Almost three months into the job, we now have an answer to the question: what does Theresa May stand for? In her hour long speech, May delivered her approach to a different type of conservatism rooted in the centre-ground, with a new appeal to those on the right and unhappy voters on the left looking for a new moderate home.
What May’s speech today shows is that she isn’t just content with taking that mandate to leave the EU, she also wants to change the way Government works to define a very different role for the state from her Tory predecessors.
Without the opportunities to set out a distinct agenda in the brief Tory Leadership race, all eyes were on Theresa May’s conference speech today for a clear vision and mission for her government. After what has been a lacklustre series of addresses from the podium, the new PM had to deliver. And she did. In spades.
Her oratory was croaky at times, crashing the applause and with a Clinton-esque cough, but the message was simple and direct. She has a vision for a new type of centre-ground politics, a step change from the liberal metropolitanism of Cameron, Clegg and Blair, and this was its first outing. The plaudits and applause from the party faithful is well earned but now is the time for reflection. The move to the centre-ground, the land-grab of Labour’s traditional issues married well with the right wing red meat of Brexit and grammar schools. The new role of the state as an enabler intervening in markets where they are failing had distinct echoes of Michael Heseltine, and whilst this might not be every Tory backbenchers’ preferred theme it is hard not to see it as a vote winner.
One question is how this new championing of intervention sits with the (May approved) aim of the ‘three Brexiteers’ to make the UK the champion of free trade, and how far right-wing Tory MPs will be satisfied with rolling back what they see as the EU State, only to see an even larger UK state take its place.
Large chunks of May’s speech could have been delivered by any moderate Labour Leader but making hay of Labour’s speedy retreat from the centre ground under Corbyn this was an unadulterated land grab for it. Some unkind beasts have wanted to compare Theresa May to Gordon Brown. That’s unfair. But she did borrow a fair bit from Ed Miliband today. Marrying together soft left equality and analysis with Tory pragmatism and ruthlessness is quite a potent combination.
Change is coming. We know that because it was a word used with effect time and time again in May’s speech. Change for Britain’s relationship with Europe, change for Tory policy and change for how Government sees its role in a post-Brexit Britain.
Delegates will be leaving Birmingham knowing they’re miles ahead in the polls, their new Prime Minister’s approval ratings are steady with opponents that are weak and divided. There is only one party in town these days and that’s the Tories. Theresa May delivered on the biggest speech of her career to date and with it she buried the 40 year free-market, liberal consensus in the Conservative Party. The state is back, and the challenge now is to put that decidedly different Conservative agenda into action with a slim majority and without an electoral mandate from the people. If you thought politics might be calming down a little, then think again.