DW2You 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.

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9 Comments on "May moves to the centre but will the party follow?"

  1. Max Blake (@wheelymax) | 6th October 2016 at 2:07 pm | Reply

    Hi David,

    I am curious as to how you would square the paragraph on Brexit with the following passages in May’s Speech?

    “But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.”

    Firstly has this not always been the case? Secondly am I the only who hears something vaguely sinister in the Prime Minister of the UK using the phrase “international elites”. Who are they Mrs May? Successful business people? Socialist?? Jews??? I find it very disturbing.

    “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”

    This was a deal breaker for me. It stuck in my ears the second she said it and my distaste (I’m trying to be polite here!) with it has hardly subsided since. How is this not the ‘Decisive Nationalism’ that she seems so keen to attack? It is purely pandering to the worst elements of our national psyche.

    “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public.
    They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient.
    They find the fact that more than seventeen million voters decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.”

    Well I have absoltely no problem admitting that ‘simply bewildered’ is a very good description of how I have felt since June 24th. The rest of this part is just more divisive ‘Them and us’ which i find deeply irresponsible’.

    So according to Mrs May I am member of the ‘International Elite” becuase I have been lucky enough to to travel a bit and believe that the world is better off when we work together. Simultaneously I am a politician/commentator/traitor (ok she didn’t say that one but it felt implied) because I voted Remain for essential the reason above.

    Except that as you know I’m neither. I am a 31 disabled guy who lives with his mother in semi-rural Somerset, a very conservative area. All of which I mention just to prove that people aren’t easily pigeon-holed.

    You told me on twitter that you thought Brexit was a distraction for her moving the party to the centre. I fear the opposite may be the case? She is trying to have her cake and eat it buy appealing to the Enoch Powell wing of the party and the “Blairite” wing of the country. Of course the fact that she has this space is Labour’s fault but that’s a whole OTHER discussion.

    Sorry for the rambling rant.

    Max Blake

    • Thanks for the rambling rant, Max. Enjoyed it enormously because your doubts are doubts that I largely share. Where we differ is that I’m probably willing to give May the benefit of the doubt. The reason I probably more lenient is that I see May as an extremely pragmatic and shrewd operator. She’s obviously been sitting in the Home Office making plans for years. She understands the political games better than her rivals. And here she is, now in Downing Street, with a few years and a very small majority. What does she do? To win the next election, it makes sense to move the centre of politics. Yet she runs the danger of splitting her party.

      That’s the context, I think, the speech involved plenty of smoke and mirrors. Like Rob says, it’s ‘probably just words’ but words are important. Many of the words you picked out had more to do with her own political survival than they had to do with real policies. They are dog whistles to the right. If you believe that she is a true right winger, then you are right to be worried because it means the Tory party will move further to the right. Myself, I think she understands that sustained political success comes from winning the centre ground. That means she’s as moderate as she sounded; albeit one who is trying to walk a fine line between the two extremes of the party. Her ambitions are centrist but she can only fulfil them by giving the Brexiteers what they want. That’s what I mean by distractions. I listened to her speech and felt that parts of it were a deliberate attempt to say ‘trust me’ to Remainers, whilst also accepting the result of the referendum. Even if she is a Remainer, that’s not a battle she can now win or, at least, not in the short to medium term. She can accept that loss but shape it to the kind of Brexit that remainers might even accept.

      That bit about ‘citizen of the world’ felt like a condemnation of Thatcher’s famous belief that there’s ‘no such thing as society’. Maybe I read it wrong — you might be right — but I felt it was emphasising that Brexit can be used as a way to reshape society. Coming from a Tory leader, that was radical and even more surprising that he speech on the steps of Downing Street.

      I accept, of course, that I might be wrong. This is just interpretative stuff, like reading a poem and trying to figure out the meaning. At that level — where we just watch the politics unfold — I find all this fascinating. We’re trying to understand deep politics from a few eddies and currents that appear on the surface.

    • Max, if you don’t mind me chipping in I think the international elites bit was a dig at Cameron and Osborne and the very little done to collect taxes due from wealthy individuals and companies, in Camerons case his links to Google in particular were extremely dubious.

