16 May 2017

Theresa May and the battle for the Conservative Party’s soul


One of Theresa May’s most impressive qualities is her willingness to give offence. In 2012, she stood before a baying crowd at the Police Federation – whose budgets she was slashing – and told them to “stop pretending” they were being “picked on”. Two years later, she returned to tell the Federation that she was breaking open its closed shop. Then there was the relish with which she dispensed with George Osborne and Michael Gove.

But there is one insult of May’s which is still echoing through the Conservative movement – and may, Brexit apart, provoke the defining battle of her premiership.

It came in her first conference speech as leader, when she announced that it was “time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up – and not back – to act on behalf of us all”. Doctrinal free-marketeers were effectively being told that they were on a par with Jeremy Corbyn.

Months later, May is about to give the Tories their most solid grip on government for at least 25 years. Predictions of the size of her majority range from the commanding to the colossal. For Conservatives, this should be a time for rejoicing.

And yet in conversations across Westminster, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how worried many Tories are. For those on the Left of the party, she is assembling a coalition of the hard Brexiteers – drawing in former Ukip supporters by prioritising immigration control over Britain’s economic links with Europe. And for those on the Right, her talk of workers’ rights and energy price caps represents an alarming deviation from good sense – to the point where she is starting to seem more Miliband than Maggie.

Indeed, as the months have rolled on, it is entirely clear that May is serious about her revolution – or perhaps counter-revolution. There is the energy price cap (a very bad idea, as price caps always are). There is the promise of “the greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history”. There is the way May invoked the prospect of making Britain a low-tax, low-regulation state like Singapore as a ghastly spectre. There is even a suggestion that she and Philip Hammond would quite like to raise taxes rather than cutting spending further.

It’s possible to exaggerate the extent of May’s intellectual heresy. She has also spoken – eloquently – of how she wants to create a “Global Britain” that is open to the winds of competition. Her plans for workers’ rights may appeal to her target voters in places like Chesterfield (from where CapX’s Oliver Wiseman has filed a fascinating report). But as the New Statesman points out, the fine details suggest that the tanks being parked on Labour’s lawn are “the kind you buy from Toys R Us not BAE Systems”.

Yes, her joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, took tea with Miliband’s guru, Maurice Glasman. But with the Shadow Chancellor committing Labour to naked expropriation – claiming that Parliament will set the price at which it buys back privatised utilities – the clear blue water between the parties is still more ocean than brook.

Yet it’s also true that the vision of Conservatism that will be set out in Thursday’s party manifesto, and which will run through May’s governing agenda, is a very different beast to what has gone before.

Last year, in a column for ConservativeHome, Nick Timothy prefigured that line about the “libertarian Right” with a section on the two types of people who bedevil the Tories.

First, there were those “who frankly do not care very much about others”: “They reveal themselves through minor acts of snobbery, strange comments that betray a lack of understanding about the lives of ordinary people, or when they are councillors or Members of Parliament by the policy positions they take”.

Second, there were “the libertarians who make it a mark of their ideological machismo that they quote Ayn Rand, whose heroic character Howard Roark boasted in The Fountainhead: ‘I recognise no obligations toward men except one: to respect their freedom.’” People like this, Timothy said, should be kept “away from the cameras, out of high office and ideally nowhere near any position of influence in the Party”.

It was in that same column that he defined what he called “Erdington modernisation”, a new vision for the Tories pitched at “the people whose lives are most affected – for better and worse – by politics”:

“They can’t choose to send their kids to a private school when the schools around them are terrible. They can’t opt out of the NHS if they find themselves in a dirty hospital or at the end of a long waiting list. They are the ones who find themselves out of work, on reduced hours, or with never-ending pay freezes when the economy goes wrong. They find themselves unable to afford the mortgage when interest rates go up. They have to go without when their taxes rise. They are the people for whom debates about tax credits are not about spreadsheets, headlines or dividing lines but about whether mum can go back to work or not.”

