Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, closed the Conservative Party conference yesterday with a striking vision of her political direction, which was consistent with speeches made by other members of her government. This is a marked change of tone from her predecessor, the rather liberal David Cameron, and his Chancellor, George Osborne. Brexit is at the heart of it.
Earlier this week, FT columnist Janan Ganesh suggested that the stream of social policies coming out of the Conservatives were an attempt to deflect the politicians’ obsession with Brexit. But this is to misunderstand what these policies are about – they are an attempt by the Conservatives to tell people that voted for Brexit that they “get it”. The vote to leave the EU is the starting point of the whole thing.
What Mrs May is trying to do is to adopt what I will call the “Brexit coalition” as a political base. This starts with her hinterland: the non-metropolitan middle classes – most especially their older members, as their children are going to university and becoming more metropolitan in outlook. This group has a nostalgic view of the past, and feel threatened by the cultural aspects of globalisation. All the talk of patriotism, the hard line on immigration and the attacks on liberal elites (Oh how sick I am of being told that I am part of a ruling elite when all I am is a school governor!). Other nostalgic policies, like promoting grammar schools are in the mix too.These are bedrock Conservatives, largely taken for granted by Mr Cameron.
What is more interesting is that Mrs May wants to add the disaffected working classes, who voted in droves for Brexit, notwithstanding the advice of the Labour Party. They share the cultural biases of the non-metropolitan middle classes, but add to this resentment about economic insecurity. Mrs May is making a particular pitch for this group: emphasising the struggles of people at the margins, though failing to observe how much austerity policies, such as changes to tax credits, have added to their hardship. For these people she made a strong pitch for “fairness”, and indicated that she would act on a series of economic problems, like housing costs and poor infrastructure. She also rounded on unscrupulous businesses. In parts she sounded not unlike Ed Miliband, Labour’s previous leader, allowing her to claim the “centre ground”. Strikingly she also included a pitch for ethnic minorities, acknowledging discrimination. Ethnic minorities make up large sections of the working class, after all – though the Brexit voters tend to be “I’m not racist but…” types who think it is them who are the victims of discrimination.
But one part of the Brexit coalition is being left behind by all this: the businessmen who called for a bonfire of regulations to make businesses more competitive. On the one hand Mrs May’s tough line on sovereignty, immigration and foreigners points to a hard Brexit, and so little need to heed EU regulations. On the other the threatened policies to limit immigration would add a very hefty layer of extra bureaucracy on businesses, and the appeals to “fairness” suggest a strong role for regulation and government intervention too. Regulation and democracy go together like a horse and carriage. They may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But this part of the Brexit coalition always mattered more for its money than its voter appeal.
It is possible to admire the political cleverness of this. Ukip, who had been harrying the Tories on their nativist flank, are struggling at the moment, and this sort of thing should see them off, in Conservative constituencies at least. One might ask what the point of Ukip is. It also takes advantage of Labour’s disarray. At their own conference Labour failed to discuss Brexit. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seemed to embrace it – but (admirably) failed to bang the drum on immigration. Other Labour big hitters want it the other way round: oppose or soften Brexit, but wave the flag on immigration. This leaves muddle at the core of Labour’s message on the top issues of the day. The party will no doubt maintain its iron grip on public sector workers, and those vulnerable to government reforms (students, benefit claimants, etc.). I would also be very surprised if their grip on ethnic minority communities was seriously dented. But this falls way short of an election-winning combination. It is not clear what is their appeal to grumpy working class voters, to say nothing of the non-metropolitan middle classes that former Labour leader Tony Blair made inroads on the last time Labour won an election.
But speaking as an ordinary decent liberal and proud citizen of the world (subject to a sneering jibe in Mrs May’s speech), I am aghast at the direction the Tory Party has taken. The are stigmatising foreigners and implying that I am unpatriotic. Many of us are friends, neighbours and work colleagues with people who are not British citizens, and we look on them as equal human beings who have earned our respect and a place in our society. I find that impossible to reconcile with some of the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party. And it gets worse. The EU referendum unleashed a wave of hate crime and anti-social behaviour aimed at people who are seen as not belonging here (not just foreigners of course). Much as the leaders of the Brexit campaign claim that this is nothing to do with them, Conservatives run the risk of allowing these attitudes to take root, even as they claim that it is not their intention. In the same way Mr Corbyn will not call off the misogynistic hard left thugs that are part his own coalition, contenting himself with mild disclaimers.
This is now becoming a real political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. The party is now the best home for open-minded people who do not have a nativist outlook – or those of them appalled by developments in the Labour Party anyway. It becomes easier for the party to take credit for the better bits of the coalition years – which had accrued to Messrs Cameron and Osborne – rather than just the blame for the bad bits.
That opportunity for the Lib Dems will grow if the Conservatives fail to deliver on their new promises, as seems almost certain. As soft Brexit turns into a mirage, and hard Brexit turns out to be highly disruptive, and as the Tories fail to deliver economic gains, such as lower rents and better paid jobs, to working class and other struggling communities, and as the party’s small parliamentary majority bogs it down, then the appeal of Mrs May’s government will diminish. With Labour looking like an empty bubble of hope (or a pyramid scheme as suggested by the Economist’s Bagehot column), there is reason for the Lib Dems to gain.
Of course, the Lib Dems themselves have many serious questions to answer. But it may be easier than people think for it to double its vote share to 15-20% before coming under more serious scrutiny. As the keener Lib Dem activists travel to the latest by-election in Mr Cameron’s old seat in Witney, Oxfordshire, it is impossible not to notice the spring in their step. The bookies are already giving them second place (from fourth in 2015).
But this is a small shaft of light in a very gloomy British political landscape, as the wonton act of self-harm committed by its electorate in the referendum pushes events on a seemingly inevitable course.