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May can remake Britain but does she have the zeal for it?

The prime minister is politically dominant, but what will she do with that freedom? The answer, surely, must be better than raising the tax burden to a 30-year high and piecemeal NHS reform

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It might not have felt like it at the time, but Gina Miller and the Supreme Court did Theresa May a great favour. In requiring her to seek Parliament’s permission to leave the European Union, they forced her into five days of Commons battles from which she has emerged stronger than ever.

Her Government defeated all 16 of the attempts to amend her Article 50 legislation, each time by a comfortable margin. The Tory whips proved strikingly effective and the Labour Party, yet again, was a danger only to itself. The Prime Minister had been fearful of how her party, still deeply split on Brexit, would hold up under pressure. She need not have worried.

The exuberance among Conservatives is remarkable: one MP confides that he enjoyed the Brexit voting more than anything since his wedding night. There were Tory rebels, but they proved charmingly useless — tickling rather than needling the government. Anna Soubry is very cross, but not very persuasive. Claire Perry ended up describing Brexiteers as extremists, which should make for interesting conversations in her Leave-supporting Wiltshire constituency.

George Osborne is too busy making money to cause serious trouble; a few rude jokes in after-dinner speeches will be the extent of his hostilities.

This takes us to the new paradox of May’s premiership. Her majority is smaller than almost any leader of a Tory government — but few, if any, modern Tory leaders have had a stronger chance of victory at the next general election.

Jeremy Corbyn’s capture of the Labour Party has suspended the normal rules of political gravity. His unelectability means that the Tories can expect a majority of at least 100 seats whenever the next election comes, so May is already being treated as if she has just won a landslide. As the last few days have shown, she has the Commons at her feet. She didn’t expect this power, and it’s not at all clear that she knows what to do with it.

Understandably, her first months in No 10 have been devoted to Brexit and not much else. “To even think about other reforms is like worrying about transport policy in May 1940,” one minister tells me. “We have one defining mission. We need to get Brexit right, and nothing else matters.” Her battle for Britain is going well: she has outlined a Brexit strategy and positioned the UK as the defender of free trade in a protectionist world. All this while making clear to EU leaders that, if they don’t offer her a good enough deal, then the United States probably will. So much has gone well that it seems almost rude, now, to ask about her plans for the rest of Britain. But given how fast politics moves, the opportunity she is now sitting on might not last long. Already, there are depressing signs of it being wasted.

Last month, for example, official figures showed that inequality has fallen to a 30-year low. The curse of income inequality is the favourite topic of Labour activists, who usually concoct claims about it rising. In fact, inequality has been beaten back to levels not seen in a generation by progressive Tory reforms. Britain is now more equal than at any point in the Blair/Brown years — thanks to Tory welfare reform, job creation and tax cuts for the low-paid. This achievement ought to have been shouted from the rooftops but was, instead, covered up like a Trident misfire. Bafflingly, no one said a word. It would be tragic if fighting poverty was seen as the last prime minister’s project, and therefore not to be mentioned by May.

Potent agenda

It’s true that David Cameron has done himself no favours since the referendum result: nothing in his premiership demeaned him like the leaving of it. But he did leave behind a Tory majority and a Labour Party confounded by the achievements of progressive Toryism. This agenda, so potent in Tory hands, is still there for the taking. Last week’s decision to stop taking child refugees from Europe and help those in war zones instead should also be defended with more gusto. May’s government is spending more than any other European nation helping a far greater number of refugees, in vast camps in Jordan and Turkey.

Britain has pioneered a 21st-century response to refugees, rather than prop up a decaying Fifties system now corrupted by people traffickers. The Tory way is, demonstrably, the most effective and compassionate response to a modern refugee crisis. Yet, somehow, no one in the Brexit-obsessed Government seems able to make this point properly.

The recent NHS problems remind us how “protecting” the health budget is not the same as protecting the health service. Only proper reform can do that. If the NHS needs more money, then it’s time for a serious discussion about co-payments, or more radical reform. Why not charge for GP services, or think of better ways of enlisting independent clinics into the NHS system? In a recent Spectator interview, the Prime Minister spoke about how her budget cuts forced the police to innovate. Cameron was terrified of NHS reform, fearful that any mis-step would hand Labour the next election. If May is not haunted by such fears, then why refrain from radical change? The greatest problem with the Cameron-Osborne government was their caution, hammered into them by Blair’s success. This is what led them to copy bad Labour policies, such as HS2 and the £9 minimum wage. Where they were bold — on welfare, jobs and schools — the results were spectacular. Where they were not, problems have mounted.

May is even more free than perhaps even Margaret Thatcher from the need to worry about the Labour Party, but what will she do with that freedom? The answer, surely, must be better than raising the tax burden to a 30-year high and piecemeal NHS reform. The Prime Minister’s strongest trait is her ability to respond to changing circumstances. To take her focus off Brexit, in the first few months, would have been folly — but she can do more now.

No one expected the Labour Party to be imprisoned by a band of Corbynistas, nor that the Opposition would be made weaker still with every mention of Europe. The result is an unexpected, unrepeatable and unprecedented political opportunity. All the Tories need now is an agenda to match.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2017

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator and a columnist for The Daily Telegraph.

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