Theresa May’s speech yesterday morning was supposed to be the launch of her full leadership campaign. As events transpired, it was also the final speech of her leadership campaign – shortly after, Leadsom withdrew her candidacy and by teatime it was all over.
Had the contest continued for two months, as originally planned, we would have had a wealth of material by the end of it in order to work out the direction of the new Prime Minister’s administration. As it is, we have precious little to go on from the curtailed race.
There’s the speech announcing her leadership bid, in which she placed herself squarely as the continuation of Cameron’s “open, inclusive, One Nation agenda of social reform”. Her emphasis then was on the need for experience and stability – a message which played to her strengths, but which was also dictated by the then-competitors she was facing. Given the early stage of the process and the relatively crowded field, she provided little detail of her ideas, preferring instead to stress her leadership qualities. She made clear that any government of hers would not be defined solely by Brexit, but would pursue a programme of “serious social reform” – targeting the “burning injustices” of racial, social and gender inequality. But this was a beginning, not a manifesto launch – understandably, she promised more detail to come.
On the following Sunday, in an interview on ITV, she raised a complicating factor. In defence of her pledge not to hold an early election, she argued that the Conservative Party has a responsibility to deliver on its 2015 manifesto. This, then, cannot be a completely new era, replacing the ideas of the past wholesale, unless there is a new mandate – and, thus far at least, she does not intend to seek one. So the May administration will not just inherit the values of Cameron’s leadership, it will also inherit a variety of the specific policies.
It was yesterday that we started to get some more red meat on policy beyond the EU issue. This was her own personal take on One Nation Conservatism: “We will make Britain a country that works for everyone – whoever you are, and wherever you’re from.” That meant recognising the pain suffered by “ordinary working people” in the years since the financial crisis, from the impact of VAT rises to the cost of higher energy prices and the harm done by QE to those who aren’t already on the property ladder. This was a hint at a liberalising agenda, to “put people back in control of their lives”.
But when Mayism becomes a concept (and it will, even if the word currently feels tricky on the tongue), it will not be a laissez faire beast. While she sees a reactive role for government in clearing the way for individuals to improve their own lot, her speech left no doubt that she also sees the state as a proactive tool for intervening on a variety of fronts – setting new rules, establishing new policies and spending money to drive growth. Not only does she want her Government to pursue an energy policy to improve supply and reduce costs, but she wants its Research and Development policy to act as an advisor to business, “more Treasury-backed project bonds for new infrastructure projects, more housebuilding, a proper industrial strategy…”
That last point isn’t a new one, but it is contentious. What will such an industrial strategy look like? Some proponents, most recently Vince Cable, seemed to use the term as a catch-all for more top-down direction of the economy. Others deploy it as shorthand for a more muscular rulebook, set by the Government, for how businesses should and can operate. For that matter, who will control it? May has set out her demand for such a system, but in practice it will be her Chancellor or Business Secretary who is charged with the responsibility to deliver it – either making the former role even more powerful, or giving the latter a greater clout than it enjoyed previously.
There are certainly signs that she intends to change the rules on which the economy runs. She intends to “get tough on irresponsible behaviour in big business”, including what has become a traditional condemnation of tax avoidance as well as simply on evasion. Her speech delved into some of the ideas touted by radicals on left and right for the reform of corporate governance – placing workers’ representatives on boards, as in Germany, and challenging executive pay with new transparency rules and new powers for shareholders. A May government would apparently intervene directly to enforce a system linking bonuses more closely to company performance, as well as beefing up competition rules.
There’s some heritage to these ideas. At our ConservativeHome conference in 2013 she argued that:
“It also requires taking on vested interests in the private sector. Where businesses abuse their market position to keep prices high, we should be prepared to make sure the market works in the public interest. Where companies at the less scrupulous end of the credit industry prey on the poorest and most vulnerable families, we should use the power of the state to stop them. Where banks and other big companies seem to act in the selfish interests of their executives, but not in the interests of their customers, their shareholders or the public, we should be prepared to change our corporate governance laws.”
Some of her critics have suggested that her experience is too narrow, being limited only to the Home Office. However, it’s notable that as Home Secretary she pursued precisely this type of challenge to vested interests. She took on a policing establishment that had assumed a Conservative would be a more accommodating boss – in fact, because she was a Conservative she was able to be more forceful than her Labour predecessors would have dared, addressing not only past wrongs but also pursuing reforms to deal with modern-day concerns about policing. It seems she now wishes to take the same approach to corporate privileges.
Even back in 2013 she went well beyond her own department in sketching the priorities of a post-2015 government. Her speech laid out the bones of what could now become her industrial strategy: identifying and reinforcing “geographical clusters of industry”, trying to match the education system to expected skills demand and seeking a better process for linking Government procurement needs to the capacity of British companies to answer them. Looking back on her comments that day, they are a manifesto not just for a new government but for a new May government.
When she first announced her candidacy, she emphasised stability of leadership. Political circumstance means that she will have to provide some continuity from Cameron’s administration, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the true stability on offer is the stability of her own thinking over the course of several years. One section of that 2013 speech was titled “Making the Economy Work for Everybody” – a slogan she now deploys repeatedly. For that matter, her insistence that the Conservatives must govern “in the interests of the whole country” contains an even older echo. Her 2002 Party conference speech became infamous for her reference to “the nasty party”, but what came immediately after that comment is often forgotten. She went on to argue that the Party must represent and serve “the whole of Britain”, or else it would fail to reach beyond its core. Fourteen years later, and now in power, she intends to pursue the same objective – with all the tools of government at her disposal.