What does Theresa May actually stand for?

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6 October
08:25
October
2016

“Mayism” doesn’t exist yet. To embody an –ism you need a coherent policy agenda, a consistent thread that runs through what you do. We saw that in Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and there’s none of that as yet with Theresa May. But that's not actually her fault.

Quite apart from the fact that she’s only been in the job a couple of months, you have to remember how May became Tory leader in the first place. Because there was no leadership contest, she didn’t have to flesh out her ideas in public. Andrea Leadsom just stood aside, so May didn’t get that focusing, testing experience of having to justify your plans in front of the country. There’s been no indication that she has a personal vision to transform the country, as Thatcher did.

Back when Theresa May was the longest-serving Home Secretary in 60 years, there was a general acceptance that she was on the Tory right, if not quite an arch rightwinger like John Redwood. She tended to pursue policies and positions that were consistent with that – increased surveillance, being against the Human Rights Act, creating a “hostile environment for illegal immigrants,” things like that. But the job of Home Secretary does come with certain expectations of toughness and rigour.

From what we’ve heard from May so far about meritocracy, diligence, saving and working hard, she’s going for very traditional Tory values. She may be seen as pushing a return to a Thatcherite vision simply because she’s a woman. The Amber Rudd immigration policies that were announced at Conference were very British – “British jobs for British workers,” as I believed Gordon Brown coined it – and very much targeted to Brexit voters. So far she looks traditional Tory right, but not too right.

But it takes time for an ideology to develop. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, she had very strong ideas about monetarism, personal freedom and reigning in the unions. But actual Thatcherism as we know it didn’t take shape until the mid-80s. She and her inner circle developed it in Government, by shaping and reacting to events.

When people say that May is boxed in by the Brexiteers and at the mercy of events, you have to remember that this Conference is her first real chance to say anything other than the famous “Brexit means Brexit”. She actually had a decent rationale for handing over Brexit to Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis. It was "OK, you wanted it, you deal with this ticking time bomb." Her decision to activate Article 50 in March 2017 is a long way from the rapid move that Liam Fox or UKIP wanted. Rather than being driven by their agenda she’s taking the practical approach.

We’ve heard her talk about "taking the centre ground". That’s pure electoral strategy. You just cannot win without the centre. Labour have voluntarily vacated that middle ground to go left, which means that there will be a lot of voters up for grabs for the 2020 election. May’s centrist rhetoric is designed to comfort people who might be scared of the Tories moving to the right post-Brexit. It’s her way of saying “We’re not Ukip.” But it’s not an ideological position, it’s a pragmatic one.

Similarly, you have to be very careful about imagining that Philip Hammond’s comments about intervening in the economy mean that May is breaking with Conservatism. Hammond only said they would get involved in key infrastructure projects. Austerity is going to stay in place. In terms of government borrowing, it’s a case of hard times make for hard economic decisions. And Thatcherism isn’t the only kind of Conservatism. The enormous upheaval of Brexit could well require Hammond to commit some dodgy non-Thatcherite interventions just to buy himself some wiggle room.

We shouldn’t mistake that for an ideological decision. Remember, historically the Conservatives are not an ideological party. Unlike Labour, they’ve never been keen on –isms. The Tories have existed for over 200 years as the party of principle rather than ideology, and that makes them rather flexible. So it’s not a criticism of May to say that by not having an overt ideology, she’s actually being quite true to Tory principles. They have always been the party of what works.

Also, don’t forget her shoes. They mean more than you think. As an owner of many a shoe myself, I don’t like the press’s obsession with female politicians’ clothes. But you can’t deny that May is doing something very interesting with her footwear.

She is clearly genuinely enthusiastic about shoes. She talks a lot about them. She’s using them, and other things like her mothers’ scone recipe, to undo her schoolmarmish image and to humanise herself. Theresa May wants to be seen as formidable but not unapproachable, not the Iron Lady II. That’s very interesting considering how popular Iron Lady I remains with the Conservative base.

Essentially, Theresa May is looking for a hook. That could well turn into Mayism as a political programme eventually. But for the moment it’s all about pragmatism. Use your shoes. 

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