11 July 2017

Theresa May issued a plea to the opposition to work together on the nation’s big policy problems. Emma Norris says tactic or not, cross-party consensus is key to dealing with the UK’s major policy issues. 

Tucked away at the end of May’s flagship speech on the Taylor Review was an invitation for opposition parties to contribute to policy making on modern employment and other - as yet unspecified - topics.

This call for collaboration was a little harder to spot than expected given it was the main item trailed ahead of the speech itself and seemed to be drawn rather narrower.

The invitation to opposition parties is a sign of her precariousness as Prime Minister and her diminished ability to get things done without other parties. It is also presumably designed to signal a move away from closed-door policy making.

But - tactic or not - May is right to identify greater cross-party collaboration and consensus as critical for making progress on some of the most challenging issues we face: from funding health and social care to Brexit and the UK’s industrial strategy.

What does cross-party collaboration involve?

There are a range of options and May needs to outline how she intends to make it happen. Some recent examples include:   

  • Cross-party commissions with political representation, e.g. Smith Commission (2014): Set up by David Cameron straight after the 2014 Scottish independence referendum to produce cross-party recommendations on further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. It contained two representatives from each of the five political parties in the Scottish Parliament. Many of the recommendations were taken on in the Scotland Act 2016.
  • Cross-party cabinet committee, e.g. Lab-Lib Cabinet Committee on Constitutional Reform (1997–2001): Originally established in opposition in 1996 then formalised into a Cabinet Committee in 1997, this explored whether there might be sufficient common ground for a legislative programme on constitutional reform.
  • Ad-hoc invitations to Shadow Ministers, e.g. preparation for 2012 London Olympics: With Tessa Jowell’s consent, Shadow Olympics spokesperson Hugh Robertson received regular briefings from the Government Olympic Executive on the state of the project. By giving Robertson access to civil servants and project information, an environment of collective ownership of the problems was cultivated across political dividing lines.

One of the big challenges for May will be the Official Opposition’s willingness to engage

Jeremy Corbyn previously rejected the possibility of cooperation on Brexit, and yesterday he once again rebuffed the idea of working together on other post-Brexit policies. But May shouldn’t focus only on reaching out to other politicians. She also needs to invite extensive input from beyond Downing Street and beyond Westminster, drawing directly on the experiences of citizens and service users when crafting policy.

But May's biggest problem is not generating ideas – it’s making them happen

Most of the headline ideas and reforms highlighted in the Taylor Review – dependent worker status, for instance – require legislation to make them happen. But it is far from clear that May has the support she needs to deliver legislative change. Indeed, despite pledging to support workers, she promised no new laws. Without legislation, delivery will be impossible.

The backlash and confusion that surrounded the Conservatives’ social care policy in the election was a warning to the Prime Minister and her team. We said at the time that if returned to office, tshe must invest more in opening up policy and the choices government faces. So while this is a step in the right direction, questions remain over how it will work and whether ideas generation can really be matched by delivery. 

Comments

I agree with you, that Brexit is a sufficiently big enough issue, for there to be cross-party discussions and the Prime Minister is entitled to ask for these discussions to take place. The Smith Commission is one of those examples where such discussions took place with regards to the Scottish Independence Referendum. It is also fair to say that there could be some tactical political move, but it is not unconstitutional or improper, as formal channel are being pursued.

Ms Rocio Ferro Adams Bsc, MA (Former Head of Constitutional Policy, MoJ, and Student at SOAS, London)

I'm not so sure it's wise, because the subject of Brexit was politicised in the run-up to GE2017, and remains the same.

The failing of Brexit is not something that should be shared. It was driven by key members of the Conservative Party and UKIP, and Labour is right to take no part those discussions, as the voters at the next GE will then be confused as to which party has failed to deliver.

I'd like to see more joined-up thinking, more cross-party discussion on subjects, but at the moment the rules of engagement outside of the chamber are far too vague for it to be taken seriously. If May takes it seriously, then she needs to take it forward, and not just accuse the opposition parties of not taking her up on her offer, because at present it's not much of an offer.

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