At the end of her election manifesto launch press conference in Halifax, British Prime Minister Theresa May was asked whether the document she had just launched embodied something we could now describe as “Mayism”. Her reply was emphatic. “There is no Mayism,” she intoned, “there is good solid conservatism, which puts the interests of the country and the interests of ordinary working people at the heart of everything we do in government.” In her signed manifesto foreword, May writes: “It is the responsibility of leaders to be straight with people.”
In that final press conference answer, however, May was not being straight. For there is emphatically something that is worth calling, and understanding as, Mayism. It is embodied throughout the 2017 Conservative manifesto. It was expounded very clearly in her press conference speech. If she wins this election, over the next five years, Britain will be the test bed for whether it works. Most important of all, however, Mayism is a very different form of Toryism from the one that most Britons have spent their lives with. If you read nothing else in the Tory manifesto, at least read pages six to ten.
For those five pages, which set the compass for many of May’s more detailed plans and which it would astonish me to learn were not substantially written by May’s key adviser Nick Timothy, contain statements that any honest reader should concede break new ground for the modern Tory party. Take this, for example: “We must reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.”
That’s classic May and classic Timothy. Both would certainly say that it is also classic conservatism, and in some ways they would be right. But it is not at all what the Tory party of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher would have said, and it is not quite what the socially liberal Tory party of another former prime minister David Cameron would have said either. Or take this passage: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogmas not just as needless but dangerous.”
Whatever else they mean, those words simply cannot be dismissed as “same old Tories”. They are in all but name a repudiation of the Thatcherism that dominated the Tory party for more than a decade and that is still the reflexive ideological stance for very large numbers of Tory MPs — including several who, for the present, remain in May’s cabinet — as well as of the cheerleading right-wing press, for whom Thatcher remains the standard by whom all subsequent Tory leaders must be measured. These people did, and still do, believe in untrammelled free markets. They did, and do, embrace selfish individualism. They don’t abhor inequality at all; in fact they celebrate it. And they do not recognise the good that government can do, except in terms of security and law enforcement.
In most other respects, they think government is the problem. May is simply different from that, as she has made clear many times in the past and made clear once more in Halifax. The manifesto is full of important examples. These include the sections on education, affordable housing, social care, intergenerational equality, corporate governance, workers’ rights and energy prices. Together these add up to a different kind of Conservatism. The mixture will confuse and disconcert orthodox or partisan critics on the Left — most forgivably over May’s embrace of meritocracy by means of the crass reintroduction of grammar schools and secondary moderns. Less forgivable, on a reading of the section on the National Health Service, is the Left’s mantra that the Tories aim to dismantle or privatise the health service. If Labour continues to fight the Tory party of its demonology rather than the Tory party that exists, it will have lost before the contest begins.
The real question, once the election is over, is not whether May is a different kind of Tory, or Mayism a different kind of conservatism. She is — and it is. The real question is whether, between 2017 and 2022, she and Timothy will have the worked-out plans and the political authority to make a transformative reality of her ideas. There are three reasons to be cautious about this.
The first is that the plans are far from fully worked out or consistent. Today’s instant argument about the fairness of Conservative social-care plans is an example of what may go wrong more broadly. Neither the Confederation of British Industry nor the Institute of Directors gave the manifesto a full-throated welcome. Today, the Daily Mail seems on board for May’s social-care package — but if it turns against it after the election, as may well happen, then May will have to get back to the drawing board.
The second is that May’s ideas lack a broad base of support in her party. There is May. There is Mayism. But there aren’t many Mayites. Tories support May in a way that is reminiscent of Labour support for former prime minister Tony Blair. They like to win, and like a winner, and May is about to be that. They are prepared to buy into the agenda as long as things go well. But a lot of this is skin deep. May compounds this by the tight circle she draws around herself in Downing Street. She needs to do much more to persuade her party than Blair ever did to persuade his.
The final reason for caution is Brexit. Thursday’s launch was a mix of ideological repositioning and striking domestic policy pledges. But this is nevertheless the Brexit election. The next parliament will be the Brexit parliament. In the light of the demands that May is imposing on herself by putting herself at the centre of the Brexit process, it is hard to believe she can focus on this wide-ranging social reform agenda at the same time.
Although there has been a striking lack of deep argument about Brexit so far in the election campaign, it is nevertheless the central issue in the contest. May herself says this at every opportunity. Yet, in an interesting way, the 2017 election seems really to be about endorsing the referendum rather than about the terms of Brexit, let alone the social or economic policies that dominated both the Labour and the Tory manifesto launches last week.
The reality is that the argument over the terms of Brexit will begin in earnest after this election, not during it. It will speed up as the negotiation process becomes real, drafts are leaked and blueprints initialled. At that point, the mandate May looks sure to claim after June 8 may not look as invincible as it does now.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Martin Kettle is an associate editor of the Guardian and writes on British, European and American politics, as well as the media, law and music.