May’s first conference as a Prime Minister has heralded a step-change from previous Conservative policy, as she makes a gambit for the right and left of the country in an extraordinary series of policy announcements leading up to, and throughout, conference season.
Both sides of the political spectrum have been surprised by the variety of populist policies, seemingly aimed at straddling all areas of debate.
Despite being a member of the Cabinet for the entirety of Cameron’s time in Number 10, she has made it clear that there will be no business as usual, crystallised by this week’s Party Conference speech.
After decades of infighting about Britain’s role in the EU, this was a party once more united and confidence in the party’s political dominance was palpable. The past few weeks’ policy announcements had been widely understood as a pivot towards right-wing populist policies including the re-introduction of grammar schools and tightening of immigration controls. Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s speech was unabashedly protectionist, calling on firms to be named for employing foreigners – a stance poorly received by the press which appears to be watered down already – and was pushed further down by May’s own speech. With the Government’s direction firmly heading towards ‘hard Brexit’ (which means hard Brexit) now was the time to make a bid for the UKIP vote, as Brexit dates were confirmed and policy simply lifted from the Party’s manifesto. Given Diane James’ resignation from the UKIP leadership before it had even begun, and the MEP fracas in Brussels, it’s unlikely that UKIP will be able to put up a united front and provide an argument for its continued relevance during its own conference later in the month.
The absence of a centralist opposition from Labour also means that votes are up for grabs from the not-so-far left. Drawing on populist rhetoric against corporation tax avoidance, she made the case for cracking down on big businesses avoiding the taxes that hardworking families have to pay. She drew heavily on Ed Milliband’s policy commitments, there is, simply put, no challenge to a bid for those who feel alienated by, and have unpleasant memories of, the 1970s socialism to which Jeremy Corbyn is committed.
This conference drew from left and right, pulling together a variety of policies that, in the vacuum of opposition, look set to carry the party through the next General Election (especially given the boost from the outlined boundary review) and into power for the foreseeable future.