      I actually think her comments about the way some politicians and the commentariat view large sections of the public were spot on. They show ill concealed distaste and that quite frankly isn’t acceptable when you are happy enough for those same people to pay your wages.

  2. Probably just words David. If not then the majority she holds is too low to make good on too many promises. The problem with taxation is that the basic rate has been reduced to an unsustainable level but once reduced it has proved very hard to increase without incurring the wrath of a huge segment of voters. Bair and Brown were very cute around this, they simply cut council funding and allowed council tax to double instead without ever drawing the flak for what was a huge tax hike by the back door. I think it has been proved that any substantial rises in the higher rate of tax will simply produce less income so it is time that people on average incomes accept they need to pay an extra 2-3% if they want to continue to receive the services they already have. Whether Hammond will prove brave enough to put this in a budget in the hope that Labour are in enough trouble to get away with it we will soon see.

    • Indeed they are but words can be important in that they define a certain tone. And that’s probably what this comes down to. If, as you say, all parties are trapped with certain economic realities, then so much of our politics comes down to nuance and small differences. (That’s perhaps Corbyn’s only hope: that people begin to see a failure of centrist politics and begin to look further afield for a solution.) May might not have much room to move and she’s trapped by the internal politics of her party as much as she is by national or international politics. In that sense, perhaps not much will change. From the perspective of the party, however, this feels like the first real challenge to Thatcherism and, perhaps, a chance for a different kind of conservatism to re-emerge.

      • With May I find myself using the word probably quite a lot David. I do think she probably believes in what she is saying and is probably one of the rarer type of politicians who is doing it out of a sense of public duty. However she has also shown a huge amount of calculation in the way she has plotted her course, twice she could have run as leader of the conservatives and twice she has pulled back (rightly as it has turned out). Her previous utterances were very Euro-sceptic and her decision to back remain, if you could call it that as she certainly wasn’t very vociferous, was another calculated move. My heart would like to believe she is on a mission to make the country a better place but my head tells me that will always be a secondary consideration to keeping power and keeping the party donors onside. In political terms a move to the left does make sense as it marginalises the Labour party even more as well as helping to prevent any resurgence of the LibDems who still do have a substantial grass roots organisation.

        • Thanks Rob. That’s a nice summary that pretty much sums up how I feel. Willing to see what her words actually mean but slightly cautious because she’s proven to be a very shrewd politician. What I would say, however, is that she’s plotted her course very carefully but now she’s in the place where she’s wanted to be for all those years. If she believes anything, then now is the time to show it. Maybe it is pure political calculation and this move to the centre might even have been predictable. Labour’s weakness leaves the centre ground open. Does that mean she had to move to the centre? I’m not sure. I see the Lib Dems recovering but not enough to trouble her. Her problems will come from the Right and whatever she does will be a matter of keeping the Euroskeptics quiet. That’s the big question in my mind. Does she believe in Brexit or does she believe it because it’s the politically astute thing to do? I suspect the latter but we won’t know until we start to see hard decisions being made.

  3. I’m not sure we’ll ever know what May really thought David as I think ‘hard brexit’ is already almost inevitable given the position the EU is set on taking. Having looked into possible revenue losses from a smaller financial sector versus gains in tariffs levied on the £250bn of EU imports I’m not convinced that going the WTO route is a bad thing fiscally speaking. The effect on manufacturers will be broadly neutral as any tariffs will have been offset by falls in sterling. What I will find interesting is how remainers react to what will be a hardline EU negotiating position designed to ‘punish’ the UK and hurt our economy. Many Brits may love the EU but they are about to find out that certainly isn’t reciprocated.

  4. ‘Disraeli’s government also introduced a new Factory Act meant to protect workers, the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act 1875, which allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act (1875) to enable workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke legal contracts. As a result of these social reforms the Liberal-Labour MP Alexander Macdonald told his constituents in 1879, “The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.’

    I said much more but Capcha lost my post – annoying :/

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