21 October 2016

Although officially leading an incumbent government, Theresa May made it clear that she will govern as new. But 100 days in, Emma Norris says she is still holding her cards close to her chest.

Theresa May was not anticipating moving from the Home Office to Number 10 in 2016 – and even after a leadership contest was triggered, she succeeded months earlier than expected. Since then, 16 of the 20 major departments have new secretaries of state, including three completely new departments. In this context, it is unsurprising that policy progress is taking time. But 100 days in, details about the plans of May’s government remain disconcertingly thin.

The biggest item on Theresa May’s agenda has been Brexit. 100 days into her premiership there are many things we still don’t know about how the process will work or what the Prime Minister’s priorities are (with the exception of immigration). Likewise, there has been plenty of activity setting up new departments and committees, but we are no closer to finding out what our negotiating position will be, or how the Prime Minister will reach a decision on this.

The same can be said for domestic policy. The rhetoric has been ‘a change is coming’ but mostly we’ve seen cancellations and delays.

After trailing a big decision on airports, another delay was announced. The status of the National Infrastructure Commission was delayed then downgraded. Key social reform policies in justice (problem-solving courts) and education (the national funding formula) have been put on hold. The process of English devolution took a hit when Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, said the deal in the North East was 'off the table' – and the fate of other deals is still unclear.

There have been attempts to present these delays as strength – a Prime Minister taking nothing for granted and checking the solidity of predecessors’ analysis. But even Hinkley Point C – one of the most striking examples of delay and review – was eventually waved through with no changes, despite its numerous problems.

May also set out new policy priorities during her first day in Downing Street, putting social reform and an industrial strategy at the heart of the domestic agenda. This has been confirmed with the publication of the new list of cabinet committees, which include ones on Economy and Industrial Strategy and Social Reform. But 100 days in, we’re still waiting for detail. On industrial strategy, there has been close to none. On social reform, the resurrection of grammar schools has been floated (to disquiet in many quarters) although again, much of the detail is yet to come. No green or white papers have yet been signalled.

Even on the machinery of government itself, there have been signs of delay and indecision. Lists of cabinet committees held back until subject to a Freedom of Information request, the Prime Minister chairing half of the committees (a much higher percentage than her predecessor) and collective Cabinet responsibility suspended on the Heathrow decision.

May has rejected suggestions that she leads an incumbent government or that Brexit has to dominate her premiership. Instead, she promised change: social reform, a return to industrial strategy and investment infrastructure. So far, the reality has been pauses and a conspicuous absence of detail on both Brexit and other major policy policies.

The Prime Minister has been firm that she wants to break with the past – now she needs to be equally firm on how she intends to deliver the future.