Listen. The sound of the Tory yomp to triumph on June 8 is deafening. Labour’s sporadic venture over the top, and Mr Farron’s plucky bunch of guerrilla fighters feature as mere radio static in comparison. But one thing is shared. They all contribute to the crescendo of hot air and dribble currently being inflicted on the electorate. Theresa May’s sledgehammer campaign style is largely responsible. Her command phrase may as well be: “It’s all about me; tell voters nothing; and pound the hell out of the EU”.
Theresa May and the Conservative Party look like an invincible machine. And for now – they are. Everything about May’s strategy points to her mastery of cunning leadership. This is because she scores high on governing competence, party management and has a winning electoral strategy. She knows that appealing to the old UKIP vote is crucial, and is gushing with rhetoric that gives her a strong appeal with those voters. She is aware that it is safest to promise little, thereby achieving a mandate that is significant yet ambiguous. Hence, “Strong, stable government in the national interest” and securing “the best possible deal for Britain” is what’s being promised. Not much else.
‘Theresa May and the Conservative Party look like an invincible machine’
This is boring. But it’s working. And regardless of your views on May’s politics she enters this election in a context of success. Despite the recent dip in ratings, the Conservatives still maintain a dominance over the political landscape. They attribute this to their rebranding as the party for the ordinary working Briton, a process which began under Cameron and have gained further traction under May.
Yet despite this shift in tone, when boiled down, May’s leadership successes are ones that place cunning over conscience. Her election strategy is based on personal strength, not party merit. She aims for her own Brexit mandate, not a programme of domestic reform. Attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in a ‘who would you rather?’ style is favoured over discussing policy. Luring working class Labour voters and opening the floodgates to former UKIP voters supplies part of the reasoning behind such an approach. However, it has also been complemented by displays of governing competence from May. The smooth triggering of Article 50 alongside standing up to the SNP’s demands for a second independence referendum have been crucial in this.
Moreover, success has been based on strict party management. The strike of the whip comes hard and often for Conservatives. Ministers are muted by the shadows cast by Chiefs of Staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill who, according to other members of part staff, behave as if they are ‘deputy prime ministers’. Safe candidates are ordered to leave their constituencies to help get out the national message in marginal ones. Any potential for a ‘battle of ideas’ from the backbenches is quashed by the electoral traction she has been building.
The absence of the word “Conservative” from her battle bus, the refusal to talk policy in interviews and partake in televised debates, when added to campaign events where critical reporters are barred from asking difficult questions (or even locked in rooms), highlight the meticulousness with which Mrs May’s exposure is managed by Conservative Campaign Headquarters. Their calculation is plain: the less May says the better. Rather, emphasis is placed on nationwide recycling of the discharge produced in Number 10. Dominic Lawson’s recent headline in the Sunday Times is a fitting description of the outcome: “There are no Tories – only Theresa”.
‘Their calculation is plain: the less May says the better’
The policies revealed by May and her team have put popularity before functionality. Immigration policy is a naked example. The continuation of David Cameron’s commitment to reduce annual net immigration below 100,000 remains unworkable. The latest figures for 2016 show net immigration of 248,000 – the vast majority of which are students and workers. Even with Brexit, realising the target remains a pipe dream. Non-EU immigrants have long been subject to a UK points system, but in 2016 this alone was 176,000 – well above the target. It was a silly policy in 2010 and remains so, yet its advocacy by May – a former Home Secretary – proves her self-perceived invulnerability. It lays bare the cunning with which securing the UKIP vote is being pursued over conscious logic.
Energy policy is another vivid illustration of May’s election populism. The differentiator is that it is less aimed at UKIP than Labour. Capping energy prices was a poor policy when suggested by Miliband in 2013. It still is. The Prime Minister is advocating the policy not to logically help consumers but despite it. A cap will remove competition in a market where firms cannot compete on quality but only price. People will be even more disincentivized to switch as the ‘big 6’ energy companies set their prices to cap level. Smaller firms will fall by the way side causing the market to no longer be able to function. The policy is an inadequate halfway house between two choices: marketization or nationalisation. May has chosen neither.
