1) ‘ONE OF US’
In the middle of Theresa May’s speech, energy firm SSE unwittingly tweeted the perfect metaphor for this summer’s momentous change in Downing Street: “We’re sorry for the #PowerCut affecting #ChippingNorton and surrounding areas. We have engineers en route.”
Yes, David Cameron’s Oxfordshire home turf was literally out of power. Step forward the engineer, the doer, the fixer, Theresa Mary May.
Twelve months ago, Cameron’s own Tory conference speech gave the most cursory of mentions to his Home Secretary, lavishing praise instead on his most likely successors George Osborne and Boris Johnson. What a difference a year makes.
And from the moment May stepped on stage today, to the incongruous strains of Sam Cooke’s ‘Change is Gonna Come’, it was clear her party loved her.
Unlike Cameron, she was a former local councillor. Unlike Cameron, she hadn’t taken the gilded special advisor route to power. Unlike Cameron, she actually enjoyed being with the volunteers who make up the party’s foot soldiers. To her party, to paraphrase another female Tory leader, she’s one of them.
Even the delivery of May’s speech underlined the difference with her predecessor. Whereas Dave smoothly used the autocue like a TV host, and even one year memorised his entire speech with no notes, Theresa stuck firmly to a paper-based script on the podium.
Yet just as Jeremy Corbyn proved he was more confident and comfortable in the spotlight last week, this was May’s most relaxed and fluent performance on the big stage. The early gag about Boris, the overarching theme of helping working people, the hug (not a kiss) from husband Philip at the end, all worked. Just 84 days in as Prime Minister, she looked the part.
2) BREXIT MEANS MANDATE?
Of course, the very reason May is in power is the brutal verdict of the voters in the EU referendum. She talked of “the quiet revolution that took place three months ago” (perhaps a dig at Craig Oliver who calls his old boss ‘the quiet revolutionary’), but added that it made the task of reforming Britain “ever more urgent”.
Although none of her team will publicly admit it, the Brexit vote was May’s very own general election. It was a very curious election, as she wasn’t a candidate, and in fact backed the wrong side. But it swept Cameron from power and May linked her prospectus today to what she saw as a cry of pain from the nation on June 23.
Having scotched talk of an election before 2020, her team think her mandate for change derives directly from the Brexit result. We’re told that she believes she is acting on all those conversations she had with individual Maidenhead voters whose doors she knocked on every weekend while Home Secretary. It’s not exactly scientific, but that was the focus group driving today’s speech.
The list of areas where she now plans to intervene - immigration, energy bills, housing, regional growth, ‘bad bosses’ – was long. It’s not at all clear that the people of Britain voted ‘Leave’ because their rural broadband speeds were slow, but that didn’t stop the PM from citing it as part of the frustrations of those ‘ignored’ by the London elite. She seems to forget that the referendum was a binary choice about the EU, not a multiple-choice menu of options.
One of the most striking hints of intervention was on Quantitative Easing (QE), the multi-billion pound scheme to give firms cheap credit. “We have to acknowledge there have been some bad side effects. People with assets have got richer. People without them have suffered. People with mortgages have found their debts cheaper. People with savings have found themselves poorer.”
When asked if this was a signal that QE would now be wound down or axed, aides simply said the Treasury had a role and that we would have to wait for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. No.10 has since scrambled its spin operation to say that she was not at all trying to influence monetary policy set by the independent Bank of England. Let’s see if the hint was deliberate or unintentional.
3) LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT
In one passage of her speech, May repeated the riff ‘It’s just not right…” We were told that it’s just not right that rural broadband doesn’t exist, that energy customers have high bills, that the housing market is failing. However, her solutions were not just right, they were left.
No one can call May a ‘red Tory’, but some policy answers she floated sounded like they were pitched at ‘blue Labour’ voters, the type of skilled and unskilled workers who swing elections in marginal seats.
All policy property is theft, of one kind or another, but this was her driving her panzer division onto Labour’s lawn, aka ‘the new centre ground’. Regulation of energy bills was a cheeky nod to Ed Miliband’s only electric moment of his entire conference speech-giving career.
New ‘social mobility’ areas, a review of Sport Direct-style employment abuses, axeing unfair disability welfare tests, all were an unashamed pitch at Labour voters who feel Corbyn has abandoned them. May even had the chutzpah to include Clement Attlee among her list of great Prime Ministers (this was for the creation of the NHS, not a wider drive for new nationalisation, aides pointed out).
