U-turns galore? May must steady her ship

The Energy Price Cap, Housing Pledge and Universal Credit must be enacted if May is to survive as Prime Minister.

In her Speech just two weeks ago to Tory Conference in Manchester, Theresa May promises two pieces of concrete action. The first was a long term goal: to ensure that fixing the “broken housing market” was at the top of her agenda; the second a short-term measure to cap energy prices as she had promised to do so in her Party’s manifesto for June’s election. Originally white-washed from the Queen’s Speech, the latter measure represents a significant challenge for Theresa May, but one she must see through if her domestic agenda is to be thought worthwhile.

The symbolism of the Energy Price Cap encompasses the very nature of Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. In rejecting the critique by David Cameron of Ed Miliband’s very similar price cap in 2015 and embracing her own measure, May is doing toot things. The first is positioning the Tories as a Party seen to be on the side of the “Just About Managing”, a phrase she herself coined (Whether that played out in the election or not is another matter). The second is rejecting the liberal economic orthodoxy that particularly the Tories have championed since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and pushing the Tories down a new route.

If May’s leadership has meant anything, it has been that the Conservatives have re-evaluated their ideological position on the role of the state, and feel more able to target working class and low-paid voters than ever before. It’s no surprise on this front that the Tories experienced their best result among the C2DE economic group in their modern history, winning seats that have never had Conservative MPs before across the Midlands and the North. Of course, Brexit has helped, but the Tories’ – and May’s – ability to position their party in this position just two years after UKIP achieved 13% of the vote predominantly at the expense of Labour.

But now May faces the prospect of u-turns. Her housing promises have unravelled: the numbers of her social housing pledge refuel funding for just 5,000 social houses a year over the next parliament – a big difference than the rhetoric that surrounded her ‘major’ announcement – while the Help to Buy boost is likely to leave house prices even more inflated. On the green built, The Sunday Times is reporting that she isn’t “there yet” on the possibility of building more houses on previously undeveloped land, a probable necessity for any government-sponsored or government-led housing programme. Even the Tories’ flagship welfare reform, Universal Credit, and May’s Energy Price Cap are under threat.

On the Energy Price Cap, the history of the policy means the Government must now pursue it if May is to have any credibility and authority as Prime Minister. A climb down over this policy would be taken up by the Labour opposition as a Government that can’t get the basics of public policy right, and why would they be wrong? Announcing a policy after originally opposition for, the. delaying it, and re-announcing it and then scrapping it is one hell of a journey for the policy to go on. It would represent first of all chaos, secondly rampant division, thirdly a Government with no direction.

Meanwhile on Universal Credit the Tories must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the saying goes. UC will make work pay for everyone that takes up employment, and encourage those that currently do not work out of financial reason to do so. Lack of fairness so far in the roll out has very much been a Labour issue, and the Tories must reclaim it. The six week wait for Credit must be reduced, but it must be done in such a way that it appears the Government is acting of its own accord in a new push of welfare reform, almost as the unfinished business of the Cameron years. To simply react to Labour calls, as with the reduction in cost for the helpline, continually makes the Tories appear on the back foot.

These changes should therefore be coupled with a new push on welfare reform, perhaps coupled to a workers’ rights boost that Theresa May promised during the campaign. Regardless, the Conservatives must now take back control of the political narrative from the Labour Party on so many domestic issues. Whether that be kick-started by a May speech or whatnot is another question. But Theresa May needs to get back on the front foot in the domestic arena after doing well in Brussels on Friday.