Naked Politics Blogger
During the EU referendum campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for the lack of vigour he displayed defending European integration. This fed in to a wider criticism of the Labour leader that questioned his ability dominate on a national platform and cut through to the wider electorate. For the first couple weeks of the current election campaign however, the pressing question seemed not where is Jeremy Corbyn, but where is Theresa May? Limited exposure in the national media, journalists and members of the public banned from hustings, cautious statements regarding policy intentions and a refusal to participate in televised debates.
Then, after the initial quiet, we began to see more of Maidenhead’s very own Emperor Palpatine, who began firing off the double-barrelled shotgun of “strong and stable” across the nation. This was coupled with the an excruciating sofa chat on the “One Show” in which presenters Matt Baker and Alex Jones desperately tried to extract some level of personality from the Primer Minister and her husband. The interview reminded me of NASA’s 2008 Phoenix mission to Mars, where robots scanned a barren wasteland searching for some sign that life could exist on a planet light-years away from my own.
And now the Tory Manifesto has landed and we finally have our first real political manifestation of “Mayism”. As expected, there is a clear break from Cameron’s liberalism with a clear emphasis that there will be state intervention (albeit limited). This also signifies that May and her team are distancing themselves from a purely Thatcherite economic ideology, even if they continue to evoke the spirit of Thatcher in May’s image as a forceful female leader.
So what can we learn from this? To put it bluntly, May’s conservatism abandons the “Big Society”, whilst accepting that there is such a thing as society. One of the key architects of Cameron’s Big Society was the advisor Steve Hilton, famed as being the “blue-sky thinker” who cycled into work at number ten wearing no shoes. He brought a new-age form of spin to Cameron’s leadership that tried to frame the Tories as being green, socially progressive (e.g. gay marriage) and above all modernising. This was part of an overall strategy to embrace the centre-ground on social issues in order to broaden their appeal, while pushing through an intensely neoliberal and right wing economic agenda.
In Armando Iannucci’s satirical television series “The Thick of It”, the character of Stewart Pearson (who is directly based on Hilton) is sacked by the Prime Minister. In his parting speech, he says:
“I spent ten years detoxifying this party. It’s a bit like renovating an old house, you can take out a sexist beam here, a callous window there, replace the odd homophobic roof-tile, but after a while you realise that this renovation is doomed, because the foundation is built on what I can only describe as a solid bed of …”
Well, I won’t finish the sentence as I’m not allowed to publish the last word on here, but you get the sentiment. Why am I sharing this with you? Well it seems to me a very useful metaphor to illustrate some of changes that are going on within the Conservative party at the minute. The referendum halted the restoration project, and Theresa May looks set to demolish it.
Cameron and Osborne always tried to construct an image that on the whole, things were getting better for the majority of people: we are modernising, we are moving forwards by limiting the state and we are living within our means. They tried either to deflect attention from, or outright deny the cruelty of austerity. The referendum has changed the political landscape. It has shown that you can win votes, indeed a majority of the electorate, by capitalising on anger and discontent. That is to say, you stand to win a lot of votes by acknowledging that things are not necessarily getting better for most people.
At the heart of May’s conservatism is an attempt to sweep up the millions who voted UKIP 2015, as the party faces an existential crisis now Bexit is materialising. She is, therefore, far less afraid of appearing reactionary. You only need to look at the policies on fox hunting, grammar schools and the European Convention of Human Rights for evidence of this. Buckle your seatbelts; we might be seeing a return of the nasty party.
On the other hand, May has claimed that if elected, she will bring about an expansion of workers’ rights like no other Tory leader before her. A blue Prime Minster claiming to be a champion of workers’ rights is a bit like having your local butcher tell you they are considering vegetarianism. No matter how sincere they sound, you shouldn’t trust them. What next for the Tories? Maybe they’ll go the whole hog and roll out election mascots Mr Strong and Mrs Stable, wearing braces and flat-caps and doing a knees-up version of rule Britannia in an attempt to appeal to working class voters. We are living in strange times; I wouldn’t entirely rule it out.