by Jamie Cater 22nd June, 2017

The Art of the Possible

It is often cited by political commentators, but rarely has Otto von Bismarck’s assertion that ‘politics is the art of the possible’ felt as appropriate as it does following yesterday’s Queen’s Speech. With negotiations between the Conservatives and the DUP seemingly faltering and the Prime Minister’s authority seen as rapidly diminishing, it is unsurprising that the policy programme proffered by the Queen in the House of Lords on behalf of her government is not a radical prospectus for far-reaching reform but a series of relatively uncontroversial measures where consensus can be sought. While there are a total of 27 Bills to be put before Parliament over the next two years, the material for these prospective pieces of legislation is thin on the ground.

Naturally, after the Conservatives’ defeat and the ensuing debate about the content of a manifesto to which their failure to secure a majority is largely attributed, the Queen’s Speech was as much about what the Government has decided to omit from its legislative agenda as what it decided to include. The Government will still consult on reform to social care funding, but the maligned manifesto commitment on the means-tested asset threshold is gone; there will be ‘fairer funding’ for schools, but no clarity on what might have changed from the earlier proposals on the national funding formula; there will be a green paper on making markets ‘fairer’ for consumers, including in the energy market, but little detail on how the Government might act to secure a better deal for the public. As expected, there was no mention of the return of grammar schools.

May’s first months as Prime Minister were defined by a reversion to a model of conservatism pre-dating Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron. Regularly identified as the influence of her close adviser Nick Timothy, known to be inspired by the 19th century Liberal – and later Conservative – reformer Joseph Chamberlain, May’s approach has been much closer than her immediate predecessors to the paternalistic instincts of Conservative Prime Ministers such as Harold Macmillan, reluctant to embrace the free market and unafraid of state intervention in the economy to safeguard the interests of its citizens. May is not abandoning her focus on the so-called JAMs, but following an unsuccessful election campaign, the loss of Timothy from her team, and the need to assuage the concerns of her parliamentary party and re-assert her authority, today’s speech suggests that she may not be able to break so radically with the past as she would have liked.

The Conservative election manifesto was intended to mark a break not only with the prevailing economic orthodoxy in the party over the last 40 years, but also with Brexit as the overriding mission of the new Government. That almost a third of the Bills included in the Queen’s Speech pertain in some way to Brexit is a further indication of both the parliamentary time to be afforded to debating the nature of our departure from the EU over the coming years, as well as ultimately confirming the subordination of domestic policy to Brexit. If there was any before today, there can now be little doubt that this is a Brexit Government.

Bismarck’s full quote is, ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable; the art of the next best’. As the Commons comes to vote on today’s speech over the next few days, we will find out not only whether the Government’s offer is truly possible in this most precarious of positions, but also whether Conservative MPs begin their search for the next best alternative to a weakened Prime Minister.

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