesses from hostile takeovers, of the need to tackle ‘excessive’ executive pay and advocated reforms of corporate governance. It is a sharper one nation positioning, seeking to revive the blue collar conservative agenda that Cameron sought but ultimately failed to develop.

The Brexit Prime Minister

May has been clear that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Despite her (low key) support for Remain, she understands the importance of respecting the referendum outcome and in keeping the Conservative parliamentary party and membership on side. At the same time she is a pragmatic and experienced negotiator and has been equally clear that we will not rush forward to invoke the Article 50 process; one of the few bits of leverage the UK now holds in negotiations with Brussels. However, the key test for her will be squaring the commitment to control freedom of movement with the counter pressure to gain access to the single market – aims that currently appear incompatible.

A path full of challenges

There could hardly be a more difficult time for a new Prime Minister to step into No.10; the challenges ahead will be extremely complex.

As for most Conservative leaders, Europe will be the biggest challenge and could drown out the rest of her agenda. She will be attacked by right-wing euro sceptics for not moving quickly enough on Brexit and the terms she secures are unlikely to please those who want Brexit at all costs. Can she keep these MPs on board to preserve her slim parliamentary majority and maintain trust in her leadership? That will be the principal political challenge.

Labour plunges off the cliff

The decision of Labour’s NEC to put Jeremy Corbyn automatically on the ballot was greeted with a mixture of jubilation and despair in what is now a deeply split political party. While a legal challenge had been prepared, the strength of the NEC vote appears to have knocked that down. Former Blair adviser, John McTernan, reacted by declaring that the 18 NEC members who backed that decision (against 14 who objected) had “stabbed the Labour Party through the heart … the Labour Party is dead”.

Can Corbyn be beaten?

All indications point to Corbyn winning the contest. The anti-Corbyn vote currently looks set to be split between two candidates: Angela Eagle and Owen Smith. That is causing angst amongst the moderates who will put serious pressure on both to decide who is the challenger and who pulls back.

In the 2015 contest Corbyn polled 2,000 fewer votes amongst the members’ section than the other three candidates combined. That is encouraging his opponents to focus the contest on a binary choice between him and one other. Even then, however, he looks to hold the advantage.

Labour membership has been transformed since 2015. Many moderate supporters are believed to have left but in overall terms the membership has doubled and now stands at almost 500,000. At least 120,000 of those joined in the last few weeks. It is believed that most of the new members are Corbyn backers. A large number have been ruled out of the contest because the NEC has agreed a six-month freeze date (meaning those who joined after January this year are disqualified). Even still, it seems likely that most full party members lean towards Corbyn.

Given that, two other factors help him. First, the NEC has ruled that people wishing to register as supporters of the party and take part in the ballot have only two days to do so and must pay a £25 fee. Last time it was just £3 and the application period was longer. Opponents of Corbyn need to recruit large numbers of new supporters but now have little opportunity to do so.

In addition, the NEC has allowed affiliated trade unions to sign up supporters through their own ranks until 8 August. As the big union leaders have all given their support to Corbyn, most notably Unite, this also seems to favour his campaign as they will recruit on his behalf.

What happens if he wins?

All indications therefore point to a Corbyn victory, though the campaign will be rowdy and could cast a negative light on the behaviour of many in his army of activists, which may yet turn a few minds. Leadership campaigns, as we have recently seen, can be unpredictable.

But the prospect of Corbyn winning a second leadership contest appears likely; an outcome that will intensify the crisis for Labour. He is clearly unable to lead the parliamentary party and it is possible that the bulk of Labour MPs may in time begin to organise themselves around a separate whip, which could precipitate a split. We will find out the leadership result at the Labour Conference on 24 September. For now, however, the fight for Labour’s soul goes on.

By Lexington Communications

Featured Image: UK Home Office