5 Oct 2016

Theresa May puts herself at the head of the angry mob

Theresa May believes she’s become the Prime Minister of an angry nation, resentments bottled up over years, exposed in the Brexit vote.


She started with a joke about Boris Johnson’s inability to stay on message. He heckled: “I’ve been slavish, slavish … religiously.” David Davis shook with laughter you don’t normally see outside a stag party.

And then she plunged into a dark analysis of what she thinks the Brexit vote means, the failures of the political elites who’d failed to respond for years and the job of work she now believes she is charged to perform.

Some might like to think that the EU vote was a vote on the EU and issues of sovereignty, pure and simple. Mrs May has a different analysis – fed, her advisers say, by knocking on doors in her Maidenhead constituency (which voted 54 per cent Remain to 46 per cent Leave).

“Ordinary working-class people,” as she repeatedly referred to her target audience, resented the super-rich getting away with stuff, resented migrant workers under-cutting their wages. The referendum was a kind of “revolution” and if the root causes weren’t addressed the country could face a “disaster.”

To head off alienation (and, presumably, triumphant populist forces), Mrs May linked arms with them to curse their enemies: the metropolitan elites who are bewildered by the Brexit vote, wealthy bosses who don’t look after their workers, big multinationals who dodge tax.

These conferences for years have been applauding George Osborne and David Cameron telling them that those with the broadest shoulders have been bearing the greatest burdens from the banking crisis. Theresa May told them the opposite was the case. The masses felt they’d been carrying the heaviest loads while the super-rich, “citizens of the world”, just get richer. If Theresa May does go to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos next year it might be a frosty encounter.

There’s still not forensic detail on the bigger role for the state that Theresa May is envisaging but a list of headings is forming. She wants to have a pop at energy companies (not the first to ponder that), to roll out broadband to the countryside, to boost infrastructure, to encourage industry hubs in the regions and get more houses built. The language seems to be laying the ground for some substantial shifts in policy but they are not yet defined.

The message is that great change must come, dictated by the roar of the Brexit vote. That not only means Mrs May is commissioned with a massive job of work but conveniently means she can potentially claim some kind of mandate for some big policy shifts without going to the electorate again. She has determined what the roar meant. She may have been in the stormed palace with the Remain troops when the revolution stirred, but she’s now vaulted the barricades and tried to put herself at the head of the angry mob.

In the talk of the enhanced state role and people left behind, there were echoes of Ed Miliband. In the attacks on the elites, there were lines that could have been written by the Daily Mail and The Sun, and could have been delivered by Nigel Farage. Those messy political lines won’t bother Mrs May at all.

Brexit, which took up only 8 per cent of the speech, is destined to overshadow everything else she does in office. It will dictate the weather, the money available, the mood, and it will suck up Whitehall time and expertise like a black hole.

One of Mrs May’s longstanding advisers told me during the very brief leadership campaign that the May team had been working on all her ideas for years, chewing them over in their very tight circle. “It’s lovely we can now say it all,” she said.

To some extent, Mrs May has now harnessed the referendum mandate to some thoughts she’d long since privately held. Without realising it, on June 23rd, Brexit voters were backing her then unpublished thoughts.

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