And there was the passage that made her sound more like the left campaign group UK Uncut than a Tory PM: “if you’re a tax dodger we’re coming after you..If you’re an accountant, a financial adviser or a middleman who helps people to avoid what they owe to society, we’re coming after you too”.
4) MAGGIE MIX
In the warm-up act for May, another no-nonsense Tory leader, Ruth Davidson cited that classic Margaret Thatcher quote: “If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
May herself namechecked Mrs T only once, referring to ‘Lady Thatcher…who taught us we could dream great dreams again’. But there was a Thatcherite bite to her attack on Labour’s left, as well as her onslaught “those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave” of our armed forces”.
There was the echo of Thatcher too in her line that government is “about doing something, not being someone”. In the Meryl Streep movie ‘The Iron Lady’, Maggie opined that politics “used to be about trying to do something - now it’s about trying to be someone”. And May’s USP has long been that she is a doer, not a blatherer.
Yet today’s speech was all about a Thatcher-style focus on the striving classes, delivered through non-Thatcherite means like state intervention. There were also repeated references to ‘society’ and citizenship bonds that make society work.
May even had a pop at Thatcher’s old dancing partner Ronald Reagan, whose famous line was that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” Many Tories are more pragmatic and here was their PM talking about the good that government can do, and its ‘noble calling’. “Where many just see government as the problem, I want to show it can be part of the solution too,” she said.
Still, Thatcher’s defenders point out she was a capitalist not a corporatist, and loathed cronyism. May tried to square the circle too: “The Conservative Party will always believe in free markets. And that’s precisely why it’s this party that should act to defend them. Where markets are dysfunctional we should be prepared to intervene”
The problem with saying you’re a doer is that you actually have to do things. At the Home Office, despite all her claims to be a ‘deliverer’, May failed to hit her net migration pledge. And she oversaw not just a rise in EU migration (out of her control) but in non-EU migration too.
On Brexit, May believes she ought to be allowed to privately hammer out her policies and then announce them fully formed to a waiting world. On domestic policy, the public may not be so patient. Especially as she herself talked today of the challenges being ‘ever more urgent’. We heard a long list of problems today, but virtually no specific policy answers. She can’t afford to be Theresa Maybe for long.
5) PREMIER DIVISION
It was 14 years ago that May used a party conference to warn that the Tories were seen as ‘the Nasty Party’. She tried to flip that round onto Corbyn’s Labour today with a claim that it was ‘not just divided but divisive’. She attacked the SNP’s ‘divisive nationalism’.
However, the real problem of this week has been how May’s team suggested some policies seen as deeply divisive by many voters, including floating voters.
This wasn’t a speech that tried to claim she would be a great healer of a nation riven by the EU referendum. ‘The 48%’ (who voted to remain in the EU) were effectively told to suck it up. And some of the ideas seen this week made the Conservatives sound more right wing than UKIP.
Thanks to Jeremy Hunt’s signal that foreign doctors were no longer wanted, May’s line that “I want us to be a country where it doesn’t matter where you were born” begged the caveat “unless you’re a medic”. I don’t think May realises just how badly that whole ‘British docs for British workers’ idea undermined all the warm words about the NHS being safe in her party’s hands.
Amber Rudd’s idea of a name-and-shame list of firms who employ too many foreigners also looked like a huge, needless own goal. Already slammed by business, it risks winning round a hardcore of voters while alienating others.
As much as May may loathe the ‘liberal elite’, it’s the liberal ‘mainstream’ she needs to be careful about. The Tories can target Labour marginal but they also need to hang onto those Lib Dem switchers who delivered Cameron his majority in target seats in 2015. Even Priti Patel, no shrinking violet on the issue of migration, is understood to have been dismayed by the rhetoric this week.
The Lib Dems have singled out May’s ‘snooper’s charter’ redux in today’s speech, with its threat to take action against “a household name [clearly Facebook] that refuses to work with the authorities even to fight terrorism”. The push for new grammars, albeit watered down, is another area where it’s hard to claim she’s in ‘the centre ground’.
Which brings us full circle. A year ago, May delivered a conference speech that was so tough on asylum and immigration that it was dubbed “chilling and bitter” by charities and others. She firmly believed she was right at the time and that she has been proved right since by the Brexit vote.
But to throw her own quote back at her, Brexit meant Brexit. For all her door-knocking, it didn’t formally mean anything else. Navigating just what the public really want, and delivering it without alienating huge swathes of mainstream opinion, may be the challenge of her premiership.