If Theresa May can turn rhetoric into reality, she could put Labour out of business

Britain's new Prime Minister returned to her old preoccupations in her first speech in charge. 

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Play the hits! Theresa May started her premiership with a speech that was virtually identical to the one that she kicked off her leadership bid with. This was a speech that blended Ed Miliband’s central preoccupations with elements of Vote Leave’s successful pitch for Brexit.

Although May will be happy with write-ups that suggest she is ranging into Labour territory, the reality is that these are the themes she has returned to time and again throughout her political career, most controversially in a 2013 speech that ranged well outside the Home Office brief and resulted in a Cabinet spat with Michael Gove, whose future in politics she will now decide.

May is of an older generation, literally and politically, than David Cameron, but her politics are mostly drawn from the left of the Conservative party. She was one of his early supporters in his 2005 bid and she kicked off her speech with a note of praise not for his efforts to get Britain’s finances in control but for his success in bringing about equal marriage.

Of course, the gap between the rhetoric of Conservative Prime Ministers and the reality of their policy programmes has often proved to be large indeed. David Cameron started his time at Downing Street pledging that we would be “in it together” as he grappled to get the public finances in check. What happened next was quite different.

But if she can live up to the tone of the speech she could put Labour out of business for the foreseeable future. The likelihood, however, is that May’s premiership will largely be dominated by the event that she mentioned only at the end of the speech: Brexit. Although there were political reasons why she praised not Cameron’s grip on the public finances but his attempts to make the country more compassionate, there was one big wonkish reason too: post-Brexit, six years of austerity have been unpicked. Cameron’s big aims – to keep Britain’s credit rating and to get the public finances under control – are both out of the question.

If, as some in the Conservative party hope and others in Labour fear, Britain’s only path to prosperity outside of the European Union is to become a particularly large tax haven, the pursuit of responsible capitalism envisaged in this speech may be the first to go.

May will hope to be remembered as the Prime Minister who triumphed by borrowing from Ed Miliband. The distinct possibility is that she will go down as the second Conservative PM brought down by Nigel Farage. 

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.

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