Whatever happened to Theresa May’s politics of the “common good”?

Many in her inner circle were disdainful of libertarian free market dogmas. 

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When I interviewed Theresa May in February she quoted – or rather, more accurately, paraphrased – Edmund Burke. This piqued my interest. Before meeting May in Downing Street, I’d had several wide-ranging conversations with her joint chief-of-staff Nick Timothy about attempts being made inside No 10 to remake Conservatism for our age of upheaval. Timothy, Will Tanner and others who had gathered around May were disdainful of libertarian free market dogmas.

They wanted to create a national popular politics that would attract the working classes in large numbers. These “post-liberal” Mayites weren’t sympathetic to socialism. But their politics was more communitarian than the insouciant liberalism espoused by the Cameroons.

I carried the spirit of my conversations with Timothy into the Prime Minister’s office and, to her credit, she made a decent attempt at articulating a new Conservative politics of the “common good”. At one point, I asked what kind of conservative she was. She looked bewildered. “I’m a Conservative,” she replied, as if no more needed to be said. But it did, it really did, as we discovered during the election campaign.

Searching for purpose

The Conservative party conference in Manchester was generally considered to have been a disaster. The general election result and the rise of Corbynism have spooked the Tories. I kept meeting MPs who were ravaged by doubt: what is our purpose, they asked, what are we for?

Anxiety creates opportunity, however, and behind the scenes and at fringe events, there was some serious thinking being done. The most stimulating event I attended was organised by Dean Godson’s Policy Exchange and it asked: “Is the intellectual momentum all with the left?”

The speakers were the philosopher Roger Scruton, the former Prospect editor David Goodhart, the MPs George Freeman and Nicky Morgan, as well as the ubiquitous Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has the gift of making people smile as soon as he opens his mouth and who seems to be enjoying his new-found fame.

Of the speakers, only Rees-Mogg expressed admiration for Jeremy Corbyn. He said that a “golden thread” of principle ran through everything the Labour leader said. The Tories, by contrast, had become “complacent”. They believed that socialism had been “defeated” and that the consensus – “Thatcherism tempered by Blairism” – was enduring. This would not do. Rees-Mogg wanted a politics of principle, which for him amounted to a hard Brexit, unrestrained free market economics and social conservatism (he did not mention his position on abortion).

Only Scruton – after some high-flown romantic disquisitions on the legitimacy of representative democracy – seemed prepared to acknowledge that something fundamentally was wrong with capitalism. He appealed for a patriotic and cultural conservatism that reached out to “ordinary people” but also “qualified” capitalism. 

Courting controversy

The last time I’d seen Scruton was one recent morning in a ticket queue at Kemble station in Gloucestershire. I was surprised to hear him ask for an OAP’s concession. I’d always considered Scruton to be a young fogey and now here he was as a fully-fledged pensioner. It occurred to me that I’d not actually spoken to him in person since interviewing him in his rooms at Albany, in London’s Piccadilly, when I worked on the Times in the late Nineties.

His politics were not mine, but as a student I used to read him – his books on the history of western philosophy, aesthetics, and the metaphysics and ethics of Kant – and he was an interesting editor of the Salisbury Review, which became notorious when it published an article by a Bradford headmaster called Ray Honeyford who was alarmed by multiculturalism and the ghettoisation of Asian Muslim children. The controversy forced Honeyford, who was accused of racism, into early retirement. In hindsight, he understood that educating children to embrace cultural and linguistic separation would undermine social cohesion.

A nation adrift

Clive James wrote recently about seeing the American comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello die on stage in Sydney in the 1950s. “The two stars, who had done this sketch 1,000 times, produced their lines with fluency for the first five minutes, but after that the silence got to them and they lost control of their tongues, their breathing… The fear they projected is with me yet, but they were pros, so they didn’t run. It would have been better if they had, because this was their primary material. What happened when they reached their secondary material is not to be described. I saw a man in tears. It was Costello.”

I was present for Theresa May’s speech in Manchester and it was poignant to watch her struggle: you could say she died up there on that stage. May is a pro and she did not run. But I think I saw fear in her eyes as her voice dried up and her words fragmented. A year earlier, in Birmingham, she had been so dominant, as during her triumphalist speech she denounced both the libertarian right and the socialist left and took aim at deracinated cosmopolitans. A year later, she seemed terribly lost.

The day before her big speech I watched as May was rushed like a fugitive from her car and into the Hilton hotel at Deansgate. She was preternaturally pale and seemed haunted, even hunted. She was not enjoying this. She was enduring it – out of ambition but also out of a stubborn sense of duty, admirable in its way. I wrote in the summer that hers had become the masochism premiership. Now, in the autumn, she seems to have no greater purpose than to occupy the crease and take the blows. It is joyless. And this joylessness is affecting not only her fractured party but the morale of the nation, which feels leaderless and adrift. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled