Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Theresa May; the red and purple Tory PM

Has a prime minister ever had such an opportunity to seize and control the political narrative as Theresa May does currently?

Sure, Margaret Thatcher dominated the political weather of her era but she came pre-loaded with a free market ideology which she applied, with more pragmatism than is remembered, during her time in office. And, of course, Blair swept all aside in his climb to power but, despite the country crying out for a change after 18 years of Conservative rule, he was timid in ambition, still fearful of electoral defeat.

Theresa May, though, is an accidental prime minister and already a lucky one. She is unencumbered by the baggage gathered by David Cameron after a decade of leading his party, emboldened by a Labour Party which seems content for now to wallow in protest populism, meanwhile Ukip seems to be permanently locked in petty, internecine battles. May - who was something of a Teflon-coated Home Secretary - is left clutching a broad, blank, canvas upon which she can paint her own vision for the Conservative Party and the country.

And so, we have her first major keynote speech at a Conservative Party conference as prime minister. Broadly speaking, it was a very successful, clever, speech. Much of it could have been written and said by Ed Miliband, bulked up with a few additions from Nigel Farage, though most of his script had been left with Home Secretary Amber Rudd a day previously. Delivered without fuss from a lectern, Ms May didn't feel the need to display any flashy skills. She didn't take a suit jacket off to show she means business, or memorise the whole speech in an attempt to display her oratorical prowess. Down to earth, unfussy and practical, getting on with the job; that was the message.

While many still struggle to come to terms with the result of the Brexit referendum on June 23rd, Ms May described it as being a symptom of wider issues within society. The vote to leave was about a broader vote for change, 'about a sense - deep, profound and let's face it often justified - that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them'. She went on:

'Our society should work for everyone, but if you can't afford to get on to the property ladder, or your child is stuck in a bad school, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you've been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. because it wasn't the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash. but ordinary, working class families.'

Compare and contrast with what Ed Miliband had to say in his conference speech in 2014.

'You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn't care about me. Our politics doesn't listen. our economy doesn't work and they're not wrong, they're right....

'Prosperity in one part of Britain, amongst a small elite. A circle that is closed to most, blind to the concerns of people. Sending the message to everyone but a few: you're on your own. See, think about it for a minute. In our economy, it's working people who are made to bear the burden of anxiety, precariousness and insecurity.'

All three paragraphs could easily have come from the same speech. But, while Ed Miliband suffered a humiliating defeat at the last general election, Theresa May is Prime Minister and received a standing ovation. She is busy taking Labour's clothes.

Corbyn himself recognises this. In his own conference speech, he acknowledged that Ms May knew there was a need for change:

The problem Labour and Corbyn faces, though, is that it currently isn't seen as a viable alternative for government. With that in mind, Corbyn is fortunate that Theresa May has ended speculation that she might call an early election for if she did, it seems fairly certain she would be rewarded with an enlarged parliamentary majority. 

Ms May currently faces bigger challenges from within her own party than the official opposition. Many Tory MPs object to the expansion of grammar schools.  There is a cohort of disgruntled Remainers. And the balance of the House of Lords is also still stacked against the Conservative Party. But all this could change. 

The Prime Minister acknowledges that the whole Brexit process will be a 'bumpy' road, the Conservative Party is still split over what Brexit actually means, and if the economy does indeed struggle as many experts fear, it will be this government that is blamed. Moreover, if her fine words remain just fine words and little effort is made to actually seize the centre ground, this will be noticed and Labour could still return there.

The Labour leader has been dismissed many times but he has weathered an almighty battering. It may be hard to imagine now, but, there is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has galvanised a movement behind him. Many may not recognise it as the Labour Party they have known for decades, but it is huge in number, over half a million in strength, and could still prove a formidable election fighting machine. The next election, however, remains Theresa May's to lose.

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