The art of opposition

Theresa May is not invincible. Here’s how to oppose her

Let’s do a little late summer day-dreaming. Imagine we were in a fit state as a party to build an effective opposition to Theresa May and her government. What would we be doing? Where should we focus our efforts? I know from 10 years of ministerial life what an effective opposition looks like when you have to face it. We have got some work to do.

May has tended to be a cautious and low-profile politician up to this point. However, she made a splash in her first couple of weeks in the job. She showed ruthlessness in purging Cameroons and Osbornites. She decided to get the ‘Bastards’ inside the tent pissing out with the appointment of the three Brexiteers, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson. And she emerged barely blinking from the gloom of the Home Office to carry out her honeymoon trip of Europe. It was an impressive first period in the job, but the Brexiteer appointments were a tactical move which has potential to cause trouble, and the purge creates a pool of disaffected former ministers who could provide an internal opposition which the official opposition should try to align with.

‘Brexit means Brexit’ is an effective, but wholly meaningless, slogan. The next stage of Brexit will need far more than shaking hands with European leaders. I am unsure that Davis, Fox and Johnson will put their egos aside for long enough to craft a meaningful negotiating plan. We need a strong Brexit strategy which brings the ideas of trade unions, businesses, green groups and security experts together to craft a vision for a progressive Brexit. This should also be a chance to reassure the many ‘Leave’ voters who think we just don’t get their worries about being left behind in a world where movements of capital and people create uncertainty and insecurity.

Being home secretary is a tough old job, but May has proved herself adept at side-stepping trouble and accountability in the role for the last six years. Her clearest and most politically high-profile policy target – to reduce net immigration to less than 100,000 – was comprehensively and continuously missed. How did she get away with it? Probably because the opposition, in uncertainty about the best way to address the issue of immigration ourselves, failed to maintain the focus on the government’s failure. Part of opposition is holding the government to account for delivering on its own terms. It is not necessary to agree with a policy to highlight that the government is comprehensively failing to meet it. We did not do that rigorously enough.

However, few Labour politicians could feel uncomfortable with the task she has publicly set her government in her Downing Street speech – to promote a more inclusive economy and social mobility. We should have a team assembled already to rigorously oppose her on the basis that she will fail – probing for the detailed policy flesh on the bones of this speech; highlighting the gaps in delivery; identifying where life chances are actually becoming less equal or where economic opportunities are not fairly distributed.

Opposition is about pointing out the failures of government, but also about building an alternative programme for government. With this project, we can build our own policies to tackle inequality, to promote life chances and to modernise the economy at the same time as we point out how the Tory government’s delivery falls short of the Downing Street rhetoric.

Opposition needs strong strategic leadership, but it also needs a tight and well-organised operation and a willingness to build alliances inside and outside parliament. In briefing the return to grammar schools, Downing Street has landed on an issue where it faces considerable internal opposition. Perhaps we needed to be quicker off the mark with a strong response to the story. But there is now a real opportunity to work with disgruntled Tories to oppose this policy. It was ‘friendly fire’ that brought down Nicky Morgan’s forced academisation proposals. Gove, who avoided the grammar school route as education secretary, is now on the backbenches without many mates. Neil Carmichael, chair of the education select committee, expressed doubts early on. A clever opposition will think of parliamentary methods to smoke this opposition out.

May claims to want a new industrial policy. Can she actually deliver anything meaningful – or at all – with a sceptical, rightwing parliamentary party. What do Tory council leaders think about her rowing back on devolution?

Making any of this happen will need a well-organised, well-staffed, round-the-clock operation. Opposition does not just happen during parliamentary sessions. We need the capacity to deliver a quick response late on a Saturday night and shadow ministers primed for media appearances on Sundays and during recesses. We need the research done and the parliamentary questions asked which will uncover the government failures which can be exploited with proactive press releases to challenge the government during holiday periods and when ministers are off their guard.

Last month May made a rather sanctimonious announcement about cutting special advisers across government. She needs to be made to regret this when an opposition guerrilla attack on some policy failure cannot be rebutted by government because there is no adviser to draft the response. Equally, she needs to be wrongfooted in prime minister’s questions by questions about policy failures which she has not been sighted on or briefed about because the operation is too focused on her and Downing Street. Opposition is not glamorous; it does not happen in front of crowds of cheering supporters. But it is the only route back to government and we have got to get on with it.

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Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary

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