By Jamie McKay
Last week Conservative members converged on Birmingham last week for their first annual conference since the EU referendum and the fall of David Cameron’s premiership. Nearing her first 100 days in office Theresa May has radically distanced her government form that of her predecessor, from plans to bring back Grammar schools to a complete reversal on plans to reduce the UK budget deficit May has sought to define herself as a new form of Tory, setting light to years of Conservative orthodoxy.
Perhaps best known to British politicos for her speech at the 2002 conference at which she sided with modernising forces within the party bluntly announcing to members that; “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party”. Yet in the years since this infamous speech May has proven herself more difficult to define. Modernisers praised her in her role as Home Secretary as she stood against the disproportionate use of stop and search against minority groups though were later deterred as she allowed vans ordering illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest” to roam the streets.
Perhaps its no surprise that her first speech to conference began with high praise for the government she served in for six years and included an attack on her leading opposition party, digging up the old ‘nasty party’ quote and using it in reference to a Labour party which finds itself in renewed rows over anti semitism and deselections of sitting MPs. But attendees may have been surprised at some of the new leader’s announcements; from attacks on big businesses to references to the power of the government to intervene, May distanced herself from both the socialist left and the libertarian right who have held sway over the Conservative party for decades.
Pundits noted the change in direction by looking to the attack by the free market Adam Smith Institute for her renewed clamp down on migrant workers and apparent interest in more interventionist economic policies the Trades Union Congress gave he some credit for her commitment to a German style system that would see workers representatives present on company boards. Such announcements at a Conservative party conference would have been unheard of a few years ago, not unnoticed by former Labour leader Ed Miliband. As May looks at the possibility of price controls on energy companies, the former leader of the opposition couldn’t resist a reference to the attacks he had been subjected to just over a year ago taking to his personal twitter account to jokingly mark the plans as “Marxist, anti-business interventionism”.
May’s reversal in Conservative orthodoxies; abandoning previous austerity measures for a boost in spending, building new grammar schools and lending a hand to those struggling in the current economy may win her some new fans, but critics will keep a keen eye as the activation of Article 50 seems close and the new government faces new challenges ahead.