Institute for Government questions Theresa May’s ability to deliver conference pledges

Think-tank raises eyebrow at PM’s capacity to turn her Conservative Party Conference pledges into reality against backdrop of further belt-tightening and Brexit uncertainty

By Jim Dunton

06 Oct 2016

Theresa May this week told Conservative Party faithful she would deliver an “economy and society that works for everyone” – but the Institute for Government has questioned the prime minister’s ability to deliver fresh reforms.

May’s first speech to a Conservative Party Conference as leader reiterated a commitment to produce a new industrial strategy; new grammar schools as part of a drive for a more meritocratic society; and an increased focus on infrastructure investment.

But IfG programme director Emma Norris said that those pledges, coupled with manifesto commitments inherited from predecessor David Cameron, would be daunting enough, without the “enormous extra agenda item” of delivering Brexit.

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In a post-speech blog, Norris reiterated some of the themes from the IfG’s September report The Spending Challenge: how to cut spending while maintaining quality, which urged May to set out a “clear and manageable” set of priorities” and warned her against repeating the mistakes of the Cameron administration.

“Our policy tracker shows how many decisions are already on hold,” she said. “Social reform, industrial strategy and infrastructure investment are huge, complex and contested policy areas that require sustained investment and attention to get right. 

“Finding the time will be a challenge for May as Brexit dominates her premiership. It might also require some adjustments to her leadership approach – May’s style is to hold decision making close, but making progress on a number of fronts with such a crowded agenda will require delegation and using the machinery of No 10 to full effect.” 

Norris said there had been “striking” omissions from May’s Birmingham speech.

“As any former minister can tell you, as much time in government is spent on managing ongoing challenges – or even crises – as on new ideas,” she said.

“None of the pressures on public services have gone away but none of them were mentioned in May’s speech – not the fact that the performance of key parts of the NHS, such as A&E, is still declining, not that teacher recruitment targets have been missed for the last four years, nor that prison assaults are at their highest in a decade. 

“These pressures cannot be ignored for long and inevitably will take time away from new policy priorities.”

The Spending Challenge looked at the issues faced May‘s cabinet faces ahead of this year‘s Autumn Statement, and found a clear conflict between the “back-loaded“ spending cuts, set out by then-chancellor George Osborne in November last year, and promised service improvements.

It said May’s July pledges to stick to the previous administration’s 2015 Spending Review plans to cut day-to-day spending by in excess of £10 billion by 2019-20 needed to be delivered against a backdrop of other cost pressures, such as the “seven-day NHS” and National Living Wage.

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