May, Osborne Represent Rival Conservative Party Wings

Britain’s home secretary appeals to rightwingers while the chancellor is more of a liberal.

Home Secretary Theresa May and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom walk in London, England, October 27, 2009
Home Secretary Theresa May and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom walk in London, England, October 27, 2009 (Conservatives/Andrew Parsons)

British prime minister David Cameron’s two likeliest successors as Conservative leader represent rival wings of his party. Home Secretary Theresa May is favored by rightwingers while Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is associated with the more liberal, modernizing movement in the Conservative Party that Cameron himself spearheaded.

How well Conservatives do in next year’s election could determine which of them wins a future leadership contest.

The Observer‘s Anne McElvoy argued on Sunday that one of May’s main advantages is her classlessness — “at a time when the posh boy atmosphere has not helped some reputations” in the British ruling party.

A product of mixed private and state schooling with a technocratic background as a consultant, she has done the slog of heading a local government education committee in south London on her way to political glory. The contrast with the gilded sorts who floated into plum seats through connections and a stint in the Conservative Research Department is self-evident.

She also appeals to more reactionary members “who feel that the trend toward younger party leaders has landed them with a ruling class too close to metropolitan elites and not close enough to the hearts of minds of Conservatives tempted by UKIP.”

However, her attempts to outflank Nigel Farage’s nationalist party with a hardline immigration policy — that includes clamping down on how long foreign graduates can stay in the United Kingdom — rubs more liberally inclined Conservatives the wrong way.

George Osborne is far more of a classic economic liberal, “trying to work out a future for Britain in an era of advancing globalization” rather than building a “fortress Britain,” as McElvoy puts it.

“You would not catch George defining success by how many talented people he kept out,” she cites one of his supporters saying.

The opposition Labour Party may like to depict Osborne as a ruthless budget cutter but the chancellor is actually far from rigid. He delayed his deficit targets when revenues were lower than expected, supported a minimum wage increase and wants to cut taxes even when the budget is still in the red.

May has said little about economic and fiscal policy but her instincts would probably be less conciliatory.

The outcome of next year’s general election could help determine whether May or Osborne emerges as the more credible Conservative Party leader.

If Cameron is defeated, his entire modernization project will likely be considered a failure and Osborne could go down with it.

But if Cameron wins reelection and also delivers a “yes” vote for continued British membership of the European Union in a referendum, “those closely associated with him will have the wind in their sails and have vindicated the modernizers’ cause,” according to McElvoy. May would then look more like a throwback.

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