Theresa May’s Conservative realignment

By: on May 30, 2017 |


When Theresa May became the second female Prime Minister in British history last July, many commentators saw her as a “caretaker” whose primary task was to preside over the British withdrawal from the European Union. However, since becoming Prime Minister, May has emerged as a leader who could shape British politics for a generation, similar to figures like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. May is not just presiding over the biggest British withdrawal from Europe since Dunkirk, she is transforming the Conservative Party and the governing vision it offers. If she succeeds, as expected, in winning the June 8 general election, her Tory government will be far less economically and socially liberal than the one envisaged by David Cameron and other Tory moderngizers. May’s Conservative Party, or “Mayism”, is essentially an updated version of One Nation Toryism, a vision that reflects the political realignment taking place across the post-industrial world.

May’s leadership candidacy was initially built on her ability to keep the party and country unified, and she was perceived as the consensus candidate whose managerial competence and pragmatism made her the ideal figure to preside over Brexit negotiations. Since then, however, she has refined and articulated a serious and credible vision for the country’s future.

May’s new Conservative Party has four defining aspects. Firstly, it is much more economically interventionist and anti-immigration than it has been under previous leaders. Secondly, it embraces a soft but still explicit form of social conservatism. Thirdly, it is more openly patriotic and nationalistic than it has been in a generation. Fourthly, it has been resurrected as the key defender of unionism in British political life. May has presided over this transformation, which could make the Tories the natural governing party of post-Brexit Britain for the foreseeable future.

“Mayism” is much more sceptical of markets than preceding Conservative administrations. This is not to say that May is anti-market, but she has changed the economic priorities of her party. This can be traced to one of May’s joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy. Timothy comes from a working class and industrial background in the Midlands, a solidly Labour part of England. He was previously associated with the New Schools Network, a charity focused on establishing free schools in the United Kingdom to enhance social mobility and provide opportunities for the least well off in society. Timothy has previously stated that the greatest problem for the Tories is that they are widely perceived as a party that does not care about the poor, and believes the Tories need to prioritize helping these members of society. May came to national prominence saying something similar in 2002, telling Tories at their national conference that the party was perceived as “the nasty party.” Timothy has worked for May since she was Home Secretary, and this shift in priorities was clear right from the outset of her tenure. May’s first speech as Prime Minister reflected Timothy’s influence, not least because he wrote it:

“That means fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor, you’ll die on average 9 years earlier than others.”

If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than others. If you’re a white, working class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

“But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary working class family life is much harder than many people in Westminster realize.

You have a job, but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home but you worry about paying your mortgage. You can just about manage, but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing: I want to address you directly.”

Upon becoming Prime Minister, May and Timothy already had a clear vision of how the Conservative Party was going to govern, and who would make up the new Tory coalition. Clear policy examples of this in the Party’s manifesto include a cap on energy prices for many lower income households, continuing to increase the national living wage (the minimum wage for workers over the age of 25), and an increase in personal allowance that will put many low income workers below the threshold for income tax entirely. These are clearly policies that emphasize a shift in the voters the Tories are targeting, policies that could turn many former Labour voters into Conservatives. Similarly, May has attempted to assuage working class anxiety over mass immigration by promising to lower net migration to the UK to below 100,000 a year. This is best characterized as “blue collar conservatism.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May with Nick Timothy, joint chiefs of staff, at during a bilateral meeting at the sidelines of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, September 5, 2016. (Image: REUTERS/Aly Song)

British Prime Minister Theresa May, with joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy (right), during a bilateral meeting with Australia during the G20 Summit in China on September 5, 2016. (Image: REUTERS/Aly Song)

May’s rhetoric also reveals a soft, yet committed form of social conservatism. She is the daughter of an Anglican vicar, and is not afraid to discuss the role that her faith plays in her life. This social conservatism might be better described as a form of “communitarianism” that emphasises human interdependency over individualism. She has distanced herself from Cameron’s social liberalism, and much of her rhetoric suggests she is philosophically much more inclined towards the Burkean stream of traditional conservatism than her predecessors. When May launched her bid for the Conservative leadership last year, she told her audience that “this is a different kind of conservatism, I know. It marks a break with the past. But it is in fact completely consistent with conservative principles. Because we don’t just believe in markets, but in communities. We don’t just believe in individualism, but in society.” The global backlash against globalization is more than just an economic backlash, it is also a social one. May’s rhetoric about community and shared values has an undeniable appeal to voters who worry about perceived hyper-individualism and globalization.

Under May the Conservatives have also become a more openly “patriotic” party, and openly champions a resurgent British identity. It is important to remember that May actually backed a vote to remain in the European Union prior to the referendum last June. However, since then May has become the face of Brexit, a new Iron Lady defending British interests against unaccountable Eurocrats.

