Much the best of many brutal comments on Theresa May’s hapless Tory-conference address was a quotation from the early James Bond: Once is happenstance; twice may be coincidence; the third time is enemy action.
Three interruptions did indeed destroy her speech to the assembled Tories. The first was when a prankster (in private life a comedian) handed her the British equivalent of a pink slip, saying it was from Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary in her government but more pertinently her most prominent rival for 10 Downing Street. The second was that, suffering from a cold, she was hit by a bad coughing fit that plagued her for most of the speech, riveting her audience and making even hostile journalists hope sympathetically that she would make it to the end. And, third, as she was trudging through this misery, the letters spelling out the conference slogan behind her began, one by one, to fall off the banner onto the stage. As each letter fell from the phrase “Building a Country that Works for Everyone,” people watched fascinated to find out what improper phrase might suddenly appear over the Tory leader’s shoulder.
For the content of the speech was the real disaster, which, in retrospect, is now further weakening her position as prime minister and Tory leader to the point that instead of soldiering on to fight the next election, she might well be gone by Christmas. Does that mean the speech was a bad one in the sense of being ill-written, or dull, or extreme? Not at all. It was written by a committee of intelligent people with good writing skills and a strong grasp of political realities. Maybe too many people contributed passages, but as someone who worked on about a dozen such speeches for Margaret Thatcher, I can testify that’s always the case. The speech had some good jokes, passages of real eloquence, and a number of new policy proposals. Even without the dramatic assistance of the interruptions, it would have been interesting to hear.
So, what went wrong?
One of Mrs. Thatcher’s most long-serving literary helpers was Ronnie Millar who, in addition to being a distinguished classical scholar, was a successful West End and Broadway playwright. He would tell her in old-fashioned “luvvie” (Brit English for theatrical people) tones: “I know you like this part, dear, but it’s getting in the way of what you want people to take away from this speech. If it’s about everything, darling, then it’s about nothing.” Ronnie didn’t always succeed, but he gave her best speeches a dramatic impact they might not otherwise have had.
And if a speech is about everything, then it won’t have a clear overriding argument; it will come under Churchill’s famous condemnation: “This pudding has no theme.” Admittedly, it’s hard for a party-conference speech to have a theme since it has to cover so many of the political controversies roiling the country, especially those whose omission will be noticed. But the job can be managed by excluding some ideas, emphasizing others, and above all by finding a persuasive reconciliation of those ideas that, as everyone can see, sit uneasily together.
In this speech, the two issues needing reconciliation were the different interpretations of Brexit and the proper balance between free-market policies and regulation.
Brexit is a problem for the prime minister because she presides over a cabinet divided over how best to pursue Brexit, and she has not yet been able to impose a common policy on it. Her problem was aggravated by the fact that the Tory faithful to whom she was talking lean towards the “clean Brexit” advocated by Boris Johnson whereas the cabinet (though not the majority of Tory MPs) probably leans towards the softer and more ambiguous version preferred by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd.
The two issues needing reconciliation were the different interpretations of Brexit and the proper balance between free-market policies and regulation.
Her solution was to paper over this division by balancing optimistic but vague language about a “global Britain” with sweet words and sweeter commitments to Europe. Her language about the EU stressed how the relationship between Britain and the EU would be a new special relationship — different from today but at least as central to U.K. grand strategy. She stressed that EU citizens now in the U.K. would be welcomed as permanent residents though the EU has so far refused a similar guarantee to U.K. citizens abroad. She gave an unqualified guarantee of Britain’s commitment to European security, which — though sensible enough in a long-term perspective — implied that she would not use Britain’s security contribution as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Brussels even though the Eurocrats are doing exactly that with the EU–U.K. economic relationship. She made no mention of closer ties on migration and trade to the Commonwealth — which Remainers oppose because it weakens their claim of Britain’s “isolation” outside the EU — in a long passage on foreign policy. And though she echoed Johnson’s theme of a confident “global Britain” outside the EU, she avoided strong statements on either refusing to pay an unreasonable “divorce settlement” to Brussels or walking away from negotiations if the EU failed to offer compromises on these questions — this last being the miscalculation that doomed David Cameron’s attempt to sell a new deal with the EU to the British electorate in the Brexit referendum.
If one had to read the tea leaves here, as soothsayers read chicken entrails in ancient Rome, one would conclude that Mrs. May sides, at least for the moment, with Hammond and Rudd over Johnson but wants to keep her dwindling options open. The effect of this judgment on her speech, however, was to weaken it by leaving this central question obviously unresolved.
Unfortunately, her failure to resolve the debate over free markets and government regulation was left still more glaringly unresolved with more serious consequences. She delivered a passionate advocacy of the free market worthy of a Margaret Thatcher in one section of the speech and a passionate argument in favor of extending state regulation of the economy worthy of a Labour party leader in a later passage.
