Even had Theresa May’s speech been a feat of oratory, it would have been underwhelming. Faced with the greatest challenge of her political career, the Prime Minister offered mere tinkering: 25,000 new affordable homes, a potential cap on energy prices (set by Ofgem) and a freeze in university tuition fees (at £9,250).
The speech provided neither the message nor the policies that the Conservatives need to regain the initiative. They cannot simultaneously denounce Jeremy Corbyn as a “Marxist” while offering lukewarm versions of his proposals.
But there are crucial reasons for the party’s inertia. One is ideological. After decades in which they have championed economic liberalism, the Tories are struggling to adjust to a new era in which the market is not working for the majority.
May’s electoral humbling has further limited the space for her to break with Thatcherite dogma. Most Conservative MPs continue to believe that salvation lies in the market, rather than the state. Few are prepared to think the unthinkable (such as raising taxes on the wealthy).
Since leaving No10, May’s former co-chief of staff Nick Timothy has expressed his consternation at the conservatism of the Treasury and the Department for Business.
The troubled state of the public finances also reduces the scope for action. As the Financial Times’s Chris Giles has revealed, two-thirds of the £26bn that Philip Hammond reserved as a “Brexit buffer” is set to be wiped out by anaemic growth. The deficit is now not due to be eliminated until at least 2025 (a decade later than promised). Both the Chancellor and May are fiscal conservatives who run shy of Keynesian solutions (such as major investment and tax cuts).
Finally, Brexit – the greatest challenge any post-1945 government has faced – absorbs ever more of ministers’ energy and capacity. May’s speech showed her determination to be remembered for more than EU withdrawal (an outcome she campaigned against). In the heady days of 2016, she dreamt of achieving a new ideological settlement, as Attlee and Thatcher did. But the obstacles to doing so now appear insurmountable.