Isabel Hardman

Theresa May’s scrutiny-dodging will only get worse

Theresa May's scrutiny-dodging will only get worse
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What a very boring election this is. The Tories are trying to keep their Prime Minister away from anyone who isn’t an android programmed to wave a placard about ‘strong and stable leadership’. Journalists from local papers are being kept in rooms to prevent them from - gasp - filming an interview with the Prime Minister for their websites. Other events take place away from the media entirely, with Theresa May cocooned safely among Tory activists: the political equivalent of a tree falling in an empty forest.

Over the bank holiday, the Sunday papers carried tales of a row between May and her key aide Fiona Hill in which the Prime Minister apparently complained that she was being kept away from voters. Given the airtight way in which May’s top team operates, managing to spring an election as a shock on everyone, it is hard to imagine that this story would be seen as particularly disadvantageous to the Tories. It suggests that the Prime Minister isn’t afraid of meeting voters - while also enabling election strategists to continue controlling her access - and to take the blame for the ‘boring’ election.

The thing is, those election strategists were copping a lot of criticism in 2015 for their boring tactics, too. Back then we also had a Prime Minister hiding, along with his bus, in a massive cow shed so that he didn’t have to talk to anyone inconvenient. Journalists - including me - complained then about the terrible access they were being given, especially a dearth of opportunities to ask questions about the policies the Tories were putting forward (including that silly ‘tax lock’ that caused them so many problems at the most recent Budget). But the Tories surprised us grumpy journalists by winning that boring election in 2015 - and the only difference two years on is that a Tory victory is not in doubt.

For all it may be bad for democracy to have its leaders hiding from scrutiny in this way, elections are not circuses set up to entertain political diehards. Of course we are all bored stiff of hearing the words ‘strong and stable’, but we’re not the audience the Tories are aiming for. Neither are the Labour MPs who complain about that phrase while failing to come up with their own rival slogan that they parrot until ordinary voters, with their normal rather than obsessive approach to politics, might once or twice hear it before making their decision. In 2015, I conducted a surreptitious survey of Shadow Cabinet members to see if any of them could tell me what the Labour answer to ‘long-term economic plan’ was. The results, which I wrote up in this Observer column, were not pretty. 

Voters aren’t looking for a circus, either. If they want something exciting and unpredictable, people tend to buy tickets for the cinema, not look to political parties particularly not in times of instability. The Labour Party is, in its own way, exciting and unpredictable, changing its mind about key policies from hour to hour and offering up spokespeople who seem to think politics is about as serious as an afternoon out at Kidzania. Exciting and unpredictable fills newspapers and goes viral. It doesn’t win elections.

Now, beyond the indignation that this election isn’t fun is a more valid argument, which is that the Conservatives are deliberately dodging scrutiny, whether it be by refusing to take questions from the media at campaign events, or by keeping the Prime Minister away from voters who might be filmed asking awkward questions.

If we find this rather arrogant avoidance of scrutiny frustrating over the next five weeks, we will find precious little relief after 8 June if Theresa May does indeed return to the Commons with a hefty majority rather than a fragile mandate. What incentive, then, will the government have to listen to critics on the green benches of Parliament, or take - let alone answer - difficult questions from journalists at press conferences? Very little: but the consequences of poor scrutiny of government policy are anything but ‘boring’. They can ruin people’s lives.

Update: The Tories aren't very happy with the suggestion that May is avoiding scrutiny. A spokesman gets in touch to say:

'One media organisation’s last minute request to add a camera to a pre-arranged pool of broadcast cameras was not possible this morning. The organisation’s journalists did interview the Prime Minister and their photographer accompanied the Prime Minister on a factory tour. Theresa May has so far taken four times as many questions from journalists as floundering Jeremy Corbyn while his cabinet can’t even answer basic questions about how they would pay for his nonsensical policies.'