PM condemned by Jeremy Corbyn for ‘fanning the flames of xenophobia’ and blaming foreigners for her party’s failures
Theresa May has signalled that she will use the Brexit vote as a mandate to break decisively with David Cameron’s brand of Conservatism, pledging to intervene on behalf of working class voters and crack down on immigration.
In a populist speech to her party’s conference in Birmingham, the prime minister painted June’s referendum result as a “quiet revolution” that should force politicians to tackle public concerns, repeatedly telling delegates that “change must come”.
May said she saw the referendum result as a political turning point, which legitimised a tougher line on immigration and more state intervention in the public’s lives. She told her party: “It’s time to remember the good that government can do.”
The Brexit vote was a message from people who “were not prepared to be ignored any more”, she said. “Because in June people voted for change. And a change is going to come.”
She faced an angry backlash, however, from opposition politicians including the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who accused her of stoking anti-immigrant sentiment by playing to fears about the impact of foreign workers on jobs and wages.
Corbyn said she was “fanning the flames of xenophobia and hatred in our communities and trying to blame foreigners” for her party’s own failures. Sturgeon said May’s speech and the policies she laid out were “the most disgraceful display of reactionary rightwing politics in living memory”.
Anticipating such criticism, May said in her speech that some people did not like to admit that British workers could “find themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration”.
Business leaders also reacted angrily to a proposal the home secretary, Amber Rudd, made on Tuesday to force firms to reveal what proportion of their workforce are immigrants in a bid to “name and shame” businesses that fail to take on British staff.
Carolyn Fairbairn, the director general of the CBI, said: “We have been a magnet for talent for many years. We should be proud of our ability to attract the best, and this approach that appears to be around shaming companies for doing that is one that our members are very, very concerned about.”
In a speech designed to set out her core beliefs, May offered a deliberate rejection of the legacy of Thatcherism. “There is more to life than individualism and self-interest”, she said, drawing on the story of the triathlete Alistair Brownlee who gave up his chance to win the final race in the world series in Mexico to help his heat-dazed brother Jonny over the line. “We succeed or fail together.”
May also criticised the jet-setting global elite, tax-avoiding multinationals and sharp practice by company executives. “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,” she said.
The prime minister appealed to disaffected Labour voters, arguing that the party had fled from the centre of British politics. She said the Conservatives were now “the party of the workers, the party of public servants, the party of the NHS”.
She mocked the splits and abuse between Corbyn and his MPs, winning huge cheers by adopting her former description of her own party to describe Labour: “You know what some people call them? The nasty party.”
Concluding her 59-minute speech, May told delegates she was offering “an agenda for a new modern Conservatism that understands the good government can do, that will never hesitate to face down the powerful when they abuse their positions of privilege, that will always act in the interests of ordinary, working class people”.
She promised to take action in the coming months in a number of areas, including building more homes, preventing energy firms from exploiting customers, upgrading the broadband network and closing the gap between fast-growing London and the less prosperous regions of the UK. She did not, however, spell out details.
A Downing Street spokesperson said the government would also introduce measures to help savers hit by record low interest rates, after being forced to clarify remarks in the speech that appeared to criticise the Bank of England’s policy of quantitative easing.
May had said: “While monetary policy, with super-low interest rates and quantitative easing, provided the necessary emergency medicine after the financial crash, we have to acknowledge there have been some bad side effects.”
That appeared to break the convention, established since the Bank of England was given independence in 1997, that politicians refrain from commenting on the direction of monetary policy.
The Downing Street spokesperson insisted: “Quantitative easing is a matter for the independent Bank of England. That remains the case.”
May was preceded on stage in a packed conference hall by a crowd-pleasing speech from the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, who struck a more emollient tone on migration, telling foreign-born workers who have settled in Scotland: “This is your home and you are welcome here.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, rejected the idea that May was shifting to the centre ground, calling her rhetoric “utterly divorced from her party’s actions over the last few days”.
He said: “The Conservatives are reckless, divisive and uncaring. They are the fence-building, snooping-on-your-emails, foreign-worker-listing party and that is something that most people will be repulsed by.”