Theresa May is heading for a big victory on 8 June, judging by the polls and local election results. What the British people will get from a Conservative government depends largely on one key question: what does Theresa May stand for?
Theresa May is a Christian, a Conservative since aged 12, a free-market advocate, an experienced government minister, and a woman with a strong work ethic and sense of public service. Church, state, and party have all been central to May’s life and development. She is part of the establishment.
May began her premiership in July 2016 with a passionate speech on the steps of Downing Street pledging to tackle the “burning injustices” of inequality. It was to be a government that ruled for all, “a country that works for everyone.” It had clarity and a sense of purpose. Here was what May stood for, a true one-nation Conservative.
There was no need for an election, said May. The Conservatives had been voted in only a year earlier and she would simply implement Cameron’s manifesto pledges until 2020. Here was the first contradiction: how did the planned austerity cuts to 2020, that fell disproportionately on the poor, square with the idea of a country that worked for everyone?
Perhaps this contradiction would be resolved if May ended, or softened, austerity? On entering office, May had quickly sacked the Chancellor George Osborne. At the Conservative party conference, she declared that “it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families.” This included “people who lost their job” and found “themselves out of work.” However, there was no slowdown in welfare cuts. A month after the party conference, May announced that the £12billion of benefit cuts designed by Cameron would go ahead as planned.
Words and deeds weren’t quite matching up: a government that says it works for everyone with a policy that hits the poorest. So far it was Cameron’s policies with May implementing them.
In September, May departed from the script and announced a policy of her own: a return to selective education. Grammar schools were back. Cameron had been against grammars and the overwhelming evidence is that selective education increases inequality, rather than reduces it. Mrs May probably knew this, and the Grammar schools announcement was peppered with the word “meritocracy.” Within two months of the “burning injustices” speech that focussed on inequality, what May stood for had shifted: “my vision is for Britain to be a great meritocracy.”
As a free-marketeer, May’s next idea was a surprise: state intervention in markets. Free market capitalism was clearly getting out-of-hand (see BHS) and it was time to “embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up – and not back – to act on behalf of us all.” On behalf of us all, note. Equality was back in.
May even praised the vision of Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister who planned and created the NHS in 1948: “one of the finest health care systems anywhere in the world.” Despite this high praise, May has continued with the privatisation agenda and the biggest funding squeeze since the service was created by Attlee, resulting in rising waiting lists. Nevertheless, the Conservatives, said May, are “the party of the NHS.”
After publicly castigating irresponsible business owners, like Philip Green of BHS, May announced that workers would be represented on company boards in future, because the Conservatives “truly are the party of the workers.” The following month, May then told business leaders at the CBI that it would be voluntary: they wouldn’t have to do it if they didn’t want to. More friendly advice it turned out, rather than actual regulation or intervention. After all, said May, the Conservatives “will always be the party of businesses large and small.”
You get the picture. May says one thing and does another. Says how wonderful a service is, then runs it down. Makes a promise to one audience, and then withdraws it in front of another. It’s quite hard to keep up with all the contradictory messages. It could be seen as Orwellian “doublethink.” I personally don’t think it’s that thought-through, and nor do some other commentators. At the end of 2016, The Economist dubbed the PM as “Theresa Maybe, Britain’s indecisive premier”, adding that “after six months, what the new prime minister stands for is still unclear—perhaps even to her.”
At the beginning of 2017, May tried again with another vision, “the shared society.” This was “a society that doesn’t just value our individual rights but focuses rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another; a society that respects the bonds of family, community, citizenship … a society with a commitment to fairness at its heart.” It was still unclear what domestic policy agenda might emerge from this vague, uncontroversial statement.
It was equally unclear what Brexit approach the government might take, based on the slogans that May repeated: “Brexit means Brexit”, “I want a red, white, and blue Brexit”, and “global Britain.” Since the general election was called we’ve had a new slogan on repeat, “strong and stable leadership”, and very little on policy.
From “a country that works for everyone” and “a great meritocracy” to “the shared society” and “global Britain”, it was getting quite difficult to pin down what Theresa May actually stands for.
The late Labour MP Tony Benn divided politicians into two types: signposts and weathercocks.
Signposts say “this is the way we should go”, and you don’t have to follow them, but if you come back in ten years’ time, the signpost is still there. The weathercock hasn’t got an opinion, until they’ve looked at the polls, talked to the focus groups, discussed it with the spin doctors.
– Tony Benn, 2009
Mrs Thatcher was a signpost. Mrs May appears, so far, to be a weathercock. She certainly doesn’t know where she’s going yet. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. During the EU referendum campaign, May was a quiet remainer, rarely venturing out to make the case for EU membership. So when the result went against her, she was able to accept it calmly, as a democrat. Putting herself forward as a candidate for Prime Minister, she now took up the leave cause.
A switch from reluctant remainer to pragmatic leaver could certainly be defended. Yet May has moved towards a “hard Brexit” – prioritising immigration control and planning to leave the single market and customs union. The weathercock seems to have felt the winds of change in the country and changed direction accordingly.
Or has she? Perhaps May’s hard Brexit stance is just a Prime Minister with a slim parliamentary majority, appeasing her Brexit backbenchers? The election may have been called to increase that majority (in the face of a weak opposition), thereby giving the PM much more room for manoeuvre, perhaps even switching to a “soft Brexit” – prioritising (“frictionless”) access to the European single market over immigration controls. You just can’t tell with Theresa May.
So where does that leave us, the voting public? If we vote for Theresa May, what are we voting for? Well, I suppose it must be a “shared society” and/or “global Britain”, whatever they mean. Oh, and “strong and stable leadership” of course, or indecision and muddled thinking, depending on your point of view.
If we peel away the veneer of May’s warm words on “burning injustices” and assertions that “we are the party of X, Y, Z”, we see that May has largely followed Cameron’s manifesto, particularly the austerity programme. In contrast to May, Cameron did have a vision driving his policies. The 2010 “Big Society” manifesto (all 120 pages of it) was a conscious attempt to sell the free-market approach of classical liberalism in a public-friendly way: a cost-cutting government, a smaller state, and charities and volunteers in place of public services. It was Thatcherism re-branded. It made sense, even if you didn’t agree with its aims.
Unable to articulate a clear vision of her own, May is left to fall back on the status quo. The “shared society” is probably like Cameron’s Big Society (and austerity) agenda, but with a little bit more help from the government, if you are one of the “just about managing.” I could be completely wrong though.
The problem for us, the public, is that we don’t know what May stands for, and so we don’t know what a vote for May actually means. Mrs Thatcher’s signpost was clear, as Benn pointed out: “she said what she meant, meant what she said, and did what she said she’d do if you voted for her.” However, May won’t say what she will do, refuses to engage in a public election debate, and her communications are largely restricted to three-word slogans. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t know herself what she stands for?
Thatcher’s clearly articulated position meant that “everybody who voted for her shared responsibility for what happened.” The shifting sands of May’s positions make it difficult for the public to share responsibility for what happens through Brexit and beyond: we simply don’t know what’s planned. May is asking for a blank cheque.
If Mrs May is elected on 8 June we will get a hard-working establishment politician, but not a leader with a clear vision. And the kind of country we might live in after a Theresa May Brexit, nobody really knows … including Theresa May.