19 July 2016

Prior to the EU referendum, the Government had an ambitious agenda of major projects and policy programmes. Their fate was already less than clear, as government needed to cope with the fallout from the EU referendum. Theresa May’s reshuffle has raised further question marks, as new ministers seek to set out their own agendas and decide what to do with their predecessors’ policies. Emma Norris looks at the potential policy implications.

As we have outlined in previous blogs, there are three categories of policy issue that the new Prime Minister and her government will need to address – policy issues that require immediate decisions; policies and projects that are already underway; and strategies that the Cameron government had promised were coming soon. This is our first analysis of what we know so far in each of these categories:

  • Immediate decisions: of the immediate decisions outlined in our table, it is where to add airport capacity that stands out. Chris Grayling, the new Secretary of State for Transport, has already said an urgent decision is needed on whether to push ahead with a third runway at Heathrow. But the possibility of agreeing the Heathrow option looks doubtful with Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, both openly against a third runway at Heathrow, in prominent Cabinet positions. In the past, Theresa May herself has also appeared to speak against the Heathrow option.
  • Ongoing policies and projects: there are some policies that Theresa May will want to ensure are being gripped quickly to keep implementation on track. At the top of the list is Universal Credit, which is starting to run more smoothly after a series of serious problems. It will need attention to stay on course and should be at the very top of the to-do list for Damian Green, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
  • Of the other ongoing policies and projects, there are questions about the extent to which we will see consistency or change in education, justice and communities and local government.
    • On prisons, Michael Gove was a passionate advocate of his courts and prisons reform programme. Liz Truss has been described elsewhere as a ‘natural reformer’ and might continue his work, but also has to see through ongoing implementation of Chris Grayling’s reforms to probation too.
    • In education, Justine Greening is rumoured to have a different agenda to her predecessor, but the junior ministerial team remains the same. This might point to a continuation of the longstanding government commitment to academisation and Nicky Morgan’s work on the national funding formula.
    • On English devolution, with George Osborne returned to the backbenches, Greg Clark moved to the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and James Wharton to the Department for International Development (DfID), the strong team leading this is no longer in place (with the exception of Jim O’Neill). The new Chancellor Philip Hammond and the new Communities Secretary Sajid Javid will need to signal an early commitment to English devolution and rebuild this strong ministerial team if the momentum is to continue.
  • Forthcoming strategies: the biggest unknown here is the future of Cameron’s life chances agenda. In her first speech outside Number 10, Theresa May emphasised her commitment to social mobility, which could be how this area is taken forward.

This captures some of the major policies and projects that were already in the system. But it is likely that the new Prime Minister will also want to put her own stamp on things, so we expect to see new policy priorities added to this list. Given the amount of attention rightly being expended on Brexit and the fact that, in our view, government was already doing too much, anything new will necessitate other policies being deprioritised if government is to have the bandwidth needed to deliver.

It is also worth mentioning how to ensure existing and new policy priorities are being delivered. With attention on Brexit, Theresa May will need effective ways of staying on top of the progress of other policies. The level of ‘churn’ among junior ministers could already spell problems here – in all but three of the main ministerial departments, more than half the ministers are new to their post. Yet junior ministers are critical to keeping policies on track during delivery phases.

The Prime Minister will also need to consider what machinery she needs at the centre to help her keep track of policy priorities. This will include deciding whether to keep the Implementation Unit (IU) in the Cabinet Office, and how to use it – like her predecessor, she might abolish in haste only to regret at leisure and then have to recreate it. Clear priorities will give the IU the focus it needs to drive forward her agenda, but she will also value the intelligence it can gather, alongside the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat and her Policy Unit, about what is going on inside departments and on the front line of public services.

Over the following days, weeks and months, the Institute will continue to monitor the status of existing policies and projects to see how they are being affected by the new government and by Brexit. Click on the table below to see our current take on this – it captures what has already been announced and speculation on what might happen next.

Table for Emma blogpost

Further information

Keep watching for further updates, or follow us on Twitter @instituteforgov.

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