You might have noticed a few ashen faces in the audience, a few jaws hanging loose beneath grievous looks, and even a few of the double breasted-types checking their seat reservations. Yes, yes, they seemed to mutter to confused companions, this is Birmingham and apparently this is the Tory Party conference…
Bewilderment was understandable. For decades, the Tories have defined themselves in fairly stark terms: small government, low tax, pro-business, increased competition, free markets, deincentivised welfare, plus the usual nods to pomp, circumstance, God, Queen, law and order. ‘For hardworking people’ has been their motto for the past few years but, really, the principal has been there for the past few decades since Margaret Thatcher rose to power. The party has been the champion of small business Britain, with all of its concomitant virtues as well as many of its vices. Hand in hand with the expansion of entrepreneurship has been a hollowing out of the national culture. Those things that have no monetary value have been seen as having no value at all.
Suddenly, in Birmingham, the message changed. ‘A country that works for everyone’ is the polar opposite to a nation which only a year ago was for ‘hardworking people’. This inclusive message does not chime with free market Tories who have done quite well by shaping their appeal to that narrow but vital section of Middle England who actually vote. So, yes, this was a challenge to Labour but is was also a challenge to the Tories themselves in that Theresa May told the faithful that so much of what they had cheered in previous years had simply been wrong. She even challenged the Tory’s central mantra on tax.
We’re all Conservatives here. We all believe in a low-tax economy. But we also know that tax is the price we pay for living in a civilised society.
That ‘but’ is new and not very Conservative as ‘Conservative’ has been defined for the past three or four decades. It might be prescient, forced as much by circumstance as by belief, but so much of the speech followed this pattern of slipping a radical message beneath the fabric of something old. It was a remarkable tour-de-force of charm used to disguise profound disagreements.
The big issue was, of course, Brexit but May managed to shift even this debate away from the black and white division of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. Even a hard Brexit can be made acceptable to the Remainers, she seemed to say. This is a Brexit which could satisfy to the many in the centre right of her party. So far the EU debate has been framed by the EU regulations which she will choose to discard but on Wednesday it was also about a few of those that she will retain. Indeed, if Britain is to be redefined by its leaving the EU, the new Britain as envisaged by May would be one championing a set of values that are not entirely those of the Conservative past. Laissez-faire, free market, and small government will still be central to their manifesto but May is also recognising the limits of the free market. Brexit might remain a shiny bauble with which May is distracting the right wing but she seems to have recognised the concerns of Remainers.
That’s why we announced on Saturday that we’re going to review our laws to make sure that, in our modern and flexible economy, people are properly protected at work. That’s right. Workers’ rights – not under threat from a Conservative government. Workers’ rights – protected and enhanced by a Conservative government.
Whether she can accomplish any of that will be the stuff of political journalism for the next few years. Certainly, there’s enough here to raise doubts. Kevin Maguire already warns about the ‘traditional Tory’s fresh-face cheek smacks of a shameful Con after supporting every spiteful hammer blow, from the bedroom tax to the battering endured by the disabled, delivered by a Conservative regime in which she was and is a prominent protgagonist’. Coming from the left, this criticism is expected but it also contains a grain of truth. It is too easy to view this as a new party and a new Prime Minister with little back story. May might boast about abandoning mandatory retesting of people with chronic medical conditions but that was a relatively recent Tory policy.
So far, May has done rather well at disguising her nascent centrism behind traditional Tory policies. It is now out in the open and not all in the hall in Birmingham were happy with what they heard. The Prime Minister might carry the majority of her party with her but, as recent history has shown, the party has strong anchors that would keep it fixed to the right. Where it doesn’t shift, it will split. We’re in for some interesting times ahead.