What is Theresa May up to?

The Prime Minister is gearing herself up for a major fight with the Treasury over spending. 


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Theresa May has written an article for the Observer today in which she “reaches out” to Labour voters and repeats her conference promise that austerity will come to an end in the spending review.

It’s already causing irritation in Labour land.  The Labour leadership already dislikes the Observer’s focus on the People’s Vote campaign and they feel that undue prominence is being given to a bland op-ed by the Prime Minister. The article is a bit “dog bites man” as it is one politician reaching out to their opponent’s own voters: as one senior Labour figure complained to me this morning: all politicians in all parties “do this 24/7”.

But actually, that’s the interesting thing and what is causing confusion among Conservatives: May’s rhetoric feels more like the kind of fairly boilerplate stuff rolled out during the heat of an election campaign rather than something you’d expect to read from a Prime Minister barely a fifth of the way through a parliament’s allotted term.

The obvious answer is preparing for another election. There are few things that unite Conservative MPs but one of them is that they will never permit May to lead them into another election and that attempting to trigger an early election would in of itself cause a coup against her. An early election would exacerbate, rather than ease, the Tory division over Europe. Any Conservative manifesto would, of course, have some form of Brexit policy in it, but almost every prominent Tory outside the Cabinet would disagree with it in some shape or form. The election would become a rolling nightmare of blue-on-blue, and Downing Street knows this full well.

The Observer is also an odd choice of outlet to make a genuine pitch to Labour voters who don’t like Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s pain point as far as that chunk of the Labour coalition goes are older voters, Leave voters and non-graduates: fairly far from your average Observer reader. In any case, the better audience for this type of message is always the Mail on Sunday because the minority of Mail readers who vote Labour are larger numerically than the majority of Observer readers who vote Labour, because the Mail’s circulation is much larger.

Downing Street’s press operation knows this full well – so what are they up to? The big point is that their main audience isn’t really voters, but the bubble. May is heading for a big fight with the Treasury over public spending: her promises in the Observer and in her conference speech entail either a big increase in government borrowing, significant tax rises or a combination of the two.

May could also need the votes of Labour MPs to carry through her Brexit deal and it is also about trying to make that option more palatable for them: and again, the Observer is the Sunday newspaper of choice if you are pitching to that audience. 

And those are the real battles thatt matters: trying desperately to attract Labour parliamentary votes for her Brexit deal and making it politically so damaging not to follow through on May’s free-spending rhetoric that the Treasury – and specifically its hawkish Cabinet ministers, Philip Hammond and Liz Truss – have to give way to Downing Street over spending.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.