Five Things We Learned From Theresa May’s 2016 Tory Conference Speech


In the warm-up act for May, another no-nonsense Tory leader, Ruth Davidson cited that classic Margaret Thatcher quote: “If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

May herself namechecked Mrs T only once, referring to ‘Lady Thatcher…who taught us we could dream great dreams again’. But there was a Thatcherite bite to her attack on Labour’s left, as well as her onslaught “those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave” of our armed forces”.

There was the echo of Thatcher too in her line that government is “about doing something, not being someone”. In the Meryl Streep movie ‘The Iron Lady’, Maggie opined that politics “used to be about trying to do something – now it’s about trying to be someone”. And May’s USP has long been that she is a doer, not a blatherer.

Yet today’s speech was all about a Thatcher-style focus on the striving classes, delivered through non-Thatcherite means like state intervention. There were also repeated references to ‘society’ and citizenship bonds that make society work.

May even had a pop at Thatcher’s old dancing partner Ronald Reagan, whose famous line was that “the most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” Many Tories are more pragmatic and here was their PM talking about the good that government can do, and its ‘noble calling’. “Where many just see government as the problem, I want to show it can be part of the solution too,” she said.

Still, Thatcher’s defenders point out she was a capitalist not a corporatist, and loathed cronyism. May tried to square the circle too: “The Conservative Party will always believe in free markets. And that’s precisely why it’s this party that should act to defend them. Where markets are dysfunctional we should be prepared to intervene”

The problem with saying you’re a doer is that you actually have to do things. At the Home Office, despite all her claims to be a ‘deliverer’, May failed to hit her net migration pledge. And she oversaw not just a rise in EU migration (out of her control) but in non-EU migration too.

On Brexit, May believes she ought to be allowed to privately hammer out her policies and then announce them fully formed to a waiting world. On domestic policy, the public may not be so patient. Especially as she herself talked today of the challenges being ‘ever more urgent’. We heard a long list of problems today, but virtually no specific policy answers. She can’t afford to be Theresa Maybe for long.

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