When May became Prime Minister, she initiated a cabinet shuffle that relegated many prominent ministers to the backbenches. None of these demotions were more high profile than that of Chancellor George Osborne. Osborne was the poster child of the modernization project of David Cameron, a cosmopolitan social liberal at home in a globalized world. His departure is emblematic of a shift under May’s premiership that embraces local and national identities instead of cosmopolitanism. This is reflected in the harsh tone May is taking towards Brussels. She has already accused the European Commission of trying to influence the outcome of the election, and her rhetoric has become increasingly confrontational about prospective withdrawal negotiations. This may just be a bargaining strategy, but it is also a successful electoral strategy that is helping May win over the “patriotic working class.”

Closely related to May’s transformation into the Brexit negotiator-in-chief is the re-emergence of the Tories as the main defenders of British unionism. May’s opening speech as Prime Minister included the line “the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word, ‘Unionist’, is very important to me.” May clearly sees the departure from the European Union as an opportunity to re-establish the unity of Great Britain. This too will be a great challenge. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalist Party has emerged as the dominant political force, and a powerful advocate for Scottish independence. The SNP has dominated the Scottish parliament since the early 2000s, and has replaced Labour as Scotland’s primary voice at Westminster.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn has further damaged Labour’s fortunes in Scotland. His myriad of perplexing positions, including support for a united Ireland and shaky support for British unionism, has led many Scottish unionists in Labour to seek another home. This new home is the Scottish Conservative Party under Ruth Davidson, now the second largest party in the Scottish parliament. Furthermore, they appear poised for a breakthrough in Westminster. This is a remarkable reversal of fortunes for both Labour and the Tories in Scotland, and May’s emphasis on British unionism appears to have won her a sizeable portion of the Scottish electorate to add to her coalition. In 2014 nearly 45 percent of Scottish voters, some 1.6 million people, voted to leave the United Kingdom, and now First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon is threatening to hold another in the wake of Brexit. This helps May seem like a clear alternative to Scottish unionists.

Her deft handling of Brexit and the fortuitous decline of Labour under Corbyn have combined with May’s personal popularity to give her a mandate to remake the Tory party in her own image. May’s appeal to many British voters is so strong in the current election campaign that in many of the northern seats the party is targeting, candidates are ditching the Conservative name and instead calling themselves “Theresa May’s candidate.”

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain, October 2, 2016. (Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. (Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville)

Within May’s new coalition of traditional Tory voters in the English shires, unionists in Scotland and the patriotic working class in England, the working-class addition is the most significant. This voting block is comprised mainly of former Labour voters disillusioned with the party’s liberal immigration policies and lack of support for Brexit, and turned off by Corbyn’s radical views on international affairs.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Brexit was the demographic breakdown of the vote. Leave voters were far less educated and had much lower annual incomes on average than those who voted for Remain. This gave some credence to the narrative of Brexit as a revolt of the forgotten class. In recent years, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) shifted from being a borderline libertarian party to a populist party that appealed primarily to former Labour, not Conservative voters. UKIP only won one seat in the 2015 election, but finished second in 120 seats. If UKIP were a party of the Tory right, you would expect them to have finished second primarily in ridings won by Conservatives, however UKIP also finished second in 44 ridings won by Labour. While this is eclipsed by their second-place finishes in 75 Tory seats, UKIP’s results in Labour ridings were significant. Most of these 44 second place results were in the northeast, northwest, Yorkshire, and the Midlands.

Since the referendum UKIP support has declined, and most former UKIP voters are now backing May. UKIP’s primary objective was to see Britain leave the European Union, and now that this has been accomplished, and flamboyant former leader Nigel Farage has departed the scene, the party has become irrelevant. May’s electoral strategy reflects this. There are 58 Labour-held seats where the Conservatives are fewer than 9,000 votes behind and where constituents voted Leave in the EU referendum last June. It is in these areas that May is on the cusp of a breakthrough. Of these 58 seats, 37 are in the Midlands or in the North of England. This includes cities like Newcastle, Birmingham and Walsall, areas where Tory victories would have been unimaginable a decade ago. Regardless of how many gains the party makes in these seats, May has shifted the political battleground to ridings that have historically been safe Labour seats, and the appeal of May to voters in these ridings will help make Mayism the dominant internal strain within the Conservative Party.

May’s likely victory in next month’s election will represent the completion of a modernization project in the Conservative party that began decades ago. However, May’s vision is much more populist and less liberal than that of her predecessors. Modernizers like Cameron and Osborne saw the future of the party as a socially progressive and fiscally responsible centre-right party. May’s One Nation Conservatism is something quite different, and seemingly more responsive to and reflective of the nationalist-populist timbre of the times. If May can deliver a decisive victory on June 8, Mayism has the potential to become a model for conservative parties across the post-industrial world.

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About Ben Woodfinden

Ben Woodfinden is an Ottawa based writer. He was a 2017 Manning Centre intern and holds an MA in Political Science.