Having now started work as Britain’s second woman prime minister, Theresa May has the chance to carve out her own distinct variant of Conservatism. And outside the famous front door of 10 Downing Street, she confirmed that her top priority will be building a “one nation” government, pitched firmly in the “centre ground” of British politics.
Reminding the country that her party’s full title is the “Conservative and Unionist Party”, May spoke almost exclusively of unity before entering her new home. This was unity for the nations of the UK, in geographic terms, but also unity “between all of our citizens – every one of us – whoever we are and wherever we’re from”.
May has been associated with reformist and inclusive models of Conservatism, namely because of her famous warning that hers is seen as the “Nasty Party”. And sure enough, as she took office, she made a point of directly addressing those facing “burning injustice” – women earning less, people suffering mental health problems and those finding it hard to buy a home. She also admitted that black people are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system.
The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours. We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls we’ll think not of the powerful but you. When we pass new laws we’ll listen not to the mighty, but you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We’ll do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.
May said that her predecessor’s true legacy is not the economy – and indeed, within minutes of taking office, she had replaced George Osborne, as chancellor, with Philip Hammond, who was foreign secretary under Cameron. Boris Johnson makes a remarkable comeback to be the new foreign secretary, while there appears to be no role for Osborne.
Rather, David Cameron should be remembered for his “social justice” agenda, but May is unlikely to revive Cameron’s nebulous and unconvincing “Big Society” narrative. That said, her emphasis on broadening contemporary Conservatism’s appeal to a wider range of social classes and geographical locations would represent a continuation of Cameron’s more inclusive socio-political rhetoric – although his record on social cohesion is questionable. Whether the new prime minister is more successfully inclusive in practical terms will be a key test of her administration.
What we didn’t hear
As she took up office, we didn’t hear anything about the red mark in May’s otherwise impressive record as home secretary – her failure to curb immigration to levels that would be acceptable to her party, despite initial promises to tighten up British borders. It’s a high-profile failure that could be said to have been a key factor in shaping the public mood to leave the EU. This fractious and contentious issue will be a further priority for May’s government to address.
Nor were we treated to a recital of May’s newest catchphrase: “Brexit means Brexit” – but it won’t be long before we hear it again. She will have to manage Britain’s departure from the European Union as smoothly and as painlessly as possible – former foreign secretary David Davis will lead on brokering that. May, an instinctive eurosceptic who pragmatically endorsed the Remain campaign, seems to enjoy the general trust of Conservative MPs on this issue (at least for now). But this could sour if the practicalities of Brexit delay departure from the EU for too long.
An unspoken matter was of course when the country can expect an election. The appointment of this new prime minister was never put to the people – nor even members of her own party. Although May has said she won’t call an election, she could seek to consolidate Cameron’s exploitation of Labour divisions, and as part of this strategy of maximising her “honeymoon” period in office, she’ll weigh up the possibility, at least.
Given the extraordinary political events of recent weeks, there is scope for flexibility in the Fixed Term Parliament Act to hold a vote. And the ruthlessness of Conservative high politics gives reason to think that the party would relish the opportunity of taking on a paralysed Labour Party at its lowest ebb.
This “election call” dilemma fatally undermined the legitimacy of Britain’s last “unelected” prime minister, Gordon Brown. May must ensure that this strategic electoral calculation doesn’t similarly destabilise and blunt her ability to leave her political imprint on this most demanding of roles.