James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Is Theresa May the real heir to Tony Blair? Her closest supporters would wince at the comparison, but she has more in common with Blair than the Conservative usually compared to him – David Cameron. For, like Blair, Theresa May has junked the traditional labels of left and right, and is making a successful grab for the mainstream of British politics, leaving political opponents in disarray.
Many remember Blair as a metropolitan moderniser. In reality he rose to power with clear, retail-friendly appeals to the provincial English working class and lower middle class. Openly patriotic, initially accommodating of euroscepticism, tough on crime and sensible on taxation, Blair’s strategy of “triangulation” made Labour acceptable to voters that previously voted for Thatcher. He dominated British politics at the end of the 1990s as a result.
Cameron never managed the same because of his fascination with niche issues like the environment and his desire to focus social policies on the poorest. While this latter approach might have been laudable in itself, it never chimed with the affluent working class and lower middle class bloc that make up the bulk of the provincial English electorate. His 2015 election campaign – which secured a majority on the back of a more relevant campaign – showed what might have been.
Just as Blair understood the late 1990s electorate and how to dominate the mainstream, so Theresa May does in the late 2010s. The political context has changed – and May and Blair have nothing in common in policy terms. But their political strategies are essentially the same: do whatever it takes to dominate the mainstream and let opponents make themselves irrelevant.
In doing so, May has made three crucial decisions. First, as I’ve written endlessly, she’s shifted the focus of the Conservative Party to the priorities of the affluent working class and lower middle class. On day one as Prime Minister, she announced she was going to address the concerns of those “just about managing”. Whatever the phrase of choice, she’s rightly focusing on the mass of C1/C2 voters.
Second, she’s accepted last summer’s referendum result, and not tried to fight it. While the result was narrow, she knows provincial England delivered a leave vote and that it will revolt if politicians undermine the referendum’s verdict. Related to this point, she’s also publicly accepted people voted out largely because of concerns about immigration – and accepted the need to radically reduce it. She hasn’t tried to persuade these leave voters they’re wrong; on the contrary, she said these voters are right.
Third, she’s unveiled the outlines of an industrial strategy to revitalise those parts of the country that were hurt by de-industrialisation in the 1980s and 1990s. Riding on the wave of the regional devolution deals pushed through by Cameron’s Government, she is developing a new economic programme designed to make devolution work in practice for the country as a whole. It’s about a popular economic policy.
Those people looking to find what it is that Theresa May really stands for may find out one day. But in doing so, they’ll miss a fundamental point that explains the here and now: she takes decisions designed to dominate the mainstream. Those people looking to anticipate what she’ll do next should keep this in mind. It’s been a useful guide so far.