Appropriately, in the week of her first party conference as Prime Minister, there has been an intense focus on what Theresa May stands for, what she “really” believes in, even what makes her angry.
The answer to the last question, asked by Nick Robinson on the BBC Today programme, was “child sexual abuse, modern slavery, when we see the powerful abusing their position”. All fairly safe options. Most people get angry about irrational, trivial things such as being patronised by Southern Rail or someone parking too close at the supermarket so you can’t open your own door to get in the car, or watching your spouse flirt with someone impossibly attractive at a party. But the PM’s answers were what you’d expect from a politician, and they were sincere enough.
In her early days, quite a few people thought they saw something of Margaret Thatcher in May, and maybe she did too. Most thought she was studiously discarding the “Bullingdon” trappings of the previous gang; anyone with a Notting Hill postcode was for the chop in her administration. That’s true enough, but a bit of a negative definition of the makings of the new PM.
By now, the discernible outlines of a highly pragmatic politician are clearly visible. But Theresa May is much, much less even than that. Let me explain.
I take as my text, worth reading again in full, her extraordinary and dramatic first words in Downing Street immediately after her appointment: “If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.
“If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.
“I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.
“When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
Ever since then May has taken every possible opportunity to stress she is not there for the “fortunate” or “privileged few”.
She did it again in her first Conservative conference speech as leader: “The Conservative Party is the true workers’ party, the only party dedicated to making Britain a country that works, not just for the privileged few, but for every single one of us”. This is strange stuff to be hearing from any Tory, let alone the top one.
So far I’d say Theresa May’s main political characteristics, aside from policy that is, can be summarised thus:
1. She is far more popular than her party in the country;
2. She dominates her party;
3. She is more than willing to steal her opponents’ better ideas;
4. She is even more keen on appropriating their language where it is useful;
5. She is super pragmatic;
6. She is cautious;
7. She tells the party she’s doing one thing while doing another;
8. She is happy to take on her party’s vested interests and allies; and,
9. She is unideological: what matters is what works.
Remind you of anybody?
Yes, that’s right. We’ve got Tony Blair back – this time in a trouser suit and kitten heels.
Like Blair, May is a political shape shifter, a chameleon and a cross-dresser. Blair was, after all, the last Labour leader to talk the language of his political opponents and brazenly so, praising business and going on charm offensives in the City to persuade them that they were safe in Labour hands. For the aspirational middle class voters he reached out to them in a way few of his predecessors, and none of his successors, even tried, identifying “Mondeo Man” and “Worcester Woman” as the voters he needed to get him and his party back into power. Labour was, in a memorable phrase, the “political wing of the British people. New Labour governed for the whole country, not one group or interest. It too was in favour of “the many not the few”.
May, by analogy, knows her party has been traditionally weak among the working classes, but when they have won they have done so because they got what we used to call the “C1C2” to vote for them – skilled workers, and those with aspirations to be so. On grammar schools, Theresa May has identified those earning a little below the national average wage – say, £24,000 a year – as her rhetorical targets.
I don’t argue that she’ll succeed, or take a position on whether she’s a fraud or driven by deep moral sensibilities. I merely state that, like Blair, she knows that here the votes are; that is to say, here are the votes her own party has all too often failed to secure to win power.
And she, like Blair before her, will stop at nothing to get her hands on them.
Like Blair, May’s style is cautious. Even Blair’s greatest blunder, the Iraq War, was a cautious policy in the sense that he thought the war would be won rapidly and the opposition to it would subside just as quickly. On the unions, on the Tories’ spending plans he adopted, on public ownership – you name it – he was very slow to act, if at all. He was, in his pomp, though it of as an unusually feline sort of politico; May is, you may have already noticed, strikingly similar.
It will be interesting to see how Theresa May and her Chancellor approach the privileges of the “privileged few”. Crude as it is, if she is to win her missing votes she’ll need to take on the bankers, the mismanaged utilities, the tax avoiding multinationals and various high-profile unacceptable capitalists in the same way Blair took on the unions.
Blair gave the “brothers” comparatively little while he was in Number 10 – just enough to retain their lukewarm support, and after 18 years of Thatcher and Major, that wasn’t much.
A bit of skilful tax cutting for those hard-working families who find life tough, some grammar school places for their children and a sense that her government is behind them in their daily battles with the rob dogs who run the railways and the energy companies, and Ms May will be another electoral sun god, just like Blair.
We’ve got Tony back. Something for the country to look forward to, I’d have thought.
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