Theresa May’s Conference Speech

October 6, 2016

May promised to explain her vision for Britain. Did she? Yes. Was it a new answer? No. It’s been plastered all over Birmingham; it drove every minister’s comment. She wants a country — and an economy, government, party, and conference speech — that ‘works for everyone’.

That means a focus on mainstream, centrist, British society. Remember how Cameron’s 2015 speech prioritised social mobility? As expected, May went broader. She talks of ‘social reform’, and that incorporates a bigger group: the ‘just managing’. Remember how Cameron’s speech included Syria, extremism, and FGM? Not so today.

But May gratefully emphasised Cameron’s (and her) successes: new businesses, the living wage, and better schools. Implicitly, she promised more of the same, yet ‘more fair’: a real attack on tax avoidance, and help to the regions, particularly with housing. That nuance fits the acceptable understanding of Brexit as an uprising against elites, pointed up in her criticism that ‘it wasn’t the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash, but ordinary, working class families’. The stories of the past 84 days — grammars; Hinkley, HS2, and an airport decision; even unjustified suits against the armed forces — also fit into the idea of ‘merit over privilege’, and state or community over individualism.

Cameron’s lack of broad messaging left him vulnerable to those who don’t get non-ideological politics. May has learnt from that. As she said, ‘no vision feeds a starving child’. But if the way to feed it has mostly already been there, then explaining that that’s what you’re doing is sensible. It’s what’s needed at a time of uncertainty.

This comment originally appeared as part of a Newsweek Europe panel piece 

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