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May’s Working Mandate

When the prime minister, Theresa May, closed the Conservative Party Conference this week, she was also closing a chapter in the party’s history. Delegates had arrived in Birmingham to the slogan ‘a country that works for everyone’. For many of them that could also have read ‘a party that works for everyone’. Having courteously thanked her predecessor for the work of the last government, she moved rapidly on to reassure listeners that a line had been drawn under what went before. The country had voted to leave the EU and recover its sovereign powers to make its own laws. That would happen. It had also voted for change at home. She would drive that through.

The party was reminded in Birmingham that it was returning to its calling to serve, and do so without the spin: it is in power to serve a country now open to talent, one which rewards enterprise and hard work, is global in its breadth. But it is also parochial in the ties that bind its people together, locally and in their institutions, whether voluntary or official. Through these they support each other in bad times as well as good. And it is a country which will once again have its own sovereign law-making powers. Though the prime minister did not say so, she knows that putting country before party, when it succeeds, brings the party to power and keeps it there.

Four different leaders in the 20th century trod the same path – Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill and Thatcher. Although these four differed from each other in many aspects of their policies and beliefs, and May’s plans differ yet again, they share an important central ground: the protection of historic freedoms and Britain’s democracy, the importance of voluntarism, social reform – pensions, housing and education – and the opportunity and security it brings to all, the value of economic enterprise, a global outlook, and (to a greater or lesser degree) the intervention of the state to harness change on economic and social fronts. This is the territory of British politics, and it corresponds to the aims of a broad section of voters. It has allowed the party to do what it has been best at doing: gaining, and keeping, power by governing for all.

The speech could emphasize this goal because of the break with the Cameron-Osborne era. May’s deliberate diction is light years from the practised hip informality of what went before, but bears its own message: respect for country and the office now entrusted her, as the government tackles an unhappy legacy: dysfunctional markets (in energy, broadband and housing); an economic model which has let down savers; international companies which ‘treat tax laws as an optional extra’; company bosses who enjoy ‘massive dividends’ while workers’ pensions schemes fell into deficit. In future, May promised, government will act where it should, put wrongs to right, and strengthen the foundations on which the country was built. Government, she explained, was ‘not always glamorous or exciting, but at best it’s a noble calling’.

These are early days and May is lucky. The opposition parties are in disarray. Many Labour voters, if the polls are to believed, are willing to give her a chance, as are former ‘don’t knows’. So too are UKIP voters.

There remain the timeless metropolitan elites. They are part of Mrs May’s script – the politicians and commentators, who find patriotism distasteful, concern about immigration parochial, views about crime illiberal, and the decision by 17 million voters to leave the EU ‘bewildering’. Though many of the political big names stayed away from Birmingham, the BBC made good the deficiency, with a dose of cold water inspired not by any well-founded general scepticism of politics and its vicissitudes, but by the usual illiberal response to a world view it finds alien. For now, however, what matters are the 17 million voters. They voted first and foremost to leave the EU and that is what they will want to see happen.


Dr Sheila Lawlor

Dr Sheila Lawlor is Politeia’s Founder and Director of Research. Her background is as an academic historian of 20th century British political history, having started her working life as research fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and Churchill College, Cambridge. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War 1940-41 and for Politeia she has written on social, economic and constitutional policy.

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