The government that could have been

I remember that speech outside Downing Street in July 2016 by the then Prime Minister Theresa May. It was quite a remarkable speech when we consider it in hindsight. She spoke about the “just about managing” and the “burning injustices” of British life. Putting it in to context, much of the Conservative (and in a lot of ways Labour) rhetoric had been on austerity, cutting budgets and “balancing the books”. This was at the very least a discursive move away from that era towards one of a more interventionist state both in society and the economy. It was hardly new from a Prime Minister fabled for her previously radical stances on the party’s position in the political sphere; that speech at Conservative Party conference where she labelled them as the “nasty party” comes to mind. This speech and the immediate flurry of excitement by the commentariat began to fuel the idea of a potentially great, reforming government. Alas it didn’t turn out that way but one can only imagine what that government could’ve been.

Recently I’ve been reading Nick Timothy’s (May’s former No.10 Chief of Staff) book Remaking One-Nation. The book is a philosophical and empirical piece aimed at facilitating a move towards a one-nation form of conservatism in the image of Disraeli in which a regulated market, social solidarity and a democratic state are at the heart of conservative ideas. However, the introduction of the book contends with his time as Chief of Staff and why the May government ultimately failed in its self-prescribed mission. Timothy says this of the 2017 manifesto:

“In some respects, the policies lived up to the shift in values Theresa had promised in her early speeches and in the manifesto’s opening chapter. We promised a raft of new workers’ rights and changes to corporate governance laws, an industrial strategy and more research and development spending, and reduced energy prices for businesses and households. We promised a new regional development fund, reformed international aid spending, controlled immigration, and a clean Brexit. We wanted a technical education revolution, with new qualifications, institutes of technology and a promise to review tertiary education funding. We said we would reverse the bureaucratic elements of the NHS internal market and train more doctors. We promised domestic violence legislation, better mental health care, and action against various injustices. We pledged new housing, including a new generation of council houses, and more childcare support. We planned new protections for children online, a tougher approach to cyber security, and a legal framework to help Britain become a world leader in digital technologies.” (Timothy, 2020, pp. 17-18)

At this point, it’s important to guard against idealism and glorification. As a complete document, the 2017 manifesto had austerity heavily baked into it and, as we would later see, this government was consumed by Brexit rather than this extensive national agenda. This article is not to suggest that this government would’ve been as impressively effective as those of 1945-51 and 1979-1990, nor would it have been as decisive in changing the political consensus. It is important, however, to acknowledge just how radical, in the relativity of Conservative Party history, this government could well have been. Where did it go wrong?

As Timothy sees it there were a string of errors: a centralised No.10 operation, an uncharismatic or personable leader, obstructive cabinet ministers, a poor election campaign to name but a few. This isn't the purpose of this week’s column. What we are seeing Johnson do – the victories in the ‘red wall’, the expansive government spending that was committed to before covid-19, the intervention of the state in the economy, the rebuttal of ‘woke’ identity politics – began with May.

I’m no Conservative Party supporter, but I distinctly remember hearing that speech in 2016 and being genuinely surprised and, in some ways, awed by its authenticity. It lit the fuse for the Conservative Party election strategy for the next five years at least and moved the Party towards a new one-nation approach to government. Do I think that Johnson will deliver on this mission? No. The current crop of ministers are in no ways comparable to some of those most remembered governments enriched by the Bevans, the Butlers, the Castles, and the Howes. This is an incompetent government, with a Prime Minister averse to detail – it won’t deliver those ideas borne out in Timothy’s pitch for one-nationism. Saying that, the ideas of that May government, though not implemented in its existence or in its immediate aftermath, will have an enduring legacy.

Daniel is a political activist and an Associate Editor of Liberal Base. His interests are in populism, democratic crisis, western party politics and automation. He tweets @danny_hod and blogs at

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