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Theresa May 25-07-16

Between the end of the war and the age of Thatcher, the guiding ideal of conservatism was One Nation toryism with a patrician flavour – based on the belief, popularly if perhaps mistakenly attributed to Disraeli, that Conservatives should govern in the interests of the whole country, “the rich and the poor”.

After Edward Heath’s defeats in 1974, a conviction grew among many Tories that the One Nation tradition had become decadent: that those running the Party had come to confuse appeasing trade union bosses with caring for the working class.  Margaret Thatcher took a special interest in “our people” – that’s to say, the council tenants who were empowered to buy their own homes; “Essex Man” and his equivalents elsewhere who were encouraged to buy shares in “Tell Sid” privatisations; union members who had become disillusioned with their leaders.

After Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, the view got about that Thatcher had strayed too far from the Party’s One Nation roots, and that the Conservatives had been seen to become “uncaring”.  The most famous illustration of this belief was her often misinterpreted declaration that “there is no such thing as society”.

One reaction to this was what Tim Montgomerie called “Easterhouse modernisation” – Iain Duncan Smith’s interest in the very poorest in society, and the modern “five giants” that held them and others back: “failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, child poverty and insecurity in old age”.  Under Duncan Smith’s leadership, Conservatives began to take a new interest in social justice.

Another reaction was what Tim labelled “Soho modernisation” – the stress of David Cameron in his opposition years on liberal opinion, and the electoral penalty that the Party had supposedly paid by alienating it.  This was the early Steve Hilton period of voting blue and going green, a new commitment to international aid, and (so the new Tory leader’s critics argued) “hugging a hoodie”.  “Let sunshine win the day,” Cameron once declared in a Hilton-crafted line.

Later, in Government, Cameron began to take a renewed interest in social mobility – partly because of his interest in it, partly because it is widely believed to have stalled (though this is disputed), and partly because his team had become nervous that voters believed his Government to be led by “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.  His “Party Conference speech of 2012 stressed “aspiration”.  In the wake of his 2015 election victory came his Life Chances Strategy.

As Theresa May’s new team begins to get its feet under desks in Downing Street and government departments, I have been trying to assess how it wants to be the same, and how it wants to be different, from these previous approaches to what Conservatives in government should do.  I have been guided by the key texts – her speech to ConservativeHome in 2013; and her two leadership campaign launch speeches (see here and here) and by talking to Government and Party sources.  The new Government -

  • Won’t be haunted by patrician reflexes about One Nation.  May referred to One Nation passingly in her Parliamentary stage campaign launch speech.  But it didn’t get much of a showing in her membership stage one – which was less read because its delivery coincided with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the contest – or in her first words outside Downing Street as Britain’s new Prime Minister.  David Cameron’s Government was haunted by the Posh Boy charge, illustrated by the claim as the last election approached that “There are six people writing the manifesto and five of them went to Eton; the other went to St Paul’s”.  Theresa May herself party went through the state system; the Chancellor of the Exchequer is state-school educated; so is the Party Chairman; the Education Secretary is the first Tory occupant of the post to have been wholly schooled at a comprehensive.  As far as I can see, there is now only one Old Etonian attending Cabinet – Boris Johnson.
  • Isn’t much taken with Soho conservatism.  May complained in her second launch speech that “fixed items of spending like energy bills have rocketed” and said that she “want to see an energy policy that
    emphasises the reliability of supply and lower costs for users”. The Climate Change Department has been folded into the new Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department.  Not much of what Cameron is meant to have called “green crap” there.  He attempted during the Coalition years, as public spending growth slowed, to move bits of defence and foreign affairs spending into the International Aid budget.  I expect this to continue under Priti Patel.  There is likely to be a new stress on aligning aid with the national interest.
  • Won’t give up on social justice and Easterhouse conservatism, but its main focus won’t be on Easterhouse conservatism and the poorest in society.  Having helped to create Britain’s record employment levels, Iain Duncan Smith’s own emphasis is on tackling in-work poverty.  I expect to see him campaign on this from the backbenches and in the new alliance emerging between the Centre for Social Justice and the Legatum Institute.  May is focused on particular social justice issues: “The misuse of stop and search and deaths in police custody and modern slavery”, as she has put it, but I’m not sure that we will see her visiting Easterhouse any time soon.
  • Is still committed to boosting social mobility, but believes that this cause has its limits. “If you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others,” she said in her original launch speech – and went on to cite barriers to opportunity experienced by black people; white-working class boys; state school pupils, women, people with mental health problems and young people.  So the cause of social mobility still burns brightly.  But my sense is the flame is set a little lower in one particular way.  One view of social mobility is expressed in that image of a man climbing a ladder to the top of society.  I think that the new Downing Street’s focus is, rather, on the majority who simply want to get up a single rung – to see their life and their families’ get a little bit better.
  • Wants not so much social justice or even social mobility… “If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school,” she said in that second launch speech.  These are the voters May has especially fixed her eye on – the “ordinary working people of Britain”, perhaps living in or near Birmingham, where she made that speech, or elsewhere outside the greater south-east.
  • …As social reform.  She used that phrase in her speech – “serious social reform” in “a country that truly works for everyone”.  (A slogan that is currently being borrowed and adapted by Hillary Clinton.)  The idea of social reform has old roots.  Joe Chamberlain’s local government achievements in Birmingham – lauded by Nick Timothy, her co-chief of staff and our former columnist – is in that tradition.  I have always felt we should have a different model, that might…be called Erdington modernisation, named after the working-class area of Birmingham,” he wrote on this site. The Party would adopt a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people.”

What might this mean in practice?  Here are three guesses.

  • Building more homes.  Sajid Javid apparently takes his responsibility to deliver this – with Gavin Barwell, the new Housing Minister – very seriously indeed.  It may be that the Planning Framework, originally put in place by Greg Clark, Javid’s predecessor, is tweaked more than might otherwise be the case.
  • Continuing the stress on apprenticeships and vocational education. See May’s ConHome speech on identifying “the training and skills capabilities we need, and tailoring its policies accordingly. It could encourage the establishment of more technical schools. It could work with schools and business to get more young people studying science, technology, engineering and maths. It could fund deep discounts in tuition fees for students who want to study degrees like engineering, where we have a shortage of skilled workers”.
  • Getting off Q.E.  “Monetary policy in the form of super low interest rates and quantitative easing has helped those on the property ladder at the expense of those who can’t afford to own their own home,” she said in that second launch speech.  But it will be hard to deliver this change at the same time as delivering Brexit.

All this feels to me like Thatcherism, but with a difference.  May shares her predecessor’s interest in “ordinary working people” – but without the overarching aim of shrinking the role of the state (remember that yet-to-be-unveiled industrial strategy).  She is in many ways unlike the man who ran the successful Conservative election campaign last year, with his concentration on “ordinary people who play by the rules”, but perhaps the question should be asked: is our new Minister the thinking woman’s Lynton Crosby?

43 comments for: May’s mission. Not so much social justice or even social mobility as social reform.

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