As I See It
Could Mrs May become Mrs Maybe not?
Theresa May has inevitably drawn comparisons to her late predecessor Lady Thatcher. It has prompted a range of sobriquets from Iron Lady 2 to Maggie May. If the polls are to be believed she could become Maybe Not.
With voting intentions narrowing, Mrs May herself has admitted that Jeremy Corbyn could yet get the keys to Number 10. It would take only six seats to swing it.
Like Lady Thatcher, she wants to do things her way, but is having trouble making her case, whether it’s for Brexit or pensioner care. She is a dedicated unionist. A true blue. But she is yet to prove entirely convincing.
Thatcherism became a dictionary word to describe the former Prime Minister’s brand of economics. By rejecting the equally inevitable labelling of her policies as “Mayism”, Mrs May retorted that she stands only for conservatism.
Ah, that old chestnut. Just what is conservatism these days?
Students of politics (like this writer) were told that it stood for “traditional values, continuity, a belief in individual freedoms to choose”.
There was, for past generations, a comforting factor in conservatism. That nothing much would change, or at least not change very quickly. It stood for stoicism, for confidence but not arrogance. It defined Britishness itself, as opposed to those foreign afflictions such as marxism, socialism and other rebellious philosophies that represented an overhaul of the system and the established way of doing things.
Over recent generations the shortened form – “Tories” – has been turned from deferential into a term of abuse. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon seems to spit out the word as if she was chewing a wasp.
Modern conservatism has also been seen as a broader church than the old monied and aristocratic classes it once represented. Grammar school boy Edward Heath marked a change from the Churchill-Eden-MacMillan-Douglas Holme strain of establishment Toryism with its Eton and Oxford connections. While “ordinary” Britons had always voted for the party, he was the first to give it a proper public face.
Even so, he was not exactly of the working classes. Nor was his successor, though she was a vocal proponent of the “One Nation” Tory, another of those defining statements.
This is trickier territory for the Conservatives. The notion of its being a party for all men and women has often faltered on the altar of experience. Those from the poorer classes argue that they have never been embraced by the Conservative party, while the Scottish nationalists, by definition, are natural opponents of any sense of one British nation.
It partly explains George Osborne’s plan for the “northern powerhouse”; on the face of it, a desire to allow economic growth to expand beyond the south east, and playing on the roots of British industrial might whose decline has been accompanied by a cynicism towards anyone declaring to represent the whole nation. Mr Osborne found himself on shaky ground here, not least because of his own Etonian background which barely made him a natural advocate for the mill workers in the north.
That brings us back to Mrs May’s intention to represent “all of the UK” and to reach out to the “working” people. By adopting this approach, she is also attempting to park her tanks on the opposition’s lawn, to kill off Labour by stealing its ideas and its supporters.
Just as the SNP has become the representative of working class voters in Scotland, and in the process almost killed off Scottish Labour, so Mrs May believes the Conservatives can appeal to Labour voters in England and Wales with a series of policies mimicking their policies and their voters’ demands: price caps on energy companies, protecting the rights of employees, curbing executive pay and putting workers in boardrooms. In truth, a vindication of Ed Miliband’s policies in 2015.
Where Mrs May and her fellow Conservatives often trip up is in their real understanding of working people. From the poll tax riots to the wipe-out of Scottish Tories in 2015, the working people have given their answer.
When Michael [now Lord] Heseltine visited the north east of England amid the riots of the late 1980s he told the angry mob there were jobs available in new hotels and restaurants (actually, fast food joints). What he failed to understand was the reason for their anger.
These were young people and their fathers who had lost well-paid full-time jobs in the shipyards and coal fields that his government had shut down. Some of them resorted to living on the black market which, in their eyes, had become the legitimate economy, as opposed to the one that Michael Heseltine recognised. It paid far more than serving burgers.
It is this sort of disconnect, a failure to grasp the reality of life on the breadline, that has maintained the gulf between One Nation Tories and the people they believe they represent.
Mrs May is in danger of making similar mistakes by talking up her “working people” credentials while unveiling policies that will remove their benefits, including winter fuel payments and ending free school lunches for infants.
The Tories will say that these measures are designed to make sure they are properly directed at those most in need and that working people will be better off. That’s not how the public will see it. And the narrowing of the polls suggests they still don’t trust the Tories on social care.
If the working classes remain sceptical, or even angered by the reality of some of the party’s proposals, Mrs May has also managed to upset the business community who will pay for them.
On top of those measures listed above she continues to resist campaigning for a smooth Brexit and plans new powers for regulators to stop takeovers. There is talk of higher taxes and most seriously of all, she threatens to limit immigrant labour and to double the levy that companies pay on those they do employ.
When her party is so far ahead in the polls these are unnecessary own goals that risk making Mrs May’s return to Downing Street more difficult than it should be.
She is said to have waited 20 years for her chance to enter Number Ten, but her decision to bundle all of her plans into one manifesto betrays an eagerness to please.
As such, and like Chancellor Philip Hammond’s ham-fisted and ultimately flawed policy on raising national insurance contributions for the self-employed, Mrs May’s to-do list looks a little hurried.
A snap poll is one explanation for such raw policy announcements, but if she is to retain credibility she has to deliver them intact, and the ‘working’ people, as well as business, must be prepared to take the consequences if she fails.