In her speech to the Conservative Party Conference Theresa May made a bold bid to win over disaffected Labour voters.
Her language at times could have come from the mouth of Ed Miliband and her repeated call for change seemed aimed as a rebuke to her predecessor, the Etonian David Cameron and the coterie of ‘privileged’ former public schoolboys he assembled around him. But many people will say we have heard all this before. Mr Cameron himself used to speak of ‘compassionate conservatism’; others of ‘blue-collar Tories’. So was hers just another rhetorical bid for the centre ground, or is the new Tory leader’s pitch for Labour votes plausible?
At first glance the language seems as conventional as it is vacuous. The conference slogan was ‘A Country that Works for Everyone’; Mrs May said her vision was about ‘fairness’ and ‘opportunity’. The old rules still applies: if the opposite of what a politician says makes no sense at all, then all that is being mouthed is empty platitude. When did you last hear a politician say they didn’t want a country that works for everyone or that they had no interest in promoting fairness or opportunity?
But Mrs May’s speech went far further than uttering familiar bromides in its attempt to claim she really does want her party to be understood as offering an approach to Britain’s problems different from the one we have come to expect of it over the last forty years or so. The key to this lies in her interpretation of the referendum result.
For the Prime Minister, the unexpectedly decisive result in favour of Brexit was not just a vote against Britain’s continued membership of the European Union. It was also about something much ‘broader’. She said: ‘It was about a sense – deep, profound and, let’s face it, often justified – that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them.’ What seems to have struck her is the fact that the Brexit result was largely secured by large numbers of people living in poor, Labour heartlands, who don’t normally bother to vote but who came out in their thousands to register what she regards as a protest against the way the system is stacked against them. Although she herself campaigned (albeit without much energy) to remain in the EU, she sees the vote that propelled her into Downing Street as a mandate to represent those making that protest.
And she linked the result to the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008. She said; ‘It wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash but ordinary, working-class families.’ She attacked an elite she sees running global capitalism who cannot have a sense of citizenship, she claims, because they regard themselves as global citizens, a meaningless notion in her view. And she went out of her way to point the finger at the very people who are the target of those who feel the world has unfairly left them behind.
She said: ‘So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra, a household name that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism, a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust, I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on any more.’
This is all a very far cry from the Thatcherite view of capitalism that the Tory Party (and to a large extent New Labour) used to espouse. It was Mrs Thatcher, after all, who said the lesson to be learned from the parable of the good Samaritan was that he had the money to do good; Peter Mandelson said New Labour was ‘intensely relaxed’ about people becoming ‘filthy rich’. Now Mrs May wants to put workers on company boards. And perhaps the most striking departure from the Thatcherite creed was her saying: ‘It is time to remember the good that government can do.’ Mrs Thatcher thought government was usually the problem.
No wonder the former Labour leader, Ed Miliband, felt he had had his clothes stolen, tweeting ironically in response to the Prime Minister’s speech what the Tories had said when he came out with similar proposals: ‘Marxist, anti-business interventionism’.
So, if Mrs May means what she says, she wants to do far more than touch the forelock to the platitudes of political centrism. And it is easy to see why. Labour’s disarray means there are potentially enormous numbers of disaffected former Labour voters without an obvious new home to go to who might be seduced by such a programme. Furthermore, UKIP, which has already set its sights on those voters, is itself in turmoil after its leader of only eighteen days resigned, giving the Tories an even greater opportunity. Nigel Farage, its former leader, called Mrs May’s speech ‘remarkable’: ‘virtually everything she said are things I’ve said to the UKIP conference over the last five or six years’.
But there is, of course, a world of difference between making a speech and actually delivering on what is contained in it. For former Labour voters to be persuaded she means business she will have to practise what she preaches and Labour politicians will be pressing her on the detail. Is she prepared to reverse Tory tax policy on such things as the top rate of income tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax in order to bring about the greater equality she claims to espouse? Is she going to continue to squeeze the welfare budget? Is she really going to press ahead with allowing new grammar schools to be created when evidence suggests they help more bright children from the middle class than they do clever working class kids? How tough is she going to be on the utilities companies and other parts of big business when she is already being warned by the Institute of Directors not to treat business people as ‘pantomime villains’?
The answer to at least some of these questions may lie in what will really dominate Mrs May’s premiership: how to extricate Britain from the EU. The Prime Minister continues to keep her cards very close to her chest, simply conveying a belief that it will be possible to reclaim total control over immigration without jeopardising Britain’s economic interests, especially with regard to access to the EU’s single market. Few observers share this optimism and the Cabinet is known to be split on how any compromise should fall.
But compromise of some sort seems inevitable and whichever way she chooses she risks alienating those very voters she is trying to woo, the working people who backed Brexit because they had a ‘deep, profound and …often justified’ sense that the world was not working for them. If she compromises on control of immigration because she thinks the economic cost would prove too great, then she will have betrayed them on the issue that sent them to the polls in such numbers last June. But if she holds out on immigration, then she risks the sort of economic turmoil in which, as she pointed out, it is always the hard-working poor rather than the fat cats who get hurt most.
So can Mrs May make the Tories attractive to those working class people who have traditionally seen her party as the enemy? Are you such a voter and, if so, do you think she means what she says? Would you be prepared to vote Tory? Do you think the interests (and lobbying) of business will reassert themselves and the Tories will go back to ‘business as usual’ or not? Or do you think we are now seeing the end of the Thatcherite Tory party and the beginning of a new one?
Let us know your views.