Theresa May’s John Lewis Britain
Theresa May’s John Lewis Britain
If John Lewis ran the country, it would probably fit the description of Britain set out by the Prime Minister in her conference speech today. Efficient, fair, a mutual but certainly not the co-op, slightly old fashioned in outlook but with nods to modernity. A place where middle England feels comfortable but not smug.
The traditional Tory appeals to business, wealth creators and enterprise were there – just – but balanced by criticism of the “actions of a few tarring the reputations of the many”. Applaud success but celebrate citizenship as well.
The speech had marked differences to Cameron or Thatcher. More like John Major in tone, her vision of fairness and opportunity for everyone regardless of background was buttressed by some distinctly untraditional ideas including workers on boards. Like all successful leaders, she gave a speech crafted to appeal to her various factions – right and left, liberals and conservatives, little Englanders and internationalists. She talked frequently of the need to make life better for the ‘working class’, a term rarely used today in political discourse even by Corbynites, and claimed the NHS and Clement Attlee as part of her one nation appeal. Her defence of her proposal to end the ban on selective grammar schools was clothed in Blairite language of ‘why should choice only be for the rich?’
Her commitment to industrial policy – emphatically not picking winners but “identifying the industries that are of strategic value to our economy and supporting and promoting them through policies on trade, tax, infrastructure, skills, training, and research and development” – marks a return to the post-2008 Mandelson approach, continued by Coalition Business Secretary Vince Cable but retired by the more Thatcherite-inclined Sajid Javid before May moved him to manage Communities and Local Government .
And her speech hinted at why, despite supporting Remain in the referendum, the tone of the whole conference has been so strongly pro-Brexit when she said “too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.”
Business has been very much on the defensive in Birmingham this week. Boris Johnson’s dismissal of the ‘gloomadon-poppers’ was seen by many as an attack on the City, business organisations and the Treasury and was echoed in many of the speeches and fringe events. Many business people attending the conference were shocked at the strength of hard Brexit sentiment and suspicion of business.
The Prime Minister herself however denied that the country faced a binary choice between soft and hard Brexit. She said in both her speeches that while she intended that the eventual deal with the EU would leave the UK in charge of immigration and not subject to the European Court of Justice, she also expected it to include free trade in goods and services and British companies enjoying the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within the single market.
Of course the commitments on immigration and legal jurisdiction are definitive whereas single market access is necessarily aspirational. The coming months will see whether faced with the economic assessments of Treasury and forecasts of the impacts on the City of London, the balance of argument within cabinet changes. Today in Birmingham, the political imperative was to demonstrate to her party that she was firm in her commitment to making Brexit work.
But Theresa May’s analysis of the resentment against the elites was genuine enough. It also echoed many of the previous week’s Labour conference speeches. The situation faced by the two parties could not be different but their starting points coincide. And in both cases, the political realignments which have taken place within the parties over the last 12 months are alarming to the people who have held power for the last few decades.
But there the similarities end. Labour is in chaos whereas for now, the Tories are demonstrating unity behind their new Leader. The conference this week and Theresa May’s speech today reflect a determined political strategy to redefine the centre ground in her own image and in the new political circumstances forced by the June 23rd referendum. Whether she has the space or time or majority or political goodwill to see it all through could well become apparent very quickly.