On her first day in Downing Street May inherited David Cameron’s legislative and policy prospectus as set out in the Queen’s Speech delivered last May. That is a programme based on the popular mandate Cameron secured in the 2015 General Election which gave him a slim working majority in the Commons.
May enjoys no such mandate. Her mandate is fundamentally different. Her assessment is that when the 17.4m British people voted to leave in the referendum last June, they did not vote simply to leave the European Union. They voted to change the way the country works and the people for whom it works. It was, she believed, a ‘quiet revolution’ by those who felt the system had been stacked against them for too long. May saw the referendum outcome as an instruction to the government to build ‘a stronger, fairer Britain that works for everyone, not just a privileged few’.
How to achieve Brexit in practice and to address the grievance of voters who felt marginalised through years of accelerating globalisation? May has played her cards close to her chest. But in two recent speeches she has set out what she wants to achieve in the remainder of the Parliament to replace the pre-occupations of a liberal and cosmopolitan elite with a shift in traditional Conservative values and a new narrative. The elite’s view of life from the village of Westminster is judged to have been at odds with the lived experience of ‘ordinary people’ who have felt locked out of the political and social discourse in Britain, a state of affairs which threatens to undermine the solidarity of society.
That the legitimacy of all the old institutions which have been relied upon for years should be questioned May thought was perfectly understandable. People had seen a minority in the banking and business sectors appearing to game the system and play by their own rules. They had watched Parliament become dragged down into rows about political expenses. They had seen the media mired in questions about ’phone-hacking and, as she thought, they had ‘seen a system that allows lawyers to get rich by hounding our brave troops’. Where there was one rule for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else, there would be division and despair. A growing gap between those enjoying prosperity and those who are not would embolden the voices of protectionism and isolationism.
Choosing to define Brexit as the reaction to the Blair and Conservative-led Coalition’s social and economic liberalism, May is revealing herself not just as a Boadicea on a mission to claw back sovereignty from Europe but as someone who is plainly influenced by her inner circle of advisers who are sympathetic to the ‘Red Tory’ school of thought which combines a critique of social liberalism and free market libertarianism. May occupies a new post-liberal centre-ground of politics where ‘Red Tory’ intersects with ‘Blue Labour’, a reaction to New Labour’s unwillingness to address the impact of mass migration and the weakening in traditional Labour-voting heartlands of the bonds of allegiance.
May’s decision to occupy this area of mainstream centre-ground politics looks set to remain firm until 2020 notwithstanding the urgings by some Tories for her to capitalise on the profoundly weak and fractured state of the Opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn and the collapse of the Lib Dems in the Commons.
An early General Election is, of course, possible notwithstanding legislation providing for fixed-term Parliaments but it looks unlikely. May is not a gambler and there does not appear to be any appetite in the short to medium-term among Labour Parliamentarians to mount a leadership challenge following Owen Smith’s failed attempt last September.
Against this background overcoming division and bringing the country together, as well as capturing the political initiative, begins by building something May calls ‘the shared society’ although the concept is short on specifics. It is nonetheless intended to be a deliberate contrast with Thatcher’s (much misunderstood) ‘there is no such thing as society’ and Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.
The shared society concept is based on May’s belief (‘the thing that shapes my approach’) that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest. Realising this vision is best served by helping those who are just about managing (in No 10’s jargon the ‘JAMs’) to share in the growing prosperity of post-Brexit Britain. It means government moving away from being rooted in laissez faire liberalism whereby people were left to get on by their own and for government to step up to help those ignored by government for too long because they do not fall into the income bracket that makes them qualify for income support. This is undeniably active government, in order to deliver a ‘new agenda for social reform’, part of ‘building a great meritocracy’, words not usually found in the lexicon of traditional Conservatism.
Just as Margaret Thatcher saw Labour’s lurch to the left in the 1980s as an opportunity to pursue otherwise politically impossible policies, May no doubt sees the domestic opportunities created by Brexit, based on an approach ‘with fairness and solidarity at its heart’, creating in turn opportunities to win over disaffected Labour supporters, particularly in the north of the country (where concern about free movement was reflected in Labour support for leaving the EU). Time will tell how well this strategy works.
In the meantime Jeremy Corbyn has urged people to join him in taking on the political establishment. Labour strategists have decided to play to his strengths as an unvarnished political maverick. His new year video message portrayed the Labour Leader as a combative outsider, addressing people’s concern about the lack of trust in politicians and the European Union, and standing up for people particularly in low paid and insecure jobs, as well as tackling ‘corporate handouts’ to big business. Labour’s narrative will be reassuringly familiar to those for whom opposition rather than preparing for government is the driver of political engagement. Significantly the party remains deeply divided over free movement, making Kier Starmer’s position as Shadow Brexit Secretary especially challenging.
Tristram Hunt’s resignation as the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central was down-played by the Labour Leader, with whom he had always been at odds, and it will have come as a blow to many moderates who will be wondering whether their party will be a party of national government again. His resignation letter spoke tellingly of the failure of the left, including the centre left that he represented, to respond to the challenges thrown up by ‘social, cultural and economic forces which have rocked the mainstream social democratic and socialist parties’ across the democratic world. Following Jamie Reed’s decision to stand down from his Copeland seat, further resignations (such as Andy Burnham if, as expected, he succeeds Labour’s candidate for mayor of Greater of Manchester) are on the cards.
Such is the background of change and re-ordering of the centre-ground in British politics against which the formal process of the UK’s disengagement from the EU will shortly begin, followed by a lengthy period of negotiation. This is a long-haul project of enormous significance far beyond Westminster and Whitehall.