So an election called to win a mandate for strong and stable leadership has resulted in a wobbly minority government dependent on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Theresa May’s strategist Lynton Crosby based the Conservative election campaign on her character – but the public disliked this aloof and unsympathetic champion of austerity, denying her a majority. Jeremy Corbyn, who offered passion and policies (even if one doubts the money and expertise would be there to implement them) far exceeded expectations.
The past 11 months of Ms May’s premiership has been characterised by a failure to engage, empty slogans and inertia. From a local government perspective, this has resulted in devolution losing momentum, continuing service cuts, no sensible debate about social care (before a half-baked policy was plucked from the air mid-election to deserved derision) and the demise of hopes ministers were serious about making councils self-sufficient.
The loss of a Commons majority coupled with the onset of energy-sapping Brexit negotiations threatens an even worse impasse. A handful of rebels or an assertive Opposition can thwart anything from local government reorganisation to a workable and intergenerationally fair social care funding solution. The DUP has already made clear its reservations about older people (many of whom are wealthy) contributing more to their care funding.
Similarly, Ms May was too beholden to her ministers to conduct a meaningful Cabinet reshuffle. It is fair to say communities secretary Sajid Javid has not so far impressed in his year in the job – although in the overly centralised structure of Ms May’s administration, few ministers have had a chance to shine. The onus is on him to now show he is engaged, energetic and, indeed, a localist.
After initially failing to acknowledge both the disappointing result and how her own shortcomings contributed to it, Ms May belatedly showed some contrition, accepting responsibility for the mess in a meeting with her backbenchers. Her two main advisers have gone; former housing minister Gavin Barwell – a friend of local government – is her new chief of staff. Ms May has no option but to reappraise her attitude to leadership. Top-down has failed and she can only survive with the input of others.
A far-sighted PM should now see the potential of other tiers of government to overcome the policy logjam. With the Conservatives at a high-water mark in local government, and holding four of the six new mayoralties, Ms May could win her party more influence by embracing localism.
At the centre of this localism must be an easing up of austerity on councils. The electorate has had enough of declining services, and further cuts will inevitably go hand-in-hand with reductions in Conservative support.
It is not only Tory backbenchers and the DUP who have gained influence: a weakened leader is more reliant on their foot soldiers. There are few greater mobilisers of the blue vote than Conservative councillors. They must now use their enhanced influence to demand power and money for local government.