The Winterson Space

3 Aug 2016

 

‘In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance’, wrote Jeanette Winterson in The World and Other Places.

 

She wasn’t describing British politics in the summer of 2016, but she could have been.

 

Parliament heads off into its long summer recess firmly in this Winterson space and there are fresh chances aplenty for those who would take them.

 

The reason is as simple as it is obvious. Theresa May’s young government begins its life desperately distracted by the EU question, and easy answers to any other problems can and should be gobbled up by ministers.

 

It's possible the Tory party were as misled by the polls as everyone else ahead of the 2015 general election, and wrote its manifesto accordingly. Promises on health, housing, education and (alas) the EU referendum were crammed in as populist vote winners despite being in some cases extremely difficult, and in others demonstrably unworkable.

 

The thinking was that the party’s best hope of government was repeating its coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. This would provide the political cover to water down or back away from the silly stuff and blame it all on the woolly liberal coalition partners, as Cameron happily did in 2010 to much less ire than poor old Nick.  

 

When the infamous exit poll was released, the celebrations at Tory Party HQ could well have been as loud as the groans of the departmental civil servants who realised they were going to have to make at least some of the pledges reality.

 

If they have struggled at times in the last 12 months, so has Cameron. He faced uphill battles on several fronts, with a slim majority to placate in the Commons and a hostile opposition which inflicted 60 defeats in the Lords - six times as many as the last year of coalition. It can’t have been much fun, and May will want as little of it as possible so she can focus on the big file marked Brexit, and the one underneath it marked Rapidly Escalating Economic Crisis.

 

To this end, there are a long list of policies which lobbyists might hope to persuade her to drop or significantly water down while the chaos of Brexit has her major focus. To give three examples:

 

Housing

The extension of right-to-buy discounts to tenants of privately-run housing associations and the associated sale of council housing to fund it, and building Starter Homes in place of more traditional affordable housing - which is deeply unpopular with the industry.

 

Healthcare

The swift introduction of the seven-day NHS - of which the junior doctors strike is but the first battle - in the face of crippling deficits that are quickly killing many trusts.

 

Education

All schools to become academies regardless of local feeling, which is still on the table despite a partial climbdown.

 

 

The list goes on. And if there is any doubt over the potential desire for compromise, remember it was George Osborne himself who put a bullet in the head of his number one economic policy a mere week after the Brexit vote.  

 

So if a canny lobby group can sneak in now and propose what sounds like a smoother solution, they have their best chance of real concession since the Tory party came to power in 2010.

 

An example of this in practice is the housing sector where industry lobbying group National Housing Federation has made a high profile call for flexibility over £7bn of housing funding. Mr Osborne had all of this cash tied up to fund his homeownership projects before Brexit, but now the sector wants flexibility to use at least some of it for socially rented housing - much needed, and much sidelined since the Conservatives took over in 2010.

 

The government hasn’t said yes to this call yet, but it hasn’t said no. There is at least a chance it may think keeping the industry happy, and building new homes, is worth loosening the reins a little on both what it said in its manifesto and the right-wing doctrine it has followed so far. Teachers might find the same candour. So might doctors.

 

Of course this is by no means guaranteed. May’s government is young and hasn’t had the time to show whether it will be more reasonable, less reasonable or completely unreasonable compared to Cameron’s time at No. 10.

 

In these unusual circumstances, compromise can be found. The Tory party has another chance and they must seize it, for it will not last forever.

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