These flaws in policymaking are irrelevant as far as the election is concerned. They woo their respective target voter groups and contribute to the ‘worker’ image that the Party is attempting to cultivate. Hence, running on such a platform is effective and is likely to result in an overwhelming Conservative majority after the election. This is the aim of cunning leadership: achieving power and political hegemony. The question is – then what? Theresa May has made this election about her leadership. But there’s vision and conscience too.
‘Theresa May has made this election about her leadership-But there’s vision and conscience too’
On the back of such analysis a qualifying point must be made. To argue that May just needs to draw up a list of principled and moral policies, implementing them with inflexible courage is naïve of reality (especially for a leader of Conservative Party with a history of ruthless behaviour). Circumstances change, opportunities and threats arise, and quick thinking is required.
Cunning and conscience must be balanced for complete political leadership. And May is not striking it. The newly released manifesto painfully reinforces this. Controversial policies on ditching the triple lock added to the care costs fiasco suggest she’s willing to bash core voters in the hope of battering Labour even more.
‘Cunning and conscience must be balanced for complete political leadership’
A steady as you go manifesto attempts to appeal to ‘mainstream Britain’. At its launch she bemoaned the ‘grand visions of the past’ and the ideological crusades that accompany them. Rather it is about a vision for ‘Brexit and beyond’ – whatever that means. Its five ‘giant’ challenges are big on bombastic talk of strength, confidence and protection but come up short on actual ideas. It is here where the Mays shield of strength and indefatigability starts to slip.
For all the parade and bluster, the Conservative Party is in trouble in the long term if it continues to favour short-term tactics over strategic vision. The UKIP and Labour voter strategy will bring two unsustainable forces to the fore.
In one direction May is claiming her party to be of the new centre-ground for working Britain – appealing to the traditional left and right. This is dangerous in two ways. It ferments a political landscape featuring a gargantuan Conservative Party splurging from the right to the centre-left, a corpse-like Labour Party on the periphery and the somewhat puffy Lib Dems somewhere in between. This is a most unstable state of affairs that will right itself eventually to the Tory’s cost.
Second, it is dangerous for May herself. Locked onto the UKIP vote, success beyond the next parliament will be based on their continued support. Therefore her room for manoeuvre on Brexit and immigration is reduced. She must be hard on both.
Consequently, a sprawling appeal is contradicted by the Party becoming increasingly sect-like, with May’s EU stance directed by a faction of narrow-mindedness. The fact that liberal Conservatives such as George Osborne alienated from such a platform is telling.
Theresa May’s Conservatives are successfully tapping the post-Brexit populist revolt against a feel of liberal condescension. But they are doing so without the knowledge of where it’s taking them. They are riding it, yet aren’t showing that they understand it. It is right not to dismiss the sentiments of a group that David Goodhart describes as ‘Somewheres’ – who feel taken advantage of and fear the cultural and economic change in a society of high immigration. Although, in Mays’ Brexit Britain the reality is continued immigration, meanwhile a vision for radical domestic reform is dismissed as “rigid dogma and ideology”.
‘Theresa May’s Conservatives are successfully tapping the post-Brexit populist revolt against a feel of liberal condescension’
Therefore, the populism that she’s maintaining will not check this anger. ‘Somewheres’ will be disappointed. They will be so because it will become clear in five years time that the government has done little for them apart from achieve some sort of Brexit. They will look at society with the same feeling – and lash out.
So May’s team is being cunning, but without a conscience forming some coherent body of blueprint – Theresa May is not going far.
She portends to be personally strong, but lacks the intellectual rigour of her predecessors. She says she’s decisive, yet took nine months to decide that she wanted an election. She claims to lead a strong, decisive government but has little idea besides Brexit what country she wants. Her recent stumble in the polls should act as warning to the risks of preaching from a soapbox that is hollow.
She’s right to be cunning. In Conservative Party history from Peel to Cameron, only two have chosen their departure time: Lord Salisbury and Stanley Baldwin. Albeit, by maintaining this hollow and authoritarian populist agenda she risks putting immediate electoral success over long-term achievement.
Theresa May’s Conservatives are miss-calculating the solidity of their long-term position. Coming up short when the political landscape shifts and opposition parties are re-organised and thirsty for power is a real danger. It will be when such a time arises and people ask: Where are we going? And our Prime Minister realises that we’re out of the EU – but are going nowhere. Then the electorate should look. Look for someone with ideas.