This schizophrenia arises from a real problem: The Tories do really need a post-Thatcher set of policies not to reverse Thatcherism (though some Tories have always wanted to do that) but to deal with problems that have arisen since 1990, including market failures, and the consequences of the monetary policy of “quantitative easing” such as asset inflation and the social inequalities that arise from it, dating from 2008. May and her former adviser, Nick Timothy, saw this problem well enough and got some of the solutions to it right: principally that the Tory party should protect the interests of blue-collar workers, both indigenous Brits and “visible minorities,” more effectively than the Cameron self-styled “modernizers” had done. Where they made a mistake was in “over-egging the pudding” of their proposals in the Tory manifesto which launched a fierce condemnation of inequalities in general even though some of them result from the free market and the system of meritocratic competition they advance elsewhere (even exaggerating its virtues).
That error, persisting in May’s conference speech, can be traced to the fact that the Tories have simply not yet carried out the kind of intellectual investment into solving post-2008 problems that Mrs. T. carried out into solving the problems of a decaying social democracy after she became Tory party leader in 1975 — solutions that pre-Thatcher Thatcherites such as Ralph Harris and Arthur Seldon of the Institute of Economic Affairs had been developing since the late 1950s. That work will now have to be done in the difficult conditions of a government without a secure majority — difficult certainly but less so than the situation of opposition hampered by a shadow cabinet heavily opposed to her that Thatcher faced and faced down.
Not having done that preliminary work — e.g., working out environmental protections rooted in property rights and civil law rather than in command-and-control bureaucratic regulations — Timothy in the manifesto and May in her speech had to pick up whatever policies lying around that seemed to reflect their reasonable, indeed praiseworthy, ambition to solve post-Thatcher problems and to help those groups disadvantaged by them. In pursuing these aims, moreover, they seemed to have forgotten the main underlying and still relevant premise of Thatcherism: that the state can help people at all levels less by direct interventions on their behalf than by creating a framework in which they are given the incentives, the opportunities, the knowledge, the merit-based chances, and the freedoms to rise in part by their own efforts. That’s not entirely fair; her stress on apprenticeships and technical training shows she grasps the need for such things. My guess, however, is that she’s too impatient to be satisfied with such “framework” approaches. She wants direct government intervention to get it done yesterday.
Mrs. May now has a brief period in which she can recover the initiative by reshuffling her cabinet.
That blend of impatience and amnesia led to her picking up and advocating several regulations — notably price controls on energy — that the 2010-2015 Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had initially advocated and on which he had fought (and lost) the 2015 election amid much Tory mockery. That mockery is now boomeranging on them. In addition, though these policies were reasonably aimed at protecting the interests of the “working class,” they were not designed to encourage their ambition to create a better life for themselves and their children as, for instance, Thatcher’s sale of council housing had been. A Tory working class cannot be called into existence by handouts and subsidies. It has to contribute to its own advancement. (And the same applies, incidentally, to a Tory middle-class — which is why the middle-class polytechnocracy votes heavily for Labour and Remain.)
All of these (and more) contradictions would have become clear to the Tory faithful as they left Manchester on Friday if the three interruptions had not distracted the attention of all. Mrs. May now has a brief period in which she can recover the initiative by reshuffling her cabinet to reflect the majority views of her party on Brexit and perhaps too on what might be called “social Thatcherism” (i.e., devising frameworks that invite marginalized groups into the mainstream.) It may be too late. If so, or if she acts but fails boldly, there will be a leadership battle in which the future of a divided Toryism will be thrashed out in open debate. Cameronian modernization — a Toryism rooted in the calculation that progressivism simply cannot be challenged culturally — has failed. It never rose to 40 per cent of the electorate, and it was effectively repudiated in the referendum. It’s hard to see it being revived by a champion such as Amber Rudd who has risen on wings of progressive feminism with the fervent support of the minority of a minority. Mayism has thus far proved to be the politics of only half of the conservative imagination. It sees Disraeli’s “angel in marble” — the conservative working-man psychologically imprisoned in collectivism — but has not yet found the tools to liberate him from it. Unless the Tory party implodes or shrinks away in a hostile atmosphere of national masochism, self-contempt, and ethnic strife — not an impossible or even an improbable outcome — it will have to find or make tools that carve out two complementary outcomes: a dynamic and technically innovative free-market economy and an adaptive, technically skilled, and morally “respectable” working class in a nation united by a common culture of liberty that has a wide tolerance for many kinds of difference.
Neither alone would be an easy task. But the Victorians achieved both as Professor Christie Davies established in his fine book The Strange Death of Moral Britain. So it can be done again. It is a matter of practical regret as well as personal sadness, therefore, for me to add that Christie– a wit, an independent-minded sociologist, a brave critic of fashionable nonsenses, and a dear friend — died last month unexpectedly while still producing fine work and reminding us of forgotten conservative truths. The Tory party will need such reminders in the coming months and years.
Of course, if Christie were still here, he would probably remind us of an important law of sociology: that you can’t save something that doesn’t want to save itself. He would also add that you still have to try.
— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review.