“A change is going to come,” declared Theresa May, channeling Sam Cooke, at the outset of her first Conservative conference speech. For her, the Brexit vote was not merely a mandate to leave the EU but to reshape domestic policy. She aspires to redress the social and economic grievances that underlay the referendum result.
It was time, May said, to “reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right”. Her address concentrated its fire on the latter. She assailed those who “just see government as the problem” and the companies that “treat tax laws as an optional extra”.
It is markets as well as borders that May wants to control. Her conservatism owes more to French Gaullists and German Christian Democrats than American Reaganites and British Thatcherites. She heralded the state as a vehicle for “righting wrongs, challenging vested interests, taking big decisions”. The power of government, she vowed, would be put “squarely at the service of ordinary working class [note that rare adjective] people”.
When she attacked the socialist left it was to claim their interventionism for herself. Far from being eroded by Brexit, workers’ rights would be “enhanced”, she pledged. Her commitment to employee representation on company boards was reaffirmed. She lauded the NHS and its founder, Clement Attlee, and chided the last Labour government for expanding “the use of the private sector” faster than the Tories had ever done. After disowning George Osborne’s 2020 budget surplus target, she promised to “invest in the things that matter, the things with a long-term return” – housing most of all. The state would intervene to fix broken energy and broadband markets.
If May sought to appropriate the left’s socialism, she derided its liberalism. In a passage of the Daily Mail’s dreams, she assailed those who find “your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal”. Though proudly progressive on gay rights and stop and search, her social conservatism marks a sharp break with the Cameron era. On immigration, terrorism and crime, she regards “big brother” as the solution, not the problem.
May’s framing of the Tories as “the workers’ party” was one attempted by Cameron. But her predecessor’s class and ideological incoherency (banal Thatcherism, shire Toryism, modish liberalism) made his performance far less persuasive. May’s palpable sincerity and conviction are her greatest strengths.
Her values-led conservatism is combined with political cunning (as the vanquished Cameroons have recently learned). In her speech, she shrewdly embraced what voters like about Labour while condemning what they don’t. Her aim is not merely to defeat the opposition but to render it irrelevant. For a vision of Labour’s possible future, witness the fate of Germany’s SPD.
“No vision ever changed a country on its own,” May cautioned. “You need to put the hours in and the effort too.” Though the Prime Minister will doubtless do that, the epic task of Brexit could yet overwhelm her. But her intent and ambition alone should terrify Labour. It is a mark of the party’s plight that it may not.