The prime minister attempted to occupy the political centre ground vacated by Labour. Did she succeed?
She brazenly sought to colonise territory that once belonged to Labour
Theresa May delivered a speech that could have been co-written by Ed Miliband and the editor of the Daily Mail. It was a fusion of two usually opposed political outlooks into a single message – one that aimed to command, and hold, the centre ground for the Conservative party. To that end, it brazenly sought to colonise territory that used to belong to Labour – thereby shoving that party to the very margins.
Start with the more obvious treats served up for the Mail. None was bigger, of course, than the promise to exit the European Union, with no ifs or buts on ending both free movement and jurisdiction by the European court of justice. But May also deferred to several cultural touchstones cherished by the Mail: the promise to open the first new grammar schools for 50 years; an attack on “leftwing human rights lawyers”, castigated for harassing British soldiers; condemnation of those metropolitan types who feel more affinity for “the international elite” than for the people who live down their street.
Much more interesting, though, were the long passages that could have come out of the mouth of the last Labour leader. May offered a vision that was a radical break from Thatcherism. She said: “There is more to life than individualism and self-interest,” as if rebuking the notorious claim that “there is no such thing as society”. While Thatcher’s ally Ronald Reagan always insisted that government was the problem, May said it could be “part of the solution”.
She made the case for an active state, intervening where the market had failed. She praised Clement Attlee, the NHS and the BBC. She made a moral argument for rich people to pay their taxes. She called the housing market “dysfunctional”, and promised that the government would start building houses. While she was at it, she denounced modern slavery, stop-and-search and institutional racism.
The political pitch was clear: to promise onetime Labour voters that they could have everything they used to value in Labour, without backing what had become – in a neat reverse of her past verdict on her own political tribe – “the nasty party”. For it was, she said, the Tories who were now the party of the workers, the NHS and of public servants.
It was bold, even shameless. Thanks to Brexit, it may also prove hollow – since exiting the EU will threaten many of the things about Britain she boasted of. (How long will Britain boast three of the world’s 10 best universities when foreign students are discouraged from coming here?) But it was an effective speech designed to command the territory that matters most – and where power resides.
Polly Toynbee: The Tories are brilliant at cognitive dissonance
While Theresa May commands the political universe, the new centre ground is wherever she says it is. But any political topographer will note how far the victorious rightwing Brexiteers have shunted the centre of gravity rightwards. They are the masters, with their tanks on the lawn, for now.
But you wouldn’t know that from the stirring sermon delivered by the vicar’s daughter, a homily on morality, social justice and fairness that could have come from Labour (bar the anti-immigration riffs). What party doesn’t pitch for “everyone”, “one nation”, “the many not the few”?
But by her tough choices we shall know her. In her land-grab for Labour voters, how can she really “seize the day” for workers, public servants and the NHS? Ignoring the current crisis, let’s hope she knows that her boast on generous NHS funding was near as dammit a lie. Public servants? A million have been sacked, and the rest suffer the harshest pay downgrade ever.
If her actions were to match her words, then she would indeed command the entire political landscape and the heavens beyond. But Tories are brilliant at cognitive dissonance. How often their faithful listen to pulpit proclamations – “blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the earth” – without for a moment considering what that requires of them. It takes strenuous suspension of disbelief to imagine Tories will no longer be Tories.
Anne McElvoy: May understands the limits of the free-market worldview
A change is gonna come. Did Sam Cooke ever imagine himself as the refrain of a speech by a freshly minted Conservative leader in 2016? Possibly not.
Theresa May was heralding an entirely different Britain from one hidebound by unfairness, dogged by the vested interests of the wealthy or imbued with quietly pernicious racism.
The “nasty party” tag was neatly turned on “divisive” Corbynite Labour – an easy applause-inviter for the conference. But May is a veteran of the Tory circuit who knows how to soften up an audience before surprising them. The next minute, they were tilted headlong into an Old Labour speech, complete with workers’ rights and protection for those at the sharper end of capitalism’s elbows, and greedy Philip Green sliced and diced.
Here were the themes and the anxieties of the broader left – and some of its favourite target villains in sight. “If you’re a tax dodger, we’re coming after you,” intoned a gimlet-eyed May, as if she might personally send out the state troopers.
Mayism is a curious hybrid – in part a stolid reflection of core Tory instincts and desires: Brexit but without the pain; grammar schools, but fudging the messiness of selection at 11. But she is also someone who understands the limits of the free-market worldview, and how unsettling many voters find it.
The speech contained clear signs that May has been harbouring resentments for years of being trapped in the outer-inner core of David Cameron’s cabinet. “A country that works for everyone” eclipsed, “We’re all in this together” and the Blairite reprise of, “The many, not the few”.
The desire to deliver more, practically and financially, for blue-collar Britain is keenly felt. But choosing which parts of the change she is serious enough to turn into hard policy will be the May dilemma, when the applause fades.
Genuine Conservatives are so much better for the poor than slick liberals such as Cameron
If you played a drinking game during Theresa May’s speech, who would have guessed that it would have been the phrases “working people” and “working class” that would have got you drunk the fastest? All things are relative. And I know she is hard to warm to – too angular, too awkward in emoting – but genuine Conservatives such as May are so much better for the poor than slick liberals such as David Cameron.
Cameron believed, first and foremost, in business. His was the hedge fund premiership, the friend of global capitalism. He was our CEO, not our PM. And make no mistake: that’s the reason – the only reason – he wanted to stay in the EU. He knew it was the capitalist’s friend.
With Theresa May we have a prime minister back. Yes, there was a lot of rhetoric and not much policy. But the rhetoric was pro-government, centre-left, red Tory. For the vicar’s daughter, the community comes first: we need our politics to be “more than individualism and self interest”. And there was a thinly veiled attack on Phillip Green. Well done. None of this could have come from Dave.
And clever old Jeremy Corbyn. By taking Labour to the left he has dragged theConservatives into that vacated space, shifting the whole of our politics leftwards. But the problem is that in this post-Brexit world, left/right doesn’t apply so much. The battle lines are now between a deracinated free-market individualism and a social communitarianism that believes in mutual responsibility. So two cheers for Theresa May.
Joseph Harker: Calling Labour the ‘nasty party’ ignores decades of history
This was the easiest leader’s conference speech Theresa May will ever have to make. Britain changed on 23 June, revealing a host of issues that had been festering, unacknowledged, for decades: of huge swaths of the country that had missed out on economic success; of communities impacted by rapid change; of simmering hatred towards an out-of-touch elite.
May can claim to be the fresh new face who can change all this. Meanwhile her party faithful are revelling in the afterglow of Brexit and the thought of “taking back control”. And the official opposition is reeling after a ferocious and divisive summer-long leadership challenge. So, right now, May can say what she likes and people will lap it all up – including many traditional Labour lines.
That’s why the prime minister can say she believes 100% in the free market, yet that the Conservatives are “the party of the workers, the party of public servants, the party of the NHS”. She can run through a list of racial injustices and say, “I want this Conservative government to fight every single one of them.”
Why May can rebrand herself as passionately pro-Brexit – “our laws will be made not in Brussels but Westminster” – even though she was notionally on the remain side. Why she can attack the “privileged few”, and promise the tax dodgers and those who help them, “We’re coming after you”. Because, right now, people will give her the benefit of the doubt.
But if May really believed this, why is she in the Tory party? A party that has imposed austerity on society’s most vulnerable. It’s a good soundbite to claim that Labour is now “the nasty party” but it ignores years, indeed decades, of history.