Almost three months into the job, yesterday’s speech at this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham finally gave us an idea of who Theresa May is and what she stands for. Over the course of an hour, the prime minister laid out her plans for a Britain “based on fairness and opportunity” that “works for everyone” and gives them “a chance to go as far as their talents will take them”. Building an inclusive, caring and fair society was a theme that ran throughout the entirety of May’s speech, as was her wish to build a “united Britain in the centre ground”, and it is this language that will have frightened both Labour and UKIP, albeit for very different reasons.
May’s bid to “take the centre ground” was one of the main takeaways by the nation’s columnists and commentators, but it is a phrase that fails to entirely explain the nature of the policies set out by the prime minister yesterday afternoon. Her speech veered from left to right, careering like an out of control shopping trolley without ever managing to find the sought-after sweet spot in the middle.
On the economy, she dragged the Conservatives to the centre-left, a space once occupied by pre-Jeremy Corbyn Labour, but now there for the taking since the veteran socialist’s rise to the top of the party. Promising government intervention to fix the problems in the housing and energy markets whilst also threatening to “come after” tax dodgers and bosses “who earn a fortune but don’t look after their staff”, several passages of May’s speech sounded like a nod to Ed Miliband. So much so, in fact, that Tom Baldwin, a former adviser to Miliband, tweeted that a number of May’s lines were the former Labour leader’s and had been “borrowed, used and abuse”.
Much of May’s language on the economy can, and has been, dismissed as vacuous rhetoric being cynically used to appeal to Labour voters, and only time will tell whether or not she will be able to deliver on many of her promises as the government attempts to orchestrate Britain’s removal from the European Union. Nonetheless, for now at least, there was plenty in her speech to get Labour voters excited, much to the dismay of the party.
As Corbyn’s poll numbers continue to worsen and Labour slip further away from power, May has cleverly shifted the Conservatives into more moderate, almost Milibandite territory in an attempt to speak to the traditional Labour voters that have been put off by the party’s shift to the left under Corbyn’s leadership. This can clearly be seen in May’s use of language, as on no fewer than seven occasions she referred to “working class” families, indicating that the Conservatives have spotted an opening in a sizeable section of society that once were solid Labour voters but now find themselves without a political home.
This shift in focus has also resulted in May parking her tanks on UKIP territory, and they should be just as worried as Labour. Strong rhetoric on immigration and the blasting of “international elites” who do not understand “ordinary working-class people” will have appealed to the populist, socially conservative wing of the party, many of whom are ex-Labour voters from its former northern heartlands that helped drive Britain’s decision to leave the EU. It is in these areas of the country that the Conservatives have set their sights, and where the damage could most keenly be felt by Labour and UKIP, both of which are heavily reliant on the support of Labour-leaning northern voters.
As UKIP violently crash from one crisis to the next in the wake of Nigel Farage’s resignation in early July – only for the veteran Eurosceptic to step back in after Diane James quit as party leader after just 18 days in charge – their bitter and often public in-fighting runs the risk of damaging the party’s standing amongst those that found a home in their ranks in a pre-Brexit world.
Whilst there are still many opportunities open to UKIP (as I argued in a recent article), the country’s decision to leave the EU has nonetheless hit them hard. With their 'independence' now achieved, many are asking if there is anything left for the party to stand for, and this, like Labour’s lurch to the left, has presented the Conservatives with an opportunity to entice even more voters to their side.
May’s blending of policies from the left and right of the political spectrum not only points towards populism’s penetration of mainstream politics, but also indicates that views on culture, not economics, define the current left-right divide. It is for this reason that May is able to describe her beliefs as being firmly in the centre ground of British politics, as in many ways they are.
The split between current and former Labour voters when it comes to immigration is a startling one, but it is also one that presents May with a golden opportunity that she has attempted to seize with her conference speech. Until Labour are able to offer a credible, coherent and positive alternative, it is unlikely that the prime minister will be facing any considerable challenges anytime soon.
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