Today, Theresa May hit every target possible in her battle for the centre ground of British politics. From corrupt CEO’s, tax evasion and the burden on tax payers in bailing out the banks, to the housing crisis, schools and strengthening workers rights. A marked departure from the ‘strivers or skivers’ rhetoric of the previous government who emphasised employer flexibility and personal responsibility, the overarching tone of her hour-long address to the Conservative Party Conference was one of reconciliation, community and a shift in thinking about investing in and developing British industry, talent and opportunity. Is this the Tory party?
Summer 2016 has seen three coups d’état in Britain that promise to shift the shape of society for years to come. First, in the lead up to the EU referendum, the right wing of the Leave campaign harnessed the bulk of its Brexit support through lies about the financial impact of EU membership and through xenophobia (I’ll remind you of the Nazi-reminiscent ‘Breaking Point’ poster by UKIP for those in any doubt), which divided families and communities. The Leave campaign’s constant over-simplification of the intricate inter-relations between states, governments, corporations, legal bodies and people not only succeeded in muting any Remainer’s attempt to make such complexities understandable (a ten word slogan is always more effective than a drawn out thesis, no matter how important the issue – just look at Donald Trump’s success in delivering his message), precluding any sensible or intelligent debate about the pros and cons of participation that would have at least better-informed the public, be they Leavers or Remainers; but it ruptured a decades long process of fostering tolerance towards minorities and those of different beliefs or languages and heralded the elevation of far-right politics to the centre stage of UK policy.
The second and most obvious coup d’état came in the form of upheaval in the Conservative Party following the referendum result. Out with the Notting Hill/Bullingdon Club élite and in with a more middle class Tory cabinet. And thirdly, Labour fell into the biggest existential crisis since its inception, fighting over how Left-wing it needed to be in order to justify its existence and to justify the mandate of a hugely divisive though not wholly unmerited leader, Jeremy Corbyn, relegating the party to side-show status. Although this process of evisceration may be necessary in the wake of thirteen years of New Labour that saw the ending of free university education, the introduction of the private sector into health provision and an illegal war in Iraq, not to mention two failed general elections, the Labour Party’s damaging introspection and infighting created a vacuum in the golden fleece of politics – the Centre Ground. Cue: a grammar school educated vicar’s daughter, popular, tough on immigration Home Secretary and newly anointed Conservative prime minister.
Theresa May, through the vanquishing of both socialists and libertarians and the calling for corporate responsibility and a new vision for Britain, has the golden opportunity that usually only comes along in the wake of large civil unrest. Think post-WWII or the industrial action chaos of the 1970’s. And with a weak opposition who refutes the mere legitimacy of the centre ground and the millions who voted them into government in 1997 to deliver a progressive version of it, what is there to stop Theresa May now? In a country of citizens with entrenched party allegiances but whom largely agree with the same broad goals of fair taxation, good education, affordable housing and personal freedom it is the rhetorician and orator who speaks most boldly and least divisively that will win the day.
The masterstroke of Theresa May’s speech today was to claim the mandate of her premiership and her vision as a result of ‘a revolution’ in the form of 17m people’s referendum votes for change while isolating and ignoring the right wing who largely brought about the result, and to outline a political, structural, industrial and cultural re-imagining of Britain that robs every progressive party of most of their policy platforms at the same time. Nonetheless, it is a ‘revolution’ that gives her carte blanche to redefine the priorities of the Conservative Party, and in so doing, to redraw the political landscape in such a way as to cement her platform. Her assuredness in what needed to happen in this country barely even mentioned immigration, in fact highlighting the give and take that would be required in Britain’s negotiations with the EU. The pragmatism of her rhetoric is a winner, and will speak loudly to a country of voters who mainly identify as centrists.
Whether rhetoric results in actual implementation is another thing. But by claiming your politics to be centre ground, you broaden the discussion of what the centre ground is and what pragmatic solutions look like to suit your agenda. You want efficient and world-class healthcare that’s free at the point of use but you don’t want a massive hike in taxes, a huge and expensive overhaul of public administration or for other public projects to be compromised? Then perhaps a centre ground Tory policy of allowing private providers to invest in their presence in the market will be a pragmatic solution. Want cheap housing for your kids without a freeze in home values that would affect your own asset(s)? Maybe you’ll agree that slackening planning regulations that prevent affordable homes being built on public land is a compromise worth making? Want to make the UK the post-Brexit Singapore of the northern hemisphere? Maybe you’ll support even more attractive tax conditions for businesses and Foreign Direct Investors, but which are heavily enforced? What do the alternatives to these pragmatic, centre ground approaches look like? Socialism or libertarianism, according to the prime minister. And most people want neither one nor either of them.
What remains to be seen is the implementation of actual policy, and whether Theresa May’s more progressive vision for the Tory party can actually be realised by those she’s appointed to cabinet – those whose ties to the establishment and to big business may hinder the very change that she has outlined. Getting the country on board will be a walk in the park compared to getting the right wing of her own party to tow the line. And as for Labour, they have an uphill battle ahead if they want to outflank the government on policy and investment in communities. The best hope that they have in reclaiming a mandate to rule the country is that May turns out to be all talk and no action, in which case they will have to re-intimate themselves with the notion that the centre is not the enemy to the Left, and then remind the public that PM May’s plans were in fact Tory versions of policies that the Labour Party has championed ever since Thatcher. This may eventually mean for Labour voters that a new leader who can speak the centrist language that chimes with both Left and Right as successfully as Theresa May has achieved today, will be the only way to win back parliament.
Until then, the new centre ground looks definitively blue.