An industrial strategy, energy price caps, more council homes, “anti-Philip Green” powers for the pension regulator, workers on company boards, restrictions on takeovers by foreign firms, and now new rights to take leave from work after the death of a child or to care for an elderly parent…Theresa May’s long march to the economic left goes on.
Or does it? It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Prime Minister, believing that she has the Conservative vote more or less in the bag, now aims to gain a landslide smash by seizing much of the Labour vote too – at a time when Jeremy Corbyn’s execrable leadership has left it up for grabs. Substituting promises of standing up for “ordinary, working people” with pledges of doing so for “ordinary working-class people” will do her no harm with many UKIP supporters either. Robert Halfon wanted a Workers’ Party. In at least one sense, he is getting it.
It will be claimed by some of the less impressionable that, once the lights dim and the smoke clears after the razzmatazz of each manifesto announcement, there is less to all of them than meets the eye: that together they are little more than a Potemkin village of promises – hastily thrown up to meet the needs of the electoral moment; speedily to be torn down afterwards, once that big majority is in the bag.
Certainly, there are demons in the detail. For example, the price cap is likely to be subject to a consultation process before it is implemented, and an appeals one afterwards. More houses cannot be built – whether by the state, the private sector or anyone else – if there is no land to built on, which is why the Government’s consultation on the calculation of Objectively Assessed Need is so important. It was promised in the recent White Paper, but there no timetable for it, at least yet. The plans for workers on company boards will apparently steer clear of compulsion.
And so on. None the less, there is a lot more to Prime Minister’s Red Manifesto, as some are calling it, than electoral expediency. She has been developing a programme of state intervention in the economy since her speech to ConservativeHome in 2013. As we reported recently, Philip Hammond and his allies have blocked much of it to date. But what they previously cut out in Cabinet committee, Nick Timothy can now put back in the manifesto draft.
The free market think-tanks will wail and Daily Telegraph columnists will howl. The louder they do so, the happier May will be – since noise will help convey their unhappiness to leftish and centreish voters, thus reinforcing the credibility of the promises to which they object. Unlike some of them, ConservativeHome does not view the state as an enemy. This has never been a neo-liberal site. And the Conservative Party has no future as a Margaret Thatcher tribute band. But we want none the less to strike a cautionary note, for three main reasons.
First, May needs their support in future, even if she doesn’t now. She lumped the “libertarian right” and the “socialist left” together as antithetical to real conservatism in her Party Conference speech last October. In ideological terms, she has a point. In practical ones, she is chancing her arm. The libertarians are a part of the centre-right family. And people who favour free market solutions to economic problems make up a majority of it – at least, if our survey findings of what party members want in the manifesto are anything to go by.
That goes for a big trance of Tory MPs, too, regardless of the size of the Parliamentary Party. The Prime Minister may be able to ignore their voices today, but she will want their votes tomorrow, to get her legislation through. To the ideologically committed, the whips can add the politically frustrated, the overlooked, the fired, the unhappy. The bigger May’s majority is, the more of them there will be.
Second, there is a danger of a ratchet leftwards. A bidding war with Labour is one that the Conservatives cannot win, at least if trade union bosses are the arbiters. The response of Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, to May’s pledges on workers’ rights is to demand that these are written into any deal that Britain strikes with the EU. Whether her view is right or wrong is beside the immediate point – which is that those who control the commanding heights of the Left will never be satisfied with any offer made by the Right.
Meanwhile, parts of the Conservative coalition are likely to be alienated. The Prime Minister may judge that business has nowhere else to go, but we live in an age when monopoly support for two big parties cannot be relied upon, at the ballot box or anywhere else. First past the post is a formidable obstacle to others, but it didn’t stop the Liberal Democrats from holding over 50 seats until recently, or the SNP from winning a majority in Scotland.
Finally, there are the requirements of Brexit, to which almost everything else must be subject. As this site has said, it can be carried out in one or two ways: by building either an Open Brexit, or a closed one. If Britain gradually replicates the protection-friendly and subsidy-prone model of some of our European neighbours, some will start to ask what the point of leaving the EU was in the first place. Furthermore, a Closed Brexit simply can’t work: if you doubt the point, read Corbyn’s manifesto – because its plans are a sum of what such a Britain would look like.
May is in danger of opening up a Freedom Gap. It won’t simply be filled by those newspapers and think-tanks, for whom being in opposition is good for trade. From somewhere, somehow, a Conservative politician, or a group of them, will fill it. That person could be, say, Steve Baker. It might be Philip Hammond or Liam Fox or Sajid Javid from within the Cabinet. Or one or more of them from outside. The Prime Minister’s Great Patriotic Election is turning into a triumphal march, but we whisper in her ear: remember, Theresa, thou art mortal.