The Prime Minister sought to downplay her own political philosophy in creating the Conservative Party manifesto, while playing up her role in its delivery. “There is no May-ism” she insisted, while presiding over a campaign that puts the leader at its very forefront. In reality, this manifesto launch was the clearest indication yet of just what Mayism looks like – and how the country will be governed after 8th June if the polls maintain their current direction.
The manifesto marked a clear departure from that of the Cameron/Osborne era on the day that rumours about the current Chancellor’s potential demise continued to swirl. In terms of both policy, political philosophy and the relationship between Numbers 10 and 11, Mayism represents a significant shift from that of her predecessor.
Leaks before the launch were confirmed with the Prime Minister pledging a range of reforms under the banner of ‘Forward, Together’. On the list of things to come was: an overhaul of social care funding with the abandonment of the planned cap on care costs; replacing the State Pension “triple lock”; a clamp-down on migration from outside the EU; and interventions in ‘failed’ consumer markets, including a cap on energy costs.
Built on five core pillars – creating a strong economy; Brexit and a changing world; overcoming enduring social divisions; an ageing society; and ensuring prosperity and security in a digital age – the plan for government was notable for its diversion from some ‘traditional’ Conservative core policies. The industrial strategy will not be based on picking winners and losers, but a future government led by Mrs May would be willing to intervene in markets when they are failing consumers. It was “consumers” and not “conservatism” that ran through the heart of the manifesto, in an attempt to reset the Tory pitch to voters left stranded by Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation of the Labour Party.
Many of today’s pledges would therefore see a Conservative government taking a far more interventionist role in society. The manifesto was clear that the Conservative Party under Mrs May does not believe in “untrammelled free markets” but does believe in “the good that government can do”. “In all forms of life, accountability and good governance are paramount”, the Prime Minister’s Co-Chief of Staff Nick Timothy once wrote, an approach that was made abundantly clear throughout the manifesto.
In asking wealthier pensioners to pay more for their social care, abandoning the triple lock and kicking deficit reduction even further into the long grass, Mrs May risked the ire of a right-wing press that would have eviscerated almost every other Conservative leader in history who proposed such reforms. Amidst the dizzying heights of Britain’s pending exit from the EU, those news outlets have little reason to criticise the Prime Minister and so she has tactically cashed in her Brexit chips early.
Like all plans for government, this manifesto is not without its risks. With little prospect of seizing the keys to Number 10, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were free to make expensive policy promises on education, healthcare and pensions. The Conservatives now stand alone as the party of fiscal restraint – belt tightening which begins at home. Traditional Conservatives may be alarmed at an abandonment of core principles but with no other feasible political party to vote for, the strategic gamble is entirely logical while traditional voters will be appeased by strong immigration pledges. In time though, should Brexit negotiations fall below stratospheric expectations amongst the core Leave base and a consumer credit squeeze shrinks spending power and earnings, corners of the Conservative base might reconsider their support for an unabashed land grab of the centre ground.
Mayism remains something of a new experiment, though warmly embraced at present. In attempting to broaden the Conservative Party’s appeal and core vote on 8th June, Mrs May is asking her base to widen their own definition of what Conservatism stands for in 2017. The manifesto played heavily on a changing world – Brexit, the gig economy, global trade, digital technology. Under Mrs May, the Conservative Party is changing at an equally rapid pace.
Enjoying support in the polls from her personal approval ratings to Westminster voting intention, Mrs May’s management of the country in a volatile and tumultuous period after the referendum has been roundly welcomed by the public. Today’s manifesto gave a first real insight into what Mrs May the thinker wishes to achieve, rather than just Mrs May the manager. As long as those polling numbers are maintained, we will get a much better opportunity to know what Mayism looks like during the course of the next Parliament.