This kind of conservatism, as I wrote on CapX a few months back, is suburban rather than metropolitan. It’s as an updating of John Howard’s (incredibly successful) pitch in Australia: she will do what it takes to champion the economic and cultural interests of the ordinary, decent citizens who are the backbone of this country. If that means putting the weight of the state behind them, so be it.

There’s a reason this recipe is, as Oliver noted, hugely popular. Recent research from the Social Market Foundation, which I wrote about at the time of publication, shows that the dominant tribes in British politics, at least numerically, are what you’d generally think of as traditional Tory and traditional Ukip voters: patriotic, anti-immigration, socially conservative. Crucially, these voters are entirely happy for the power of the state to be deployed, so long as it is deployed on their behalf.

May’s advocacy of these ideas, it is important to note, is not a new thing. Indeed, the same spirit runs through her key initiatives as Home Secretary.

Yes, her key achievement, an impeccably Thatcherite one, was doing more with less. Between 2010/11 and 2015/16, the number of crimes reported via the Crime Survey of England and Wales fell from nine million to six million –  even as police budgets were slashed by 22 per cent in real terms, with forces losing 12 per cent of police officers on average.

But during her time in office, she was also firmly in favour of controlling immigration – and endlessly frustrated by the rules that prevented her from doing so, and by the arguments of those (such as George Osborne) who stressed its economic benefits. She consistently came down in favour of greater power for the state to protect against terrorism, rejecting the civil liberties arguments of David Davis et al. Even the prohibition of modern slavery, which she justifiably regards as her proudest achievement, was based on further government intervention, not least the creation of new offences.

This is why it will be fascinating to watch what happens after the election. Because for all their efforts to define themselves against the Cameroons, May and her team actually share something in common with them: they are a small clique which has captured the party’s commanding heights.

Yes, May has made an effort to restore decision-making by Cabinet. But on a day-to-day basis, individual departments have had far less autonomy than under Cameron: there has been no Gove or Duncan Smith or Clarke bringing his own project to the table. Report after report suggests that the pecking order in government goes May first, Timothy and Fiona Hill second, with the rest trailing in far behind.

Under Cameron, most of the parliamentary party felt shut out of decisions – not least because to get ahead it very much helped to have come from the right social set, or at the very least to have married into it. Yet while the Cameroons were always a minority within the parliamentary party, they did have their outriders, those MPs and journalists who had been making the case for Tory modernisation since the apocalypse of 1997. And they were able, via programs such as the notorious A-list, to tilt the subsequent intake of candidates in their favour.

One of the most striking things about May, however, is that there are no outriders. As she famously said when launching her leadership campaign: “I know I’m not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars.”

Yes, those ministers and advisers who worked with her were loyal to her – strikingly so. And her work with the Women to Win campaign built her a base of support. But the tight ship that May runs means there are, for example, few columnists making the case for her, explaining (as they did with Cameron) precisely why Downing Street is thinking what it is thinking, or expounding the meaning and merits of Mayism. And the hurried selection of candidates means the views of the new cohort are largely unknown.

So the big question confronting the Tory party, as it awaits the publication of the manifesto on which it will fight an election it is bound to win, is whether this new vision of Conservatism will end up as a complement to traditional orthodoxies, or displace them altogether.

What, for example, will the manifesto have to say about tax, or the deficit? What will be the priorities in Brexit negotiations? Will policy towards the City, for example, be more Philip May or Nick Timothy? How will the inevitable post-election reshuffle change the balance of power? And to what extent will the influx of fresh faces change things? Will the Class of 2017 act as “Theresa May’s team”, or will they chafe against her more interventionist impulses?

Over the course of the next parliament, the answers to such questions will help determine whether Mayism ends up as a theory or a movement. And given the Labour Party’s decrepitude, that debate – or perhaps battle – may well be the most significant in British politics.

In his 2001 party conference speech, after his second election victory, Tony Blair described how he’d been approached by an old colleague. “Come on Tony,” he said. “Now we’ve won again, can’t we drop all this New Labour and do what we believe in?”

“It’s worse than you think,” Blair replied. “I really do believe in it.”

The reason for that disquiet in Westminster is that it is gradually dawning on the Conservative Party that Theresa May really does believe in it, too.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX