Britain’s Populist Revolution Is On Hold

Sometimes it is quite difficult to enact broad, reckless rhetoric into law.

WITHIN hours of the Brexit referendum last summer David Cameron had resigned, and within three weeks Theresa May had succeeded him as prime minister. The speed of her ascent to power, on July 13th 2016, without a general election or a full-blown Tory leadership contest, meant that Mayism was never spelt out in any manifesto or endorsed by the electorate. Yet the new prime minister soon made clear the scale of her ambitions for Britain. Not only would she make a success of Brexit, she would also set in motion a sea-change in social mobility to correct the “burning injustices” faced by the downtrodden, and reshape “the forces of liberalism and globalisation which have held sway…across the Western world.” Her allies talked of an epochal moment, comparable to Margaret Thatcher’s break with the past in 1979. The feeble condition of the Labour opposition gave Mrs May control of a one-party state. As for her mandate, she cited the referendum: a “quiet revolution” by people “not prepared to be ignored any more”.

Yet after half a year in office there is strikingly little to show for this May revolution (see Briefing). The strategy for Brexit, which is due to be triggered in less than three months, remains undefined in any but the vaguest terms, and seems increasingly chaotic. At home, the grand talk about transforming society and taming capitalism has yielded only timid proposals, many of which have already been scaled down or withdrawn. The growing suspicion is that the Sphinx-like prime minister is guarded about her plans chiefly because she is still struggling to draw them up.

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After six months it is hard to name a single signature policy, and easy to cite U-turns. Some are welcome: a silly promise to put workers on company boards, for instance, was abandoned; a dreadful plan to make firms list their foreign employees lasted less than a week; and hints at curbing the Bank of England’s independence were quietly forgotten. Selective “grammar” schools will be resurrected—but only on a small scale, and perhaps not at all, given how many Tory MPs oppose the idea. Other reversals smack of dithering. The construction of a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point was put in doubt, then given the go-ahead; a new runway at Heathrow airport was all but agreed on, then deferred until a parliamentary vote next year. “Just-about-managing” households were the prime minister’s lodestar for a week or so, then dropped. So were suggestions that Britain would seek a transitional deal with the EU after Brexit—until they were recirculated a few weeks later when Mrs May apparently changed her mind once again.