Theresa May ended the Conservative conference as she started it: in command of her party and looking to extend her hegemony. “A change is going to come,” she said, as she mapped out the contours of May’s Britain.
The prime minister’s pitch to the country is that on June 23 Britain did not just vote for Brexit; it voted for fundamental change. Everything about her speech was intended to present her as the person to deliver that change. “A vision is nothing without the determination to see it through,” she said in a pared-down speech of serious intent and few jokes. “You need to put the hours in and the effort, too. If you do, great things can happen.”
Over four days in Birmingham, Mrs May has addressed the awkward problem that she is not the most obvious “change agent”, having served for six years in David Cameron’s cabinet and having campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU.
The first message was that she is now fully signed up for Brexit and for seizing “the opportunities” afforded by a break with the EU, with a strong emphasis on cutting immigration. “We are all Brexiteers now,” said one minister. Mrs May’s talk of “taking control” and restoring Britain’s “independence” comes straight from a Leave campaign leaflet and has helped to dispel any doubts among Tory activists that she is serious.
This week, even liberal pro-Europeans such as Amber Rudd, the new home secretary, have been talking tough on immigration and rebuking companies for employing foreign staff.
Mrs May’s second objective this week was to present the EU referendum as such a moment of political catharsis that it requires leadership from a completely new government, focused on the needs of the working class.
She paid a brief tribute to David Cameron, the man who led her party for 11 years, but all the talk of building a country that did not just work for “the privileged few” was a coded reminder that she plays by different rules. Her references to the sneering approach of the political establishment and her attacks on irresponsible capitalism were intended to align herself with voters that she believes were neglected by her predecessor.
Mr Cameron, George Osborne, the former chancellor, and many of the Tory modernisers who ran the country in the faraway land that was Britain before June 23 were not even at the conference.
Mrs May’s tone and policy announcements — including a review of workers’ rights, new housing schemes and a promise to take on big business — are intended to extend her political grip to areas that used to be out of reach to the Tories. With Labour still feeling the effects of its leadership contest and the infighting that ensued, and with the UK Independence party leaderless, she sees a chance for the Conservatives to establish themselves in the towns of the Midlands and the north under the slogan: “A country that works for everyone.”
Yet for all of Mrs May’s attempts to present June 23 as a turning point in British politics, some of the social and economic issues she claims were revealed by the Brexit vote were already being addressed by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne.
The regional agenda of mayors and devolution espoused by Mrs May was set in train by Mr Osborne; the big infrastructure projects including HS2 were under way; while Mr Osborne’s £9 hourly “living wage” was a more ambitious attempt to help working people than anything so far advanced by the prime minister.
Indeed, the big test for Mrs May, having identified the problems facing the country, will be to find adequate solutions — especially when some of the answers could put her into conflict with her own party. There was silence in the conference hall when she proposed extending workers’ rights but there could be outright hostility if she takes radical steps to address inequality between “the privileged few” and the masses.
If Mrs May were to contemplate a more redistributive tax system, a “mansion tax” or an increase in inheritance tax, it would be interesting to see if her stated intent to turn the Conservatives into a “workers’ party” receives such a warm reception at a future Conservative party conference.
The prime minister spoke of tackling the inequality between generations but would she end the “triple lock” that guarantees rising incomes for Conservative-voting pensioners? Will she force councils in the Tory shires to designate green fields for new affordable housing?
“Come with me as we rise to meet this moment,” Mrs May implored her followers in her peroration. They are following for now, but the change may turn out to be more politically comfortable as rhetoric than reality.
• Brexit believer The prime minister had to convince delegates she was serious about Brexit. She was adamant the government had the right to invoke Article 50 and said she would present a “Great Repeal bill” to parliament.
• Agent for change After serving under David Cameron, it might have been hard for Mrs May to convince people she is a new broom. But she drove home the point that she was on the side of neglected voters and repeatedly attacked business and political elites.
• New territory Her emphasis on housing, regional and generational inequality, the iniquities of big business and irresponsible capitalism were an attempt to move into Labour territory.