Party leadership elections normally hold a dual purpose. Primarily, of course, they serve to allow a party to democratically elect its next leader in an open and transparent way. But, in the case of the Conservative and Labour parties, they also allow the general public a chance to size up prospective prime ministers. Candidates outline their vision and policy priorities. The electorate can begin to gauge them, way up their statesmanship and, ultimately, decide if this is someone to whom they’d be prepared to hand the keys of Number 10.
The current Labour leadership election (check out our ‘Ranelagh Guide to the Labour Leadership Election 2016’ here ) is a case in point. Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn are not just trying to persuade Labour members and supporters that they should lead the party, this is also a chance to show the public that they could be PM. Indeed, this dynamic has featured heavily in the campaign, with Owen Smith’s strategy playing heavily on the idea that Corbyn is unelectable.
The opportunity to reveal your vision to the public takes on even more significance when the election is directly one to become prime minister, as was the case with the recent Conservative contest. In that instant, the election functions as a window through which the public can directly assess the views of the person who will lead the country.
But when that contest is still born, when rival candidates all pull out within minutes of the campaign launch, how can we possibly know what our new PM thinks.
This problem is compounded by the fact that Theresa May was such a long serving Home Secretary. Like Gordon Brown before her, her previous political experience, while substantial and robust, was focused on a narrow policy area. This has made the opening weeks of May’s premiership even more intriguing, as we wait for hints as to her position on a whole raft of policy issues. What are her views on foreign policy, energy, health or education?
Well, on at least two of those counts we’re beginning to glean some information. Perhaps May’s two biggest policy interventions in the month since she became PM have been in the areas of energy and education.
First, the announcement this week that May has rewritten plans for a Shale Wealth Fund to include greater options for directing more of the proceeds from ‘fracking’ into the hands of local residents. Billed as a way of giving more control of resources to local communities, the reality is that this is a sweetener designed to smooth the path of what has been an incredibly controversial policy area. Yes, local residents may object to fracking happening in their area. But will they object enough to turn down thousands of pounds?
This move shouldn’t be viewed in isolation, either. Coming just a week after the announcement that a decision on Hinkley Point C was to be postponed, May clearly has energy security, cost and a desire to minimise foreign involvement in our industry, at the top of her agenda.
Similarly, in the area of education we are now beginning to gain a sense of the Prime Minister’s vision; a sense we were denied by the lack of a leadership campaign. On this, May’s apparent position on grammar schools is the most notable item.
While there has been little official indication of the path ahead, there’s been simply too much smoke for there to be no fire at all. Justine Greening’s refusal to rule out new grammars, the widely known views of Nick Timothy, May’s joint Chief of Staff, and the relaunch of a campaign by Conservative MPs to overturn the ban on new grammars, all point in just one direction.
Lifting the ban, imposed by Tony Blair, would send a key signal to May’s base. In her first speech as PM, outside the door of Number 10, May placed social mobility and justice at the heart of her vision. Her critics would, of course, demand to see words backed up by actions, and would likely reject the reintroduction of new grammar schools. But grammar schools are very popular among Conservative MPs and to a large swathe of the electorate represent an important tool for social mobility.
Clearly this process of revelation will pick up pace when Parliament returns in September, and should reach fever pitch at the Conservative Party conference in October. Until then, we’ll have to pick over the teasers and hints to gain a sense of the real Mrs May.