Commentators were quick to identify the contradiction in Theresa May’s new government. As Robert Peston put it, “her rhetoric is more left wing than Cameron’s was, her cabinet is more right wing than his was.”
One shouldn’t overstate how left wing May’s words were. After all, David Cameron had tried to rebrand what she famously called the “nasty party” as the champions of “compassionate Conservatism”.
Not long after he became party leader in 2005, the Tory ideologue Tim Montgomerie distinguished between “a Soho form of Tory modernisation and an Easterhouse approach to party renewal”. The first he identified with Cameron and his close ally George Osborne, the name of the second comes from the Glasgow housing estate.
Montgomerie elaborated, “The Soho modernisers constantly emphasise issues of homosexuality and drugs. The Easterhouse modernisers propose a different kind of modernisation. They want the Conservative Party to champion the strivers. The strivers—or battlers—are those people on average or below average incomes who cannot afford Labour’s stealth taxes or failure to reform the public services. ”
In March Iain Duncan Smith, the champion of Easterhouse modernisation, resigned from the cabinet. May’s adviser Nick Timothy argued at the time that Montgomerie offered “a false choice”.
He proposed instead “Erdington modernisation, named after the working class area of Birmingham. With this approach, of course we would still help the very poor and of course we would fight injustices based on gender, race and sexuality, but the Party would adopt a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people.”
It’s anyone’s guess what this means in practice. Clearing Cameron’s posh Notting Hill set out of the government suggests May is trying to identify with the “strivers”, but it’s symbolic politics.
Her new chancellor Philip Hammond has confirmed that the government won’t seek to balance the budget by 2020. But George Osborne had already abandoned his own target in one of his last acts in office. This was just an acknowledgement of the reality that austerity has failed.
What do May and Hammond plan to put in its place? Will they follow the advice of Keynesian economists and take advantage of ultra-low interest rates to borrow and invest in infrastructural projects to boost an economy that was slowing before the vote? Nobody knows.
In any case, as Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh points out, “the process of extrication from the EU will, in all but the most fantastic scenarios, occupy ministerial and bureaucratic capacity for most of the rest of the parliament.”
Having crushed the Brexiters in the leadership contest, May gave them some of the plum jobs. Crucially she appointed Boris Johnson foreign secretary, David Davis secretary of state for Brexit, and Liam Fox international trade secretary.
In doing so, May was acknowledging the power of the anti-EU right to disrupt and destroy her government, as they did those of her two Tory predecessors, John Major and the hapless Cameron. But she was also setting a trap.
To quote Peston again, “her catchphrase could be ‘You Brexit, you fix it.’ All the jobs whose purpose is to make a success of leaving the EU have gone to prominent Leavers.”
Johnson is the most exposed. Already the object of general derision, holding the most high-profile office, he runs the risk of coming a public cropper and vanishing forever from frontline politics.
But May can’t afford to leave the Brexiters to make a mess of things. Getting Britain’s departure from the EU right is too important. Her speedy and ruthless triumph over Andrea Leadsom has reassured big business and the markets.
But British capitalism has still lost its moorings and is floating adrift. May has to plot its new course, while presiding over a divided party, with a tiny parliamentary majority, perhaps amid another recession.
However much she may want to convey the image of stability, her government will be a stormy one.