Speaking just before her rival, Andrea Leadsom, unexpectedly pulled out of the Conservative leadership contest on Monday, Theresa May told her supporters in Birmingham she wanted to built a Britain “that works for everyone, not just the privileged few.”
She argued that last month’s vote for leave the European Union was a wake-up call to leaders in business as well as in politics, too many of whom “still don’t get it,” she said.
May lamented, “There isn’t much job security out there,” and took aim at the “growing gap between what [some] companies pay their workers and what they pay their bosses.”
She also argued that low-skilled immigration has driven some native Britons out of work.
May’s views on the economy have long remained unknown. As home secretary since 2010, she has said little about policy outside her purview.
But the views she espoused on Monday didn’t come out of nowhere either.
May first gained notoriety in 2002 when, as chairman of the Conservative Party at the time, she recognized that too many voters regarded hers as the “nasty party”.
As the country was becoming more diverse, “our party has remained the same,” she said then.
The relatively liberal David Cameron determined to right that perception when he became leader in 2005. More women and other minority candidates were recruited and it was his Conservative-led government that legalized gay marriage in 2013.
To the extent that Cameron wished to pursue a social justice agenda, however, it was overshadowed by the economic crisis.
His program, which involved devolving authority to local governments as well as schools and overhauling the welfare state, redefined the relationship between Britons and the state.
But within the context of austerity, Cameron’s appeals for a “big society” as opposed to big government were also seen as a way to dress up spending cuts.
His administration cut taxes for businesses and high earners, giving further credence to left-wing claims that it had lost sight of the working man.
May put the onus on business on Monday, saying, “It’s not anti-business to suggest that big business needs to change.”
What exactly that means remains to be seen.
With Leadsom out of the race, May is expected to take over from Cameron within days.