The Manchester atrocity hasn’t actually persuaded people to forget what a very poor campaign Theresa May appears to be conducting in the UK General Election, as polls suggest something of a nose-dive for the prime minister’s party. This is a pity, because Mrs. May is offering them one of the most significantly activist forms of conservatism ever devised by a right-wing leader in the UK. For all the Brexit direction of her foreign policy, she is more Christian Democrat than British Tory.
A U-turn on a key social policy represented the first set-back. Tory candidates reported a poor and antagonistic doorstep reaction to the original policy with the U-turn itself adding to a sense of confusion. Meanwhile the Labour party under its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn has been making more hay than expected with a range of policies that are basically saying “we know things don’t work, so let’s go back to a golden age of government intervention”. That works because the first part of the message resonates today and ever faulty memories allow the second part of it to gain traction.
More than part of the reason for the Tory shambles is the nature of both Mrs. May and her top team. The lady herself is a solid but unimaginative and inflexible political performer with little depth. She spent her Home Secretary years powering out some robust and occasionally draconian measures, toilingly defended some big mistakes and sat herself distantly from the Cameron/Osborne claque then ruling the party. She was uninspiring but worthy; her public speeches and interviews were mundane and ultra-safe efforts, hard work to wade through and unilluminating. Fortunately for her, the more sparkling members of the political firmament all decided to implode and she was left sitting atop of the heap. It’s not the first time a worthy plodder has emerged on top and it is not necessarily a bad thing either. However, it is not the basis for a personality campaign either. Not in a democracy where you have to communicate outside the tribe at any rate.
Add to this the tight nature of her top team. Just two people, her co-chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, hold any sort of power or offer any sort of advice – of the type that will actually be listened to. This is never a good set-up, and when it is compounded by an insular defensiveness from all three of them the situation becomes worse. And while Mr. Timothy appears to have tried to use his position to do some genuinely blue (or arguably red) sky thinking about Toryism, his colleague Ms. Hill seems to have spent much of her time throwing her weight around and making sure everyone knows she is in charge. A woman who has no public accountability and has never operated in the public sphere now sends bullying or demeaning texts to elected representatives, many of whom have a deal more political experience than she does. More fool them for taking this sort of nonsense but the overall image has been of a paranoid and narrow clique desperately preserving their power and viewing everyone outside their trio as potential enemies.
This then is the set-up that gave the Tories the cataclysmic communications failure over the social care policy (a failure for which Ms. Hill, who acquired for herself the role of communications chief once she ousted any competitors, needs to take the blame). It gets worse though. Calling a quick election the Conservatives resorted once again to Lynton Crosby, a man whose stock in trade is to run highly personalised and dog-whistling campaigns that seriously endanger the long-term integrity of the brand he is working for. The abysmal London Mayoral campaign of former Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith is the stand-out example, but go back a bit further and you can unearth the national election campaign of then Tory leader Michael Howard in 2005 which left many voters with a nasty aftertaste. This time the brand isn’t even Conservative. It is firmly focused on Theresa May herself, as if a party with over two hundred years of tradition and evolving ideology has really nothing to offer. May’s halting and repetitive speech-making has made us yearn for more articulate Tory spokesmen, and reached its apogee in her car crash interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neill.
Such a campaign is at odds with the radical nature of Mrs. May’s Conservative offering. Her speech on unexpectedly taking office in 2016 seemed to mark the outlines of a form of One Nation Conservatism, and the 2017 Conservative manifesto – which more than many of its predecessors is the work of the leader’s small coterie, notably co chief-of-staff Nick Timothy – seems to have embedded this further.
Characterised by some as “Red Toryism”, May’s manifesto actively promotes the idea that the state can be used to further the public good. It talks of the “good that government can do” and rejects what it calls “the cult of selfish individualism”. It wants public schools to set up state academies, promises to maintain the workers’ rights that are currently embedded in EU law and even rejects the idea of ideology as “dangerous”.
In the modern age of an expansive state, which has often been the target of Conservative determinations to reduce it, May has arguably carved out a new brand of Conservatism. One which seeks to utilise the state rather than attack it, and do so in order to widen the appeal of 21st century Conservatism to those who are not people of wealth or rank. The so-called “just about managing” that she identified in her first speech. Shorn of the Brexit veneer, she could be seen as the most left-wing Conservative premier yet. This is why High Tory commentators like the historian Andrew Roberts is so worried, going so far as to suggest that she is not really a Tory at all.
The UK Conservatives are the most pragmatic and flexible of democratic political parties. It is one reason why they are still in business after more than two centuries. How long lasting the May changes will be are of course dependent on the level of endorsement she gets from the electorate, and a couple of weeks before the election itself that isn’t looking quite so rosy.