Following Theresa May’s debut conference speech a school of thought emerged to argue that the new Prime Minister was repudiating Thatcherism. Some of the phrases regarding the intervention of government and correcting market are being used to create some sort of ideological wedge between Britain’s first and second female Prime Ministers. To say that this is puzzling is something of an understatement. Viewed from the perspective of those who grew up through the Thatcher years it can be seen, very clearly, that Mrs May is acting in a way set out by her forbear and has produced a vision, manner and attitude that could very well be described as 21st century Thatcherism.
Starting at the very beginning of her leadership we can see the parallels developing. At a time when change was needed, and thrust upon the Conservative Party, Mrs May played a simple and straight batted innings in order to capture the leadership whilst those around her lacked either the courage, the skill or the fortune to capture the crown. The fact that Mrs May also inherited the Prime Minister’s position simply meant she could move faster to implement the beliefs and principles she has long-held. Having held a top cabinet post for 6 years of government, both by coalition and majority, is an advantage that even the Iron Lady did not have.
The first cabinet was a masterclass in both decisiveness and good tactics. The task of balancing her initial appointments, between leavers and remainers, can be easily compared to Thatcher having to balance the wets and drys. In may ways it was slightly easier for Mrs May. The country and the party expected the leavers to be strongly represented and the vast majority of candidates are of similar mind when it comes to economic policy and general direction of travel. Those who could be considered as wet or Cameroon in leaning are being heavily monitored by number 10.
One of the first, but possible most important, differences, with the previous regime, to become apparent was a return to the traditional style of cabinet government. Additional cabinet committees , often chaired by May, have been set up, reports are expected from ministers and then discussed and debated to inform policy. Out has gone the government by sofa beloved of the Blair/Cameron years. Together with a strong management from the centre, chiefs of staff and number 10, these procedures lead to accountable ministers and collective responsibility, in reality as well as simply toeing the agreed line. There is little doubt that the last Prime Minister to run government in a traditional, grown up and responsible way was Margaret Thatcher.
Cleverly Mrs May has sought to downplay any direct spoken analogies with Mrs Thatcher. This is very shrewd as it would be risky and potentially divisive. However her actions have been strongly Thatcherite and at times even directly inspired by the Conservative’s first matriarch. May’s debut at the despatch box was a clear effort to ensure that those in her own party rally behind her and those in the others were scarred stiff. The first few policy announcements have been couched in some very familiar language. Choice, conviction, determination, working families and living within our means.
The combination of May’s beliefs and a sound electoral strategy, namely having a vote winning team and appealing to a huge section of the population, is a very 1980’s Conservative strategy that worked rather well. The policies may not be all the same, the tone and emphasis is certainly different, yet the overall effect points toward our second female prime minister deploying a similar style and familiar determination in shaping the UK, to her preferred mould, as our first.
Those looking for certain things within Theresa May’s first conference speech certainly found them. Some are trying to imply a huge swing to the left with her references to consumers or workers on boards and promises to limit the unacceptable face of capitalism. Others are trying to see a huge swing to the right with the suspected clean brexit and willingness to deal with the subject of immigration. The popular view seems to be that Mrs May represents a version of, what many Europeans call, Christian Social Democracy, of course they add the joke that it must be Anglican since Mrs May is a vicar’s daughter. These impressions are the ones you are supposed to have. If commentators think the government has lurched both left and right and Mrs May claims to have staked out the middle ground then surely there is non left for anyone else.
Hidden in the conference speech were some vital points. Added to the clear impression already given these show a very different government to that being painted in the media. Mrs May’s view on funny money and quantitive easing suggests a return to more conventional conservative economics. Tight control of money. The determination to tackle the dragons of today, rogue companies and individuals not contributing to the UK. Her passionate commitment to grammar schools and its early unveiling shows that Mrs May sets the agenda and has strong convictions that will not be swayed. The constant reference to ordinary working class people and their concerns and needs. The bold statements about the greatness of Britain and the importance of the union. The determination to be seen as patriotic and in support of our armed services. The sense of history, a moment dawning after the referendum and a time that must be seized in order for Britain to thrive as global Great Britain.
REMIND YOU of ANYBODY!