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Theresa May's Conservative manifesto buries dogmatic Thatcherism

The Prime Minister is more sceptical of the market and less hostile towards the state.

"Forward, together". The title of the Conservatives' election manifesto invites comparison with Margaret Thatcher. It was before these words that the Tories' great landslider spoke at her party's 1980 conference. But it is here that the similarities largely end. For Theresa May is the first Conservative leader to truly grapple with Thatcher's legacy.

The economic forces that the former prime minister unleashed – through privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts – had ambiguous and unintended consequences. While dealing a hammer blow from which the socialist left and the trade unions never recovered, they also undermined the ordered society that she revered. The speculative frenzies of the market, the decoupling of contribution and reward and the surge in private debt contradicted her values of responsibility, fidelity and thrift. Thatcher's ideological inheritors, many of them more doctrinaire than the Iron Lady herself, adopted a dogmatic faith in capitalism at odds with traditional Tory pragmatism.

May's mission is to rehabilitate this older strain of Conservative thinking. "We do not believe in untrammelled free markets," declares a section entitled "Our Principles". "We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous."

May's manifesto, authored by her fiercely loyal co-chief of staff Nick Timothy (along with Tory ministers George Freeman and Ben Gummer), proclaims a belief "not just in society" but "in the good that government can do". There are echoes of Beveridge ("five great challenges"), of Burke ("society is a contract between the generations") and of Blue Labour (whose founder Maurice Glasman recently met Timothy).

The ensuing policies do not seek to reverse Thatcherism (as Labour's manifesto does) but to correct it. The manifesto promises a "tarriff cap" on energy bills (which have continually risen under privatisation), "worker representation on company boards" (strengthening labour against capital), "a new generation of council housing" (neglected ever since Thatcher's Right to Buy) and a "modern industrial strategy" (legitimising the state as an economic actor).

Even in the case of Brexit, May is wrangling with another Thatcherite bequest. Despite her latter europhobia, it was the former prime minister who took the UK into the European single market, extending the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. As the EU expanded, the liberal imperative of growth clashed with the conservative imperative of order. Net migration from Europe now stands at 168,000, a level regarded by May as unsustainable. To this end, the manifesto recommits the UK to single market withdrawal (in order to limit free movement) and renews the aim of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

Every prime minister since Thatcher has dwelt in her ideological shadow. The Brexit vote, one of the ruptures to which the UK is given roughly every 35 years (1906, 1945, 1979, 2016), constitutes a natural punctuation mark. Thatcher’s unintentionally liberal settlement could be supplanted by May’s harder-edged conservatism. Far more than David Cameron, who sought the middle way of “the big society”, she heralds the role of the state in promoting national greatness, maintaining social order and widening equality of opportunity.

Governments are frequently better judged by their actions than by their words. If, as the polls suggest, May's return to Downing Street is inevitable, the ensuing years will be defined by one task: Brexit. But the intention of her manifesto could not be clearer: to bury dogmatic Thatcherism.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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LISTEN: Boris Johnson has a meltdown in car crash interview on the Queen’s Speech

“Hang on a second…errr…I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Hang on a second,” Boris Johnson sighed. On air, you could hear the desperate rustling of his briefing notes (probably a crumpled Waitrose receipt with “crikey” written on it) and him burbling for an answer.

Over and over again, on issues of racism, working-class inequality, educational opportunity, mental healthcare and housing, the Foreign Secretary failed to answer questions about the content of his own government’s Queen’s Speech, and how it fails to tackle “burning injustices” (in Theresa May’s words).

With each new question, he floundered more – to the extent that BBC Radio 4 PM’s presenter Eddie Mair snapped: “It’s not a Two Ronnies sketch; you can’t answer the question before last.”

But why read your soon-to-be predecessor’s Queen’s Speech when you’re busy planning your own, eh?

Your mole isn’t particularly surprised at this poor performance. Throughout the election campaign, Tory politicians – particularly cabinet secretaries – gave interview after interview riddled with gaffes.

These performances were somewhat overlooked by a political world set on humiliating shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who has been struggling with ill health. Perhaps if commentators had less of an anti-Abbott agenda – and noticed the car crash performances the Tories were repeatedly giving and getting away with it – the election result would have been less of a surprise.

I'm a mole, innit.

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