Naked Politics Blogger
Going into the Conservative Party Conference, there was a certain amount of déjà vu surrounding Theresa May and the Conservatives. Austerity. Brexit. Boris. For 2018, see 2016.
Equally the same can be said about the contents of both of May’s keynote speeches. Certainly, her 2018 conference speech had its standout moments. There was no repeat of 2017 and its falling letters, P45, or coughing extravaganza. There was instead ABBA, the ‘Jeremy Corbyn party’, housing, and an ‘end to austerity’. At its heart this was May beyond Brexit, laying out her vision for the future of her party as a more centrist One-nation Conservative party. Writing in the Observer, she made her pitch to the centre even more explicitly clear, directly targeting Labour supporters disillusioned with the loss of the party they knew, and which had become the ‘Jeremy Corbyn party’. A point which she devoted a lot of time to and was at pains to get across. May urged centre-ground Labour voters to look again at the Conservative’s ‘decent, moderate and patriotic programme that is worthy of their support.
The problem is we’ve seen this rhetoric before. May’s premiership started with tackling the ‘burning injustices’ of society before using the 2016 conference speech to set the party on the path towards the centre-ground of British politics. Yet this was no mere reaffirmation of May’s One-nation Conservatism. Instead, the speech was a resuscitation of such ideas. Another attempt to revive the One-nation rhetoric in the eyes of the voters whilst there was still time. Only it appears more likely that the grab for the centre will fall on deaf ears.
May’s centrist pitch has been met with a certain amount of scepticism and dismissal, far more so than when similar notions were put forward only two conferences ago. Clearly, the Tory One-nation tradition is a key piece of rhetoric for May, but one that will prove far more difficult to convince voters than in 2016. Attempts to pull the party towards the centre have been non-existent at worst and overshadowed at best.
Both May and the party have been more occupied with the political behemoth of Brexit rather than fulfilling the One-nation vision that her 2016 speech suggested. Whilst Brexit has stifled the centrist narrative May explored in 2016, and any accompanying policies, it has also strengthened the Tory right-wing and further boosted the profiles of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. With this has seen an uneasy accompaniment of what many perceive as an uncompassionate and right-wing approach to immigration; from her ‘citizens of nowhere’ remark to the hostile environment and the handling of the Windrush scandal – a consequence of attempting to appease a strengthened right-wing on the issue of Brexit.
For the Labour supporters, May was appealing to, it is hard to shake off the influence people such as Johnson and Rees-Mogg have on their view of the Conservatives. For many it is difficult to reconcile a party that is reaching for the centre ground whilst at the same time its right-wing personnel have become increasingly popular within the party, evidenced during the conference itself.
The lack of substantive policies to match the centrist rhetoric has meant the chance to build credibility amongst the public as a party prepared to end austerity has likely been missed. Rather than any easing up of austerity under May, it has rolled on unashamedly during her premiership, to increasing anger from the electorate. The centrist narrative cannot just be picked up every conference speech and be expected to make a mark on the public when it has been so divorced from reality.
Nevertheless, it seems that May is determined to be remembered for more than just Brexit. The most significant policy announcement, in a speech with few of them, was the lifting of the cap on council borrowing for housebuilding. Whatever May’s intentions are in matching up policies with her declaration to end austerity, is it all simply too little too late to make a difference in the minds of voters?
May’s 2018 conference speech was one designed to be a broader political pitch to showcase herself and the future of her party as of the centre-ground. Yet that speech had already been accomplished two years ago. Bar significant reversals and changes in policies relating to austerity, such as universal credit, the NHS, and local government funding, it seems that an opportunity to build credibility as a more centrist party and shift public perception on austerity has been lost.
Any chance of Theresa May’s latest pitch to the centre succeeding where the last one didn’t require decisive action that can match the ‘end to austerity’ rhetoric. Even then it might not prove to be enough.