thinkers

May could learn a lot from Ottawa

The British prime minister should study the experience of other minority governments to achieve her political goals

By Andrew MacDougall
17:15 September 13, 2017
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A divided party. An emboldened opposition. Parliament choked with the legislation meant to deliver Brexit. There is much to sour British Prime Minister Theresa May’s mood as members of parliament get back into the parliamentary swing of it. Alas, she must make the best of her diminished circumstances. And in order to do so, she should study the experience of other minority governments, and particularly that of Stephen Harper in Canada, to see how she can achieve her goals.

At first glance, the circumstances facing Harper in 2006 and May today are radically different. He had moved from opposition to government (his Conservative minority replacing a Liberal one), not from majority to minority. He faced a rudderless opposition about to launch a leadership race, not the resurgent Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Harper also had the full support of his party. These differences, however, don’t obscure the tactics available to May.

The key to Harper’s success in governing Canada as a minority from 2006 to 2011 was confidence. While commentators were questioning the legitimacy of his government, with its meagre 125 seats (out of 308), he got on with the job of governing. He passed a popular tax cut (reducing Canada’s equivalent to Vat by 2 per cent), legislated tough accountability rules on lobbying and political donations (scandals that had triggered the downfall of the previous government), and gave hard-working parents (May’s “just about managing” families) direct support for childcare. All were manifesto pledges with support beyond Harper’s party.

Underpinning this bold action was the belief that no opposition party would force another election and risk provoking the electorate’s wrath. He presented his agenda and invited others to explain why they couldn’t support it. And, sure enough, the pips never squeaked, at least not in numbers sufficient to defeat the government. The next election only happened when Harper broke his own fixed election date pledge in 2008, and he was returned with a strengthened minority.

Of course, May’s Tories are trailing in the polls and Labour say they’re spoiling for a fight. But Labour don’t, on their own, have the votes to force her government out. With the Lib Dems still finding their post-vote equilibrium, and anti-May Tories afraid of another election, an outright vote of no confidence is unlikely. It’s therefore time for May to get on with the job.

With every hesitation, she only emboldens her opponents, in Labour and her own party. She needs to remember that she is still the prime minister and that the business of government is still very much in her hands; there is more to government than legislation and May shouldn’t hesitate to use the tools at Whitehall’s disposal. Perhaps her announcement that she will fight the next election is the first sign she is ready to lead.

Canada even has lessons for Brexit, and the possibility May will have to find some compromise that displeases the ultras on both sides of the debate. Harper faced a comparable dilemma when confronted by the economic downturn in 2008. He decided to join with the rest of the G20 to spend up to 2 per cent of gross domestic product on stimulus measures, even though it meant upsetting fiscally conservative members of his party. But he chose to spend it in ways he knew would find broad public support: More help for those thrown out of work, and massive amounts for Canada’s crumbling infrastructure.

When the opposition made its backing conditional on Harper reporting to parliament on the progress of the stimulus, the prime minister made virtue of the spending vice and turned the reports into promotional materials for how many new infrastructure projects were being built across the country. It was Harper’s pragmatism and cunning that won the day. His bold moves earned him the respect of his party, and gave his government enough runway to achieve what many thought wasn’t possible: A strong, majority Conservative government in 2011.

He didn’t let minority status hold him back. He used it, along with the seriousness of the times, to make the case that he was a serious person and that his party deserved serious levels of support. There’s a lesson there, for those willing to take it.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2017

Andrew MacDougall was a senior aide to Stephen Harper.

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