We should keep an eye on Theresa May. (For foreign readers, or any Brit who’s just come out of a coma, she’s one of the two runners in the current Conservative party leadership contest, and consequently our likeliest next prime minister.) She delivered a remarkable speech today – remarkable, that is, for a Tory. Most press interest was concentrated on its references to Europe, still today’s hot topic, where May’s problem is that she was a ‘Remainer’ during the referendum, but will need – if she wins – to negotiate Britain’s way out of the EU. But what she says on domestic policy is probably more significant in the longer term. Here it is.
She promises to govern ‘for everyone, not just the privileged few’, which must be a stab at Cameron and Osborne. She vows to put her party ‘at the service of working people’. She advocates regulation of big business to put workers on boards, and curb excessive executive pay. She makes a big thing of ‘equality’, in terms of class, gender and race.
Right now, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you still earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s too often not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.
All terrific – if she means it. And this from a woman who a few years ago drew hostility from other Conservatives by describing them as ‘the nasty party’, in popular perception at least. Since then she’s not vouchsafed many new ideas, save on domestic security, where they appear somewhat alarming to liberals – the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, complaining about the European Convention on Human Rights, and all that; holed up as she has been for seven years in the Home Office, and restricting her stated opinions to that narrow area of policy. But the ‘nasty party’ charge is likely to do her some good now, in convincing those ordinary Conservative members (who are the ones who will decide the new leader) who want something softer, in order to appeal to the wider electorate, than her rival, Andrea Leadsom, the neo-Thatcherite, evangelical Christian, family values, anti-gay marriage, anti-workers’ rights – and all the rest of the baggage that comes along with these ideas – is offering.
Of course the old Tory harrumphers in the shires – there are only 150,000 of them, average age about 65 – may well prefer Andrea’s stronger tipple. If she promised the return of flogging in schools in addition, that would probably do the trick. (Watch out for that.) In which case we’d get Thatcher Mark II as our new Prime Minister; and everything would be ghastly for the country; – but OK for Labour, perhaps.
OK, because it would give a genuinely left-wing opposition party – Labour, or a ‘People’s Front’, or whatever emerges from the current chaos on the Left – something to gets its teeth into at the next general election. As it is, May might seem to offer reasonable ‘progressives’ a viable alternative to current Conservatism, which takes on board many people’s concerns about the way things are going just now. It could bring the Tories back.
And then we would have the problem of knowing whether to trust her on issues like equality and bonuses; any more than we should have trusted Cameron – ‘we’re all in this together’ – last time, or any Conservative before him who has seduced us with similar honeyed promises. (Remember Thatcher’s ‘those words of St Francis….’?) Plus, there are some ambiguities in May’s statement – who exactly are ‘working people’, for example? – and a lot of things her rhetoric doesn’t cover: ‘snooping’ for a start, and Trident, and austerity, and TTIP, and foreign adventures – which we might still get along with the honey. So personally I’d prefer these reforms at a genuine egalitarian’s hands, thank you very much.
In effect, what May has done is what Disraeli accused the Tory Sir Robert Peel of doing in 1845: ‘caught the Whigs bathing, and walked away with their clothes.’ (For ‘Whigs’, read ‘socialists’.) Labour has been splashing around irresponsibly, throwing water (and worse) over each other, at the very time it ought to be coming together and mounting an attack on this desperately wounded government. Meanwhile May is, unobserved, up on the beach stealing their best policies, in a bid to trump them next time. It’s farcical, as is most of the rest of British politics just now. (I can’t wait for when I get back to Sweden, and sanity.) I hope the Labour MPs responsible for this will feel ashamed of themselves, if and when May becomes PM, and then trounces them at the next election. As May just Might.
PS. 11.30 am, breaking news. Leadsom has just dropped out. Does that mean May is the only one left in? Won’t that make the Brexiters cross? Couldn’t they draft Gove (always a Brexiter) in? We’ll see.