Britain’s second woman Prime Minister is tight-lipped about its first one – but, then again, being so about nearly everything is her default setting. Perhaps there is no more to her reticence than that. Or maybe it is a dog that isn’t barking in the night, sending us a message we need to hear. What could this be?
The best place to begin searching for an answer is to acknowledge that some of the policy differences between the two women are being exaggerated. Theresa May does not support a big state: in her very first major policy speech outside her ministerial responsibilites, she said that it should be “small, strong [and] strategic”. Nor is she planning to abandon the Cameron-era pledges to cut corporation tax to 17 per cent, or raise the threshold at which the 40p income tax rate is paid to £50,000. Today’s Conservative manifesto will thus reiterate two major tax commitments to two heartland Tory constituencies – business and the better-off. And the Prime Minister is sticking by a smaller, unpopular one, even at the cost of losing some votes: the pro-hunting lobby and its supporters.
Nor, for that matter, is her so-called Red Toryism as crimson as is sometimes claimed. Many of the headlines generated during the last few weeks will look less alarming to liberals if they peer at the small print. May wants more council houses, but it isn’t clear where the land to build them on will be found. She supports more rights for workers, but it isn’t evident whether taking leave to care for a family member, for example, will be paid – and nor is she planning to scrap the employment tribunal fees that David Cameron introduced. She has resuscitated a requirement to put employees on boards, but it looks as though companies will choose them. The red spray is mixed with blue paint.
But the Prime Minister represents Conservative change as well as continuity. Thatcher’s 1983 landslide defined a settlement that even Tony Blair’s bigger one of 1997 did not challenge. The state was rolled back, nationalised industries were privatised, the tripartite system of government scrapped, the trade unions tamed, council homes sold off, income taxes cut. Labour rejected some of that legacy (eventually raising the top rate of income tax, for example), but embraced much of it (such as using the private sector to provide services for the NHS on scale that the Tories would never have dared to risk). May, straining for her very own landslide, looks to go further than Brown and Blair in seeking to show, as she puts it, “the good that government can do”.
She doesn’t want to state to get bigger, but she does want it to intervene more. The industrial strategy won’t seek to pick winning companies, but it will search for winning sectors. There will be an energy price cap – not the relative one floated by John Penrose and others, but an absolute one. ConservativeHome is concerned about the politics of some of this and the drift of much of it. There is a danger of a ratchet leftwards, with Jeremy Corbyn haring off to the left and the Prime Minister plodding after him. May is also in danger of igniting the first serious Tory row about economics since the early 1980s, with free marketeer backbenches holding her legislation up. Above all, a corporatist approach would sit uneasily with an Open Brexit.
But while we agitate about the detail, the Prime Minister sees the big picture – and has assimilated its scale and size more clearly than her Thatcherite critics. The Conservative Party travels through the landscape of its times. These are not the same as they were in the era of Thatcher’s first landslide, over a quarter of a century ago, any more than they were a quarter of a century or so before that, when Harold Macmillan won his own overwhelming victory in 1959. The world has globalised. Family structure has been transformed. The western world has low birthrates and high immigration. Britain is a multi-racial country. The Soviet Union has collapsed and Islamist terror has risen. The crash happened and recession followed.
Free market absolutists will claim that the former took place because there is too much crony capitalism, and too little of the real thing. They have a good point. But the argument only draws one deeper into probing whether the system works as well for the working man and woman as it did in Thatcher’s day. There are three big reasons why it does not. First, relations between capitalism and nationalism are strained now in a way that they weren’t then. Many of those who do well out of it feel they have more in common with their counterparts abroad than their fellow citizens at home. If you doubt it, ponder the politics of immigration – and look, to pluck just one example out of the air, at how George Osborne at the Evening Standard now beats a pro-migration drum.
Second, the changes in the way we live now have created winners and losers. The latter are simply out-wrestled by Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants – failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency. For those who can’t read or are mired in debt or trapped in substance abuse, the traditional free market nostrums of lower taxes, a smaller state and less red tape are not so much wrong as irrelevant: if a man isn’t working because he can’t count, cutting taxes won’t help him. Finally, capitalism in the western world is simply not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it was in the immediate post-war period. Welcome to the gig economy.
May’s greatest strength is that she, and the close team who work with her, grasp all this and the “burning injustices” that it can cause – hence her Erdington conservatism. True, her gaze appears to be narrowly fixed either on the individual or the state. She seems to have less feel for everything in between: what David Cameron called the Big Society, the great three-dimensional internet of clubs and charities and voluntary groups and faith communities that are so much more effective at fixing social problems than the state. But in any modern western country, the state will stand behind them – co-ordinating, innovating, cheerleading and, yes, funding. It gets a great deal wrong. None the less, if it wasn’t there, much of this provision wouldn’t be either.
We will have seen more of the Conservative Manifesto by the end of the day. But what we know already is that May, if she can win her own landslide, wants to correct the liberal excesses of the Thatcher era by making peace with the state – of seeing it, as this site puts it, not as Big Brother, but Little Brother. This ground has the merit of being where most voters stand: very, very few speak the Westminster Village language of making it bigger or smaller. And the Prime Minister seems set to use her mandate to do much of what this site has been pressing it to do – such as dropping the tax pledge and ending the pensions triple lock, thereby setting the scene for more flexibility in deficit reduction and more fairness between the generations.
It isn’t yet clear whether May will push further to boost the technical education Britain needs, get to grips with families policy and overhaul a discredited political system (she could start by having a good long hard look at the abuse of honours), but the signs for this manifesto are good. Thatcherism was right for its times, and has lessons for today. But the world has moved on, and the Conservatives must move with it. This is a Party, not a mausoleum. None the less, the Prime Minister’s plan contains a stinging irony. May, the former Remainer – as Thatcher also was – has not only embraced Brexit but grasped, perhaps more fully than any other British politician, what it means, what the British people wanted in backing it, and where it is leading.
It is Brexit that is empowering May within her own Party, because the free marketeers are so often Brexiteers too. Since she has won their trust over the EU, they will forgive her views on the market – for the moment, anyway. And it is Brexit that is gaining her what modernisers call “the right to be heard” – not in BBC boardrooms or West Kensington or the Guardian‘s offices, but in the Leave-backing midlands and northern citadels of the white working class. We will see next month if the Prime Minister can alchemise this permission into votes – far, far away from Gina Miller Britain. Thatcher won the backing of the C1s and C2s. The convulsion of Brexit offers the Prime Minister the opportunity to reach even deeper. If she can, not much may be left of Labour afterwards.