“Seize the day!”, the Prime Minister told her followers yesterday, a Churchillian tone in what should be seen as an historic speech. For Theresa May not only seized her moment but gave notice that she sought to seize the political ground currently occupied, rather uncertainly, by her principal opposition – Labour and Ukip.
This is what Ms May defines as the “new centre ground”, which, roughly speaking, equates to traditional centrism plus Euroscepticism: there is her political homeland.
Not since the heyday of Tony Blair have we witnessed such an audacious raid on political opponents’ language, policies and ideas. Some of it could have been delivered by him. Never before has a Conservative leader spoken so passionately about racial injustice or social inequality. Even her worst enemies – some in the audience in front of her, the Cameroons conspicuous by their absence from their own party shindig – would have to admit that she spoke well. And yet, in her passages on immigration and Europe, there was no mistaking where she was coming from – a wing of politics that is unpleasant and extreme. Nasty, in fact.
Ms May gave notice, in more forthright terms than before, that she wants her party to change direction, to become the party of “ordinary working-class people” (a phrase used with studied repetition), the party of industrial strategy, of intervention in dysfunctional markets, the enemy of greedy business and corporate tax dodgers. She spoke of citizenship as a duty and gave a homily, curiously reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan, about the selflessness of the Brownlee brothers.
When Margaret Thatcher talked about the Good Samaritan she pointed out that he didn’t just have good intentions but money as well. Like so much of what Ms May said yesterday, this was a stark break with Thatcherism. The Prime Minister was even emboldened to attack “the libertarian right” in the same breath as the “socialist left”, and praised, of all people, Clement Attlee. She said “thank you” to doctors and nurses.
Whatever next? Being nice to the unions? We are promised workers on the boards of, one assumes, larger companies, so we shall see.
Encouraging as this modern rhetoric was – revolutionary in some respects – the real question is how many of her ambitions she will be able to deliver, given that the economy is about to undergo a recession made in Downing Street. Grammar schools, for example, are not as universally popular in her own party as she might wish to think, with former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan looking to form the nucleus of an “awkward squad” over the reform.
Far more problematic is, of course, Europe. No one expects someone whose catchphrase is “Brexit Means Brexit” to abandon the idea, and she has set down her “red lines” for negotiation, on immigration and the European Court of Justice. However, as her Chancellor and others have indicated, Brexit could also make the nation poorer and the public finances still more stretched, and thus jeopardise her plans for infrastructure spending and (presumably) future tax cuts for working families.
Her determination to cut immigration can only lead to a meagre trade offering from the EU. That would be bad for economic growth, and all that flows from it. She ought not, in other words, repeat the error of her predecessor and become so spooked by the issue, by the Ukip surge and by the referendum result, to sacrifice the jobs and prosperity of those very “ordinary working-class people” that she seeks to support.
While laudable in some respects, her speech, like that of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, flirted much too closely with the notion that migrants are depressing wages generally and taking British jobs from British people. That is a dangerous game, even more dangerous than Brexit itself.
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