On 19 April, Theresa May kicked off the Conservative Party general election campaign, surrounded by activists in the Labour-held seat of Bolton North East. She asked voters to strengthen her hand in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations and pledged to provide "strong and stable leadership".
Three months on, the dust has settled on what proved to be another poll defying election. Having cobbled together a deal with the DUP, put together a Queen’s speech devoid of major parts of her manifesto, lost her closest advisors and the support of many in her own party, May is now a long way from the position of strength she hoped for post-election.
The Queen's speech perhaps gives the best insight of what to expect from the current Parliament. Britain's EU exit will remain the primary focus of May’s government and take up huge amounts of Westminster and Whitehall attention, manpower and time with 8 bills.
On the other hand, detail around social care funding, grammar schools and fox hunting were all conspicuous by their absence from the Queen’s speech, though they were much commented on parts of the Tory manifesto in the run up to the election. The dropping of the controversial grammar schools policy, a divisive issue but one which May felt passionately about, illustrates the extent to which May’s power has dissipated.
Despite the lack of forthcoming bills, it should be remembered that the government does not always need to legislate to bring about change. For example, the previous government's Prisons and Courts Bill was halved in the Queens Speech making it just the Courts Bill. However, the new Justice Secretary of State, David Lidington, immediately published an open letter pledging to continue ‘the essential work’ needed to reform prisons.
What this episode illustrates is twofold. There may well be less legalisation this parliament, with the governing party lacking a majority and focused on Brexit. But with the weakening of May’s leadership, Secretaries of State and Ministers are likely to become emboldened to follow their own agenda and will be left more to their own devices than was previously the case.
Under May’s leadership prior to the election, there were reports that departmental level policy was being micro-managed by the Prime Minister and her advisors with the cogs of government slowing. May’s loss of her majority could now significantly loosen these cogs.
The ongoing debate about the public sector pay cap and the number of Tory ministers contradicting Number 10’s line are just two examples of an upsurge in assertiveness amongst Tory ministers.
And it is not just Secretaries of State and Ministers who have become emboldened. With May’s majority now gone, a window of opportunity has also arisen for MPs to set the political agenda.
For instance, Labour MP Stella Creasy’s amendment on free access to abortions for Northern Irish women looked set to gain the support of some Conservative MPs. So, the government, worried about a Tory rebellion, switched policy. In principle, opposition MPs need to find just seven Tory MPs to support their cause in order to put the government in severe danger of losing a vote.
Furthermore, it is not only the House of Commons where May has problems. For the Conservative Party now faces the challenge of governing without control of the House of Lords too.
What’s more, the Lords may not feel bound to support Conservative legislation having seen the Tories fail to secure a public mandate for their plans by not winning an overall majority at the election.
So we are looking at a period where parliamentary votes will become more significant and many MPs and Peers sense an opportunity to build momentum behind policies and agendas they feel passionately about.
Uncertainty around the new government, combined with the ongoing Brexit negotiations, may be seen as a political risk. But there is also opportunity for organisations to up their political engagement, as power dissipates from Number 10 to other political players.
In particular, there is enhanced opportunity for organisations to try and build cross party support around issues where they think may have been neglected or bypassed up to now. Stella Creasy’s amendment is only one example of this.
There is now a real chance for organisations to take the initiative and explore policy areas where there may be both mutual interest and agreement with parliamentarians. Where such opportunities arise, momentum can be built around these issues to bring reform.