May’s Rightward Shift Risks Alienating Liberal Voters

After David Cameron’s liberal years, Theresa May must not let the pendulum swing too far the other way.

British prime minister Theresa May speaks at the United Nations in New York, September 20
British prime minister Theresa May speaks at the United Nations in New York, September 20 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

When Theresa May took over as British prime minister from David Cameron, I argued it was too early to tell if she would break with his legacy.

Two months into May’s premiership, it is becoming clear that at least in some ways she is.

When she was named Conservative Party leader and hence prime minister this summer, there were expectations — which the Atlantic Sentinel reported — that the former home secretary would find a middle way between the big-city liberalism of Cameron and his deputy, George Osborne, on the one hand and the Tory paternalism of the past on the other.

That would have made sense. Cameron’s and Osborne’s cosmopolitanism had helped the Conservatives reach new voters in the center of British politics — with policies such as autonomous schools, marriage equality and lower business tax rates — but it also lost people on the right with its relaxed views on immigration.

Even if, in Britain’s two-party system, such right-wing voters don’t really have anywhere else to go, June’s European Union referendum revealed that plenty of them are dissatisfied with the status quo — and that could hurt the Conservatives if ever a credible alternative did emerge on the right.

Signals to inattentive voters

Whether it’s such long-term electoral concerns or simply May’s disposition, some of her recent policy decisions suggest that she is aware of the danger and less interested in finding a middle way for conservatism than moving her party to the right.

Janan Ganesh argues in his Financial Times column that policies such as expanding grammar schools — which limit entry to high-performing pupils — and appointing employee representatives to company boards are signs that May is remaking the Conservatives as something of a christian democratic party.

The reforms themselves struggle for respectability, he writes. But they signal to inattentive voters that May is strong in the face of liberal convention and nostalgic for life at some indistinct moment in the past.

Seen from his angle, her hesitant approval for the Hinkley nuclear power plant, which is financed by the state-owned energy companies of China and France, looks less like beginner’s nerves than calculation, according Ganesh. “It allowed her to puff herself up as a guardian of Britain’s security without, in the end, incinerating its stock of goodwill with important countries.”

May’s people

Ganesh writes that Cameron, despite winning two elections and giving the Conservatives their first overall majority in two decades, used to tell colleagues he would never have “a people”. No section of the electorate identified with him at a gut level.

May could easily have a people: middle-class, suburban-to-provincial, plain in taste, respectably rightwing, unnerved but not unhinged by modernity.

They want a break from the liberal imperium of the past forty years but blanch at a UK Independence Party whose leader, Diane James, identifies Vladimir Putin as a hero. They are the kind of voters who do not really mind foreign companies buying British ones but would quite like a prime minister who does.

These are also the kind of voters who could be alienated if the Conservatives became too centrist.

Liberal alternative

There is a risk in appeasing such small “c” conservatives. While “May’s people” have no other party to vote for so long as UKIP remains on the fringe, there is a respectable alternative for liberal voters. The clue is in the name: the Liberal Democrats.

Cameron won a majority last year in large part because he siphoned off votes from his erstwhile coalition partners in center-right constituencies, particularly in South West England. It would only take a mild swing back to the LibDems for the Conservatives to lose their majority again.

And there is just the issue to convince liberal-minded voters to make that switch: Brexit. Whereas May has promised to make a success of it, others have yet to accept it will actually happen. The LibDems want a second referendum, hoping it will overturn the result of the first.

EU membership is a symbol of what sort of country Britain wants to be. If May seems in thrall to those who voted to leave the EU because they are dissatisfied with the modern world, don’t be surprised if those who only voted for the Conservatives when they had finally come to terms with the modern world abandon her in the future.

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