Close your eyes and it could well have been Ed Miliband talking on the steps of 10 Downing Street this Wednesday. Apart from the voice, of course. Prime Minister May’s message was decidedly centrist. Given her consistently right-wing voting record, was this just a gimmick, designed to deceive?
I think I’m entitled to be sceptical. But perhaps, just perhaps, we should wait and see. And no – I haven’t gone soft. Here’s why:
Theresa May has possibly read the runes and realises that many centrist votes are simply there for the taking. There seems to be a trend across the last two General Elections of Labour failing to win back votes lost to the Tories. Perhaps May is positioning the party to permanently colonise this section of the electorate.
After all, it is not unreasonable to surmise that whatever the outcome of the current internal Labour debates, there is a realistic prospect of centrist voters looking for a new home.
And May would not be the first politician to embrace Machiavelli’s maxim that what you need to do to get power is different to what you need to do to keep it.
Machiavellian is one apt description for her boldness in cabinet appointments. Who didn’t have an instinctively good reaction to the fates of Osborne, Whittingdale, Morgan and Gove? The debate is still, of course, out on our new Foreign Secretary. Perhaps having created a huge mess, it is only right he is given an opportunity to clear it up.
Policy-wise, Brexit must inevitably dominate the post-referendum period, but there are surely worse people to have in charge than the pro-human rights David Davis. I worry at the loss of focus on climate change, but see potential positives with the emphasis on industrial strategy.
Let us be clear, though, that when Theresa May says “We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives” that can mean massive deregulation and privatization as easily as a supportive and empowering state.
Unfortunately we on the left have to face some uncomfortable truths – the first comprehensively educated Education Secretary is a Conservative. Indeed more of the cabinet went to state schools than any government since 1945. Both female prime ministers have been Conservative. Why have these achievements not been ours?
So maybe there is the basis for just some, little, super-ultra-cautious optimism. But at the heart of Mrs May’s approach is a contradiction.
You can’t be a One-Nation Prime Minister with Two-Nation economic policies. You can’t be progressive on social policy without the economic policies to turn pledges into reality. Chris Dillow’s article expands well on this point, and highlights the space this leaves for those on the left (and right).
This week has shown once again that the Conservative Party is the master above all of keeping power. That has to be admired, and not just because of the travails of the opposition. Another Tory maxim is governing for the few and not the many. If Mrs May is serious about breaking that one, she will have to show more substance than seduction.