Theresa May used last week’s Tory conference in Birmingham to shift her party and her government sharply to the right.
Her speeches largely consisted of symbolic politics. For example, announcing a “Great Repeal Bill” isn’t a big deal. Leaving the European Union (EU) necessitates repealing the 1972 European Communities Act, which took us in, and the new law won’t come into force till we leave.
But the symbolism took on a life of its own—most notably in home secretary Amber Rudd’s proposal to make companies declare the size of their non-UK workforces. This, along with an absurd ban on foreigners advising the Foreign Office, infuriated and terrified a very wide spectrum of opinion.
What was interesting about the speeches was how far they were directed against business. May’s reproach “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” was to bosses.
But the logic of capital is cosmopolitan. The neoliberal offensive of the past generation, pioneered by the Tories’ own Margaret Thatcher, has partly been about liberating it from national restrictions and controls. The arrival of migrants to work everywhere from farms and factories to banks and universities is part of this process.
So is May about to reverse neoliberalism? Don’t believe it for a moment. The strident nationalist rhetoric is partly about consolidating control of her party.
One Brexiteer told the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley, “It turns out that having a Remainer as prime minister has worked perfectly for us. She has to keep proving to us and the party that she is serious.” It’s also about winning back electoral ground lost to Ukip, which has been thrown into disarray by the Tory embrace of Brexit.
The trouble is that words have real effects. May kicked international capital in the face, and international capital kicked back. The pound dropped like a stone last week.
David Bloom, chief currencies analyst at HSBC, told the Financial Times newspaper (FT), “Sterling has become a political and structural currency. This is a recipe for weakness given its twin [trade and budget] deficits. The currency is now the de facto official opposition to the government’s policies.”
But the real constraints on May go much further. She announced in Birmingham that she would activate article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to leave the EU in March next year. She will then have two years to conduct complex negotiations with the rest of the EU.
European governments were already disinclined to give Britain a good deal. They’re scared of anti-EU sentiment in their own countries. And they fear making concessions to Britain will encourage other member states to demand their own special arrangements, unravelling the entire union.
May might have thought she could grandstand about controlling immigration without damaging the negotiations. But there are already signs of a continental backlash.
In a speech last week, according to the FT, German chancellor Angela Merkel “urged companies in sectoral talks to resist ‘pressure from European industry associations’ and avoid the temptation to set aside EU principles—especially the freedom of movement—because it was ‘comfortable’ to do so”.
No wonder the City and the CBI bosses’ lobby are hopping mad. They have been putting their hopes in chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond. He is pressing for a deal that gives banks and corporations based in Britain the fullest possible access to the single European market.
But the Sunday Telegraph quoted one Eurosceptic cabinet minister attacking Hammond for his “relentless pessimism” and warning “he should watch his back”.
Meanwhile in the Mail on Sunday Hammond and his friends were quoted briefing against the three leading Brexiteers in the cabinet—Boris Johnson, David Davis, and Liam Fox—for their “bull in a china shop tactics”.
So the Tories were scary last week. But they are divided and face formidable opponents in big business and the rest of the EU. What’s missing is a real challenge to them from the left and from below. It’s up to us to help build this.