It is the story of the week so we might as well embrace it and see what it means for us. Theresa May’s speech at Tory conference, her first as prime minister, contained the standard mix of tough talk and claims for the centre ground to which we became so used under David Cameron.
Immigration, immigration, immigration
May’s proposal that businesses would be forced to disclose the share of their workers who are foreigners was at the centre of the her office’s briefings going into today. It is a transparent attempt to capitalise on the Opposition’s weaknesses – both historic, based on polling which shows immigration is one of the reasons lost trust in Labour, and contemporary, with Corbyn’s refusal to put a limit on numbers prompting scepticism among swing voters as well as the right-wing press.
The pledge evokes memories of Gordon Brown’s claim to provide “British jobs for British workers” in 2007, which provoked huge controversy, but once companies have published the ratio demanded by May, what happens next? That much it unclear. The real reforms to immigration will come from Brexit, but nobody can agree on what those will actually be. May’s idea sends a message to middle Britain without tying herself to a target, as David Cameron did and then subsequently missed. Danger rating for Labour: 4/5.
A newly-chosen leader being cheered by both party members and parliamentary colleagues. There is nothing remarkable in that, is there? May delivered the usual shout-outs to Cabinet colleagues and set herself up as the strong woman at the head of a strong government. Then her MPs rushed to the airwaves to praise her speech.
The contrast with Labour was pretty apparent. May now has no genuine rivals for the top job and is unlikely even to bother with a general election. At the same time Labour has gone through two leadership contests in a year while a handful of rebel backbenchers mutter about another challenge next summer.
May is canny enough to realise, however, that it will not be plain sailing. With a majority of 12 that is easily cancelled out by the number of sacked Cameroons, the PM could face a raft of internal troubles – and that is before we even get to the detail of the Brexit deal and the question of whether her backbenchers are satisfied. Danger rating: 4/5.
Claiming the mantle of the centre ground
When do the Tories ever not do this? “I I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics, built on the values of fairness and opportunity,” said May. It sounds harmless and could easily have been uttered to their own tribes by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron – but the reality will be very different under May, just as it was under her immediate predecessor.
Despite all the talk of a “reset” the Tories have pledged to continue spending cuts, push through the revival of grammar schools and enact the spiteful trade union reforms. It presents a potent mix, however – hitting the poor, pleasing the Tory grassroots while trying to nobble the Labour Party and claiming the centre ground – and is one that Corbyn and co should beware. Labour has made electoral gains under Corbyn but is no longer seen as inhabiting the centre. Danger rating: 3/5.
Brexit means what?
We are still none the wiser on the meaning of “Brexit means Brexit” but it remains one of May’s most famous soundbites. By contrast, Labour MPs seem to be split between glum acceptance of the result, attempts to define Britain’s new relationship with Europe and the single market, and outright hostility to what some fear will be economic suicide.
There is hope, however, for Labour in the Tories’ attraction to a “Hard Brexit”. Such a prospect, which would involve walking away from the single market, would unite in opposition a coalition of Labour MPs, business and voters who might feel this isn’t the “best of both worlds” they were promised outside Europe. Danger rating: 2/5.
Tough decisions, tough love
This is May’s core territory. “Let’s have no more of Labour’s absurd belief that they have a monopoly on compassion. Let’s put an end to their sanctimonious pretence of moral superiority,” the prime minister said. Tories love the “nice but useless” attack on Labour and May will point to her record on anti-terrorism legislation and the first Modern Slavery Act as evidence that she can provide the tough medicine Britain needs.
It is not that simple, however. The Government has shown many times it doesn’t know when its claims of “tough love” veer into outright cruelty, as seen in numerous welfare reforms, while even the delivery of some of their key measures, like universal credit, has been mired incompetence and delay. Danger rating: 4/5.
Who is the “nasty party” now?
May’s flipping of her famous line from 2002 went down a treat in the conference hall and demonstrated the unity behind her leadership. After months of Labour in-fighting, and party and public concerns over instances of anti-Semitism, May feels she is untouchable here.
But she isn’t. Tory wars, whether on Europe or handling of the economy, have dogged every prime minister in blue over the last 30 years. Reviving the “nasty” tag, even as an insult to May’s opponents, represents a high wire act, however, and could one day send May crashing to the floor. Danger rating: 3/5.
Workers of the world unite (around me!)
Yes, the Tories have refined their appeal to blue collar voters on the back of a narrative that they are “dealing” with immigration and supporting the low paid but this still prompted the greatest moment of chutzpah in May’s big moment. “Workers’ rights – not under threat from a Conservative government. Workers’ rights – protected and enhanced by a Conservative government,” was an incredible couple of claims from a party which has planned cuts to tax credits, delivered the Trade Union Act and presided over flatlining wages, as well as Brexit, and the extra threat to workers’ rights that brings.
May and Cameron both liked to borrow left-wing language to disguise the reality of a right-wing government and there is plenty for Labour to attack here. The Opposition just has to remember how to be an Opposition and then it can begin to expose the biggest myth of all: that the Tories are on the side of the low paid. Danger rating: 2/5.