Political parties can be frighteningly small worlds, with a cripplingly limited cast of characters. As a result, people whose careers are widely assumed to be over – either because they once messed up badly or because their face no longer seemed to fit – can sometimes make startling comebacks. It is this, and not just an understandable desire to prevent the headbangers crying foul when Brexit negotiations inevitably fail to deliver everything they want, which partly explains the presence of old stagers such as David Davis, Liam Fox and (the pro-European) Damian Green in Theresa May’s new cabinet.
The prime minister’s decision to bring these colleagues in from the cold may have had something to do, too, with friendship and wanting to project the idea that, after a decade of domination by thirty- and fortysomethings from Notting Hill, the grown-ups, with the signal exception of Boris Johnson, are back in charge of the Conservative party.
There may, however, be even more to it than that. Along with the fact that Davis, Fox and Green, like many of May’s younger picks, come from relatively “ordinary” backgrounds, they also incarnate ideological strains and stresses within her party that go back a long way but which, judging by her recent speeches, Theresa May and her advisers are hoping to meld to address contemporary needs and concerns.
The Conservative party that so dominated politics in the 20th century was essentially an amalgam of two 19th-century phenomena. On the one hand, there was Gladstonian liberalism, with its emphasis on “economy”, “self-help” and “free trade”. On the other, there was Toryism, with its stress on empire, national sovereignty and on incrementally improving “the condition of England” for the majority of its citizens, who, it was eventually accepted, would come to play a full (if hopefully not dominant) part in its governance.
For the most part, the tension between the two compounds that made up modern Conservatism proved creative but it was a tension no less, one best personified, perhaps, by Joe Chamberlain, the man many seem to be crediting as an inspiration to Mrs May, or at least to her consigliere, Nick Timothy, himself a working-class native of Chamberlain’s Birmingham. “Radical Joe” it was who crossed the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives in pursuit of an end to free trade so as to build a wall around the country and its empire behind which more could and should be done for its people when it came to health, education and welfare.
Certainly, anyone looking for an insight into what, who knows, we might eventually end up calling Mayism should make straight for an essay on ConservativeHome written by Timothy back in March. Entitled “What does the Conservative party offer a working-class kid from Brixton, Birmingham, Bolton or Bradford?”, it attempts both to triangulate between but also to criticise the so-called “Soho Conservatism” associated with the Cameroons and the “Easterhouse Conservatism” associated with Iain Duncan Smith.
Liberal conservatism had its upsides, most obviously equal marriage, but also its downsides, notably its early emphasis on green issues and its continued support for free movement, neither of which is apparently of any interest to that much cited category, “ordinary working people”. Compassionate conservatism’s ambition to help the poorest of the poor may have been laudable but left it with little to say to the many people who, while they aren’t exactly on the breadline, can still struggle to make ends meet and get on in life.
Unless, argued the man who is now May’s joint chief of staff in Downing Street, the Tory party could convince people that it really was on their side, it would not only fail to win a comfortable parliamentary majority, it wouldn’t deserve to either. His solution, however, didn’t lie, as it seems to for some of the Tories who co-authored the libertarian manifesto Britannia Unchained, in robotically pursuing Thatcherism to its logical conclusion: Ayn Rand-style, devil-take-the-hindmost neoliberalism.
Instead, the party needed – yes – to champion fiscal responsibility, law and order and public service efficiency. But it also had to realise that, when savings needed to be made, it should look, say, to trim benefits going to wealthy pensioners rather than tax credits going to hard-working families. It also needed to respond effectively rather than simply rhetorically to their concerns about immigration. Tucked away, too, was a suggestion that the Tories should take housing more seriously.
Fast forward to the speech that Theresa May made to launch her leadership campaign in (where else?) Birmingham, as well as the unashamed pitch for the centre she made just before entering Number 10 for the first time as PM, and a plausible case can be made that, rather than simply being the warmed-over, one-nation platitudes we have heard so many times before from new Tory premiers, her words may hint at a more profound shift.
The source of that shift may not be entirely ideational either. It may also be driven, believe it or not, by the evidence. In a column dedicated mainly (and understandably wryly) to observing some of the similarities between May’s words and that advocated by his old boss, Ed Miliband, for whom he wrote speeches, Asher Dresner refers to a growing consensus that fiscal contraction doesn’t, in fact, lead to more sustainable growth. What’s more, even if it did, he added, growth no longer seems automatically to deliver noticeably higher living standards for all; and that it makes an awful lot of sense to borrow to invest in infrastructure and housing when credit is not just cheap but dirt cheap.
But there is one big problem with this optimistic take on what might become Mayism. For it to have any practical impact on public policy, it will, in a government with a working majority of just 16, have to win the support of parliamentary and cabinet colleagues (including two of the three named above), who will be at best ambivalent about and at worst implacably opposed to this new direction.
Liam Fox, for example, was caught on tape, in 2002, speaking about his plans to talk down the NHS to soften it up for privatisation and “self-pay”. Liz Truss and Priti Patel were two of the Britannia Unchained bunch. Chancellor Philip Hammond may have accepted May’s sensible decision to stop chasing George Osborne’s patently unachievable deficit reduction targets but that does not make him an overnight convert to neo-Keynesianism. And while David Davis may have been brought up in a council house, that doesn’t mean he suddenly approves of them. Sajid Javid, who likewise came into politics after state education propelled him from a humble background into an impressive business career, will be responsible for relations with local authorities and isn’t exactly a fan of the enabling state either. Nor is Chris Grayling or Jeremy Hunt. And as for Andrea Leadsom, the less said the better.
Indeed, the only standout pragmatic centrists in the cabinet are Green (a long-standing stalwart of the left-leaning Tory Reform Group and the modernising thinktank Bright Blue); the cabinet’s two PhDs, business secretary Greg Clark (Economics) and ex-Europe minister, now leader of the house, David Lidington (Elizabethan history), and the ex-miner, party chairman Patrick McLoughlin. Clearly, in the case of the first two at least, the departments they run are by no means bit-players. But they are nevertheless in a very small minority in cabinet.
And then there is the party in the country. Research suggests that while they may support Theresa May, aspects of her agenda will attract rather less enthusiasm – and not just because eight out of 10 grassroots Tories are middle class.
Figures from the British Election Study suggest that 72% of voters believe that ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.
The Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Projectsuggests that only 17% of Conservative party members feel the same. The gap between the public and the Tory grassroots when it comes to the idea that big business benefits owners at the expense of workers is, at 77%-27%, no less marked.
There is one thing on which the public, grassroots Tories, Theresa May, and probably most of her parliamentary colleagues clearly concur – the need to reduce immigration. That, however, only highlights the most glaring contradiction in the new prime minister’s embryonic “-ism”.
Controlling the UK’s borders would go down well with the “ordinary working families” who May says she wants to serve. But if it involves leaving the single market, it will almost certainly make them poorer. Conservatives cannot always reconcile their simultaneous desire for the free economy and the strong state. Which will Mrs May choose?
Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/17/theresa-may-new-brand-of-conservatism