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May lacks foresight to spot the devo solution to Westminster deadlock

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Commentary on a minority Conservative government.

Dynamism is not a word one would associate with Theresa May’s leadership from either a local or a national perspective.

Much of the past 11 months of her premiership has been characterised by denial, failure to engage, empty slogans and inertia. From a local government viewpoint, this has resulted in the trajectory of the devolution of central powers diminishing, no proper debate about the future of social care, and the demise of hopes that ministers were serious about reforms to make local government self-sufficient.

Ms May’s character traits were exposed to a wider audience in the general election campaign, resulting in the evaporation of the Conservative lead. Let us remember that Ms May called the election in an attempt to use her personal credibility for “strong and stable” leadership to win a stronger mandate to lead Brexit negotiations.

Ms May failed to agree to a TV debate, preferred staged encounters with her own activists in warehouses to meeting members of the public, and dead-batted just about every question put to her by a journalist. Boring or what?

OK, her party won the greatest number of seats, but as the public became more familiar with the leaders, polls showed them increasingly opting for Jeremy Corbyn, a passionate campaigner who gave his honestly held opinion to most questions put to him, over her.

For once, the key moment in this general election was one relating to a key local government policy. Ms May was right to ask how social care should be funded and to seek to prevent younger people from having to fund the care of those who have prospered from rising property prices. However, her policy was devised in a vacuum and not subjected to the stress test of whether it was workable (certainly not for local government), popular with the core Tory vote (no!), and fair (it seemed to genuinely surprise May’s secretive policy-making clique that it could be perceived as unfair that families of dementia sufferers should shoulder a disproportionate burden). The inevitable U-turn followed and Ms May had lost her authority largely as a result of her secretive, centralised approach to policy-making.

If Ms May is serious about remaining prime minister– and the importance of the ‘if’ in this sentence cannot be understated – she needs to dramatically change her attitude. Her Downing Street speech this afternoon suggests that this will not happen: she lacked the humility to admit disappointment with the result or acknowledge her weakened parliamentary position. Only afterwards did she say she would “reflect” on the result – which could be humility or a signal of an impending resignation.

A minority Conservative government shored up only by the unspecified backing of the Democratic Unionist Party will result in inertia in much central policy formation. If the government could not form a sensible social care policy with a workable majority, it is hardly going to happen now. Is a Labour party scenting an autumn election and committed to the triple pensions lock really going to be sufficiently altruistic to depoliticise the social care debate?

With the influence of each individual MP now magnified, it does not take much parliamentary opposition to thwart local government reorganisation. This could scupper Dorset councils’ plans for two unitaries. It may also prevent any movement on devolution in the Leeds City Region, which have long been of interest to Tory MPs reluctant to forfeit an opportunity to potentially turn the region blue by extending its boundaries into North Yorkshire.

As former civil service head Lord Kerslake told LGC today, prioritisation will be key to the new minority government. It is hard to see why ministers would dare touch the hornets’ nest of full business rates localisation. Council housing – supported by Labour, as well as the Tories, of course – could be a policy area in which a minority government can make an impact though. With the DUP hardly known for its small state fiscal outlook, there is actually a parliamentary majority for higher spending; austerity may ease, aiding councils.

This is a truly awful result for the Conservatives. The difficulty of implementing Brexit and the likelihood of it leading to economic decline make this an election that you might not necessarily want to win. The administration’s dependence on a party many of whose members hold deeply, er, conservative social views, is not going to wash well with the younger generations so enthusiastic about Labour.

A far-sighted PM should realise their limits and leave it to different tiers of government to overcome the policy impasse. With the Conservatives at a high-water mark in local government you could actually empower your party members through a more localist attitude to policy. However, Ms May has hitherto been resistant to the merits of devolution, indeed any plurality in approach across the country. With four of the six new metro mayors Conservatives and the same true of all but three county councils, Ms May would win her party greater influence if she could bring herself to share power.

Should the government last, the most likely outcome for councils is policy inertia and failure to resolve entrenched problems. However, we equally might see an autumn election or a Tory leadership putsch. Should the latter happen the frontrunner is surely a man who held the most significant role in English subnational government for eight years – and there would be some irony if Boris Johnson could not see the scope of devolution for resolving the parliamentary arithmetic deadlock.


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