Theresa May’s premiership is almost over – but there is just time for one last undignified squabble. The Prime Minister reportedly hopes to spend a few billion on her key domestic priorities, in an attempt to add some black ink to the sea of red in her political ledger.
But Philip Hammond is insisting on keeping his Brexit war chest locked tight.
It feels like the May premiership in miniature: the domestic agenda sacrificed, one last time, on the altar of Brexit. But that isn’t quite right.
The truth is that May never really had a domestic agenda to start with. The vision set out in her first speech on the steps of Number 10 – about building a country that worked for everyone – was hugely inspiring. But there was never a convincing sense of how to actually get there.
It was notable, when the Prime Minister gave her resignation speech in Downing Street, that the section on her domestic accomplishments contained few signature achievements beyond getting the deficit down and keeping employment growing – both impressive, but built on the foundations laid by David Cameron and George Osborne.
Even if she had won a landslide in 2017, May’s manifesto contained precious few policies that voters were actually keen on – and these were mostly Cameron’s leftovers from 2015, which his successor didn’t want to talk about.
Will the same fate befall the next leader in line?
It is obvious that Brexit will dominate the new premiership: even in the best-case scenario, in which the EU finally sees sense on the backstop and a withdrawal agreement is passed, there will still be years of tortuous negotiation ahead.
And politically, the rise of the Brexit Party means that if Brexit isn’t delivered, there won’t be much of a Tory party left to lead – something on which all the candidates agree.
But while delivering Brexit may be necessary, it is not sufficient. The domestic policy vacuum has left voters with no clear idea of how the Tories propose to make their lives better, of what the party stands for beyond sound finances and not being Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
Those on the left, meanwhile, insist that they are the ones making the intellectual running – even though most of their proposals are reheated 1970s leftovers, pulled out of the policy deep-freeze.
That is why what happened yesterday is so encouraging.
Yes, it was the official start of the Tory leadership race. But it was also the day that we at the Centre for Policy Studies published a new book, Britain Beyond Brexit.
Edited and assembled by George Freeman MP, it contains essays from almost 40 Conservative MPs setting out their policy ideas for the future – including several of those now contesting the party’s leadership, such as Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid, and Matt Hancock.
There’s not remotely enough room to share the full contents of the book – whose 380 pages feature everything from Penny Mordaunt on how Britain can make more of its soft power assets, to Nicky Morgan on the nature of capital, to Tom Tugendhat on the return of the nation state, to Jesse Norman on how to tame the tech giants.
There are pieces on helping coastal communities, making the public sector more entrepreneurial, reviving local manufacturing, 21st-century feminism, early-years education, reviving estates, reforming taxation, caring for the elderly, and far more.
As you’d expect, not all of the pieces agree with each other, or indeed with what we have argued for as a think tank. But that’s the entire point.
If those of us on the centre-right believe in competition, then we have to believe in competition of ideas: putting forward a range of proposals and letting the best win through. Indeed, the contributors have been drawn by Freeman from across the Tory spectrum: left and right, north and south, urban and rural, Leave and Remain.
I’m not pretending that, on its own, this book will fix the Tories’ problems. Far more is needed, in particular on issues such as home ownership, which has been a major focus of our own in-house.
But if there’s one thing we’ve learned recently, it’s that both politically and practically, sticking to the status quo is not an option: voters are crying out for change, and it’s incumbent on everyone in politics to deliver their best suggestions for what it should look like.
In her foreword to the book, Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, warns that, distracted by Brexit, her party has “failed to focus on the massive challenges that face our society in a fast-changing world. Unless the Conservatives start to focus on that bigger picture, we could well find ourselves out of power for a generation.”
More importantly, they will have failed to do what every political party should: come up with concrete ideas to make voters’ lives better.