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The Conservative Party conference will highlight the deep divisions among the Tories

More even than her predecessor David Cameron, conveniently getting himself off the stage for her, Theresa May seems a reversion to a pre-Thatcher brand of Toryism

Saturday 01 October 2016 18:21 BST
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There are deep ideological differences within the Conservative Party, particularly concerning Brexit
There are deep ideological differences within the Conservative Party, particularly concerning Brexit (Getty Images)

Among the cards and presents the Prime Minister received on her 60th birthday was a rather impertinent “Blueprint for Brexit”, gift wrapped with a touch of menace by some of her more adamantine colleagues. On the eve of the Conservative conference, where Theresa May would much rather turn attention to her kinder, gentler brand of Toryism, symbolised by the relaxation of inhumane testing for disability benefits, it is a very unwelcome distraction. Well, it's the thought that counts.

Iain Duncan Smith, John Redwood, Bill Cash, Owen Paterson and Peter Lilley claim that Theresa May could, and should, activate Article 50 and repeal the European Communities Act 1972 as soon as possible and complete the negotiations rapidly. They claim, further, that Britain could do a deal with the EU on a free trade basis while imposing restrictions on the free market of people. It is a familiar argument from the referendum campaign, and is no more credible now than it was then. As Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover made clear this week, any barriers to the movement of cars, to components from Europe and to the movement of skilled managers and engineers across borders would be disastrous for investment and jobs.

As with financial services, Brexit, even under a free trade regime, will reduce competitiveness in the long run. The voices of industry and the City are the ones the Prime Minister should heed, not the sovereignty addicts on her back benches. These Tories favour a “take it or leave it” approach to Brussels. Ms May should certainly leave it well alone.

The referendum that was designed, on a generous reading, to heal wounds in the country and resolve the Conservatives' quarter-century long civil war has done nothing of the sort. Still in her honeymoon period, Ms May is blessed with a divided, often absent, Opposition and in the early stages of her Government, where she may be given the benefit of the doubt. She has shown a careful side, such as calling in the Hinkley Point decision, but also a sure populist touch, as over grammar schools. The crisis in the NHS and the doctors' strikes have quietly faded away. On welfare reform, on race and policing, and even workers' rights, she has displayed an unexpected liberal streak. There will probably be no such thing as “Mayism”, such is the eclectic collection of policies she is accumulating.

More even than her predecessor David Cameron, conveniently getting himself off the stage for her, she seems a reversion to a pre-Thatcher brand of Toryism. This is not so much “compassionate” or “One Nation” but more plainly pragmatic, managerial and above all focused on delivering what the voting public wants, unfortunately including some sort of Brexit. Unlike the Eurosceptics in her own party and in Ukip, the bulk of the electorate agree with her that we have to just work hard to secure the best possible deal, even if this means keeping up morale with rather empty words about Britain's global opportunities.

The May honeymoon may end relatively soon, if not at this conference, which will be more coronation than conflict. The divisions on Europe will not disappear, and her slender Commons majority may not be sufficient to secure approval for her eventual Brexit deal. Much the same goes for her grammar schools initiative and some of the tougher measures the Chancellor will need to take in his first Budget. The winter will produce its annual strain on the NHS, with industrial action still never far away. Heathrow and HS2 are also deeply divisive decisions. So Ms May should enjoy her cake and champagne today; things won't be so sweet for long.

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