This time last year, I was writing about Cameron’s clever attempt to move the Conservative Party into the centre ground of politics, left wide open by Labour’s shift to the left. Yet, somehow, the policies brought forward by Cameron and Osborne never really lived up to the promise. Prioritising the elimination of the deficit, harsh Tory cuts particularly from the welfare budget and local government – were seen to hit those most in need. Not only did they fail to eliminate the deficit, but people did not feel that ‘we’re in this together’. Twelve months on, the Tories have a new leader, and Britain its second female Prime Minister. How would she position the party? Was it to be continuity or a departure from the Cameron and Osborne era?
A few right-wing moves and digs, such as Amber Rudd’s suggestion that companies might be asked to list the proportion of overseas staff they have on their books, has been met with horror by some. But among the wider population the proposal (which the Tories might already be backtracking on) has received the backing of 59% compared with just 26% who opposed it. Then there was May’s reference to “activist, left-wing human rights lawyers haranguing and harassing the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces”. I haven’t seen any opinion polls on this one, but if I were a betting girl I would suggest that pitting lawyers (any type) against our armed forces will see the latter win every time (and quite handsomely). May’s positioning was said to bring together elements of the Daily Mail and Ed Miliband, with the Daily Mirror headlining with ‘Shameless PM clutches for Labour votes in bid to reshape UK without an election’.
“It’s not always glamorous or exciting, but at its best it’s a noble calling”. This was May talking about government but she might just have been talking about her father’s profession, a Church of England clergyman. May’s more humble background compared with the more privileged beginnings of her predecessor could be why she appears to have a much sharper understanding of the divides in society. It’s hard to fault May’s analysis of the social divisions and what’s gone wrong in society and could just as easily have been made by a leader of the Labour Party, though she has perhaps done a much better job of setting it out than the current or previous Labour leaders in recent times could have done.
In her speech May talked about the Conservative Party as the party of business, the defender of the markets, and the party of low taxation. But in each of these areas she discussed about the failings, the need for reform and corrections. Particularly striking was the threat to “tax-dodgers – we’re coming after you” – and also the middle men who help them evade taxation, an area where the Government has already started to bring forward legislation.
I have previously written about the changing social and economic times and the role of taxation. May seems to get it and, perhaps more importantly, appears determined to do something about it. She displays a conviction and determination that is lacking in so many other politicians. Yes, she has a small majority, but she also has a weak and divided opposition. While Corbyn may have a strong mandate from Labour members, the same opinion polls that showed him comfortably winning a second leadership election contest also show he cannot lead the Labour Party to victory in a General Election. May’s vision is bold and if she follows through on her support for intervention to correct for market failures there may be a lot at stake for businesses, but also opportunities to influence the public policy agenda to ensure the new PM manages to strike the right balance. And if she can deliver her vision, and much will depend on the Brexit negotiations and the impact on the economy, she could be set in Number 10 for many years to come.
With the major conferences out of the way, my next piece will provide a round-up of party conference season. Messages, themes, who’s up, who’s down and what the future holds for the respective parties.