The key word in the Tory manifesto slogan – “forward, together” – is “together”. The goal is to unite a divided country by winning former Ukip and Labour voters over to the Conservatives. This necessitates, in Theresa May’s view, an emphasis upon pragmatism rather than ideology. This is not to say that she is motivated by political calculation. The Prime Minister wants a politics that responds to people’s genuine needs and is shaped by morality. Mrs May is trying to craft a Toryism for the times.
Reading the “principles” section of the document, one might conclude that this means rejecting Thatcherism. The modern Tories “do not believe in untrammelled free markets” and “reject the cult of selfish individualism.” The manifesto stresses, however, that those clichés are the principles of Conservatism “as described by caricaturists”, and not a fair picture. Lady Thatcher did not demolish the state; she cut taxes so that individuals would have the freedom and wealth to be more charitable. But she did take some tough decisions in a time of rapid economic change. Most of her choices enriched people: the country is far better off today than it was in 1979. But some communities felt left behind. Areas of Britain that once voted Tory vowed never to do so again. Until now. Brexit has triggered a realignment.
It is true that Brexit has created new divisions along the lines of Leave and Remain. But the polls suggest that most people are reconciled to leaving the EU whether they voted for it or not, and they could become the basis for a new majority. Millions who once voted Labour or Ukip are tempted for the first time in their lives to go Tory. The appeal is partly about the substance of Brexit, and on this Mrs May’s manifesto makes no compromise. “No deal is better than a bad deal,” it states. There will be no membership of the single market or customs union. There is a promise to “reduce and control” the number of migrants from the EU, although no timetable for the pledge to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands. Even the 1964 London Convention will go; Britain’s waters will be reclaimed for its fishermen.
Mrs May gives the impression to voters that she alone has the leadership qualities necessary to deliver all of this – and in many ways this election is simply about who one trusts to see Britain through difficult times. So the manifesto sweetens that deal – and woos former Labour voters – by pledging that Mrs May will use the machinery of government to help “ordinary, working families” who, it claims, “have been ignored by politicians.”
This is what Tories have always tried to do, and cutting taxes, encouraging wealth creation and reforming public services is the best way to do it. Indeed, while the manifesto begins with an implied critique of the Cameron/Osborne years, the rupture with the grand, historical tradition of Toryism is not there in the detail that follows. The triple tax lock is gone, yes. The commitment to achieve deficit reduction around 2025 suggests Philip Hammond might be kicking the can down the road. Both of these could be justified by Mrs May and Mr Hammond as necessary caution given the many unknowns surrounding Brexit.
Their approach to welfare is bolder. Free school lunches will go. The triple lock on penisons will be replaced by a double lock in 2020. Winter fuel payments will be means-tested. State help with social care costs will be focused on the least well off at the expense of those with greater assets. All of this amounts to a redistribution of public spending towards new priorities. Meanwhile, income tax personal allowances will rise and corporation tax fall.
Many new Tory voters will find this package attractive. Assuming the Prime Minister wins a large majority on the basis of it, the hope of Thatcherites will obviously be that she uses her parliamentary advantage as a chance to show voters the benefits of a smaller – if strong and compassionate – state. Irresistible changes are coming to the global and British economies. They are different from those faced in the Seventies but could prove just as challenging. The UK must not reject new technologies and free trade, it must exploit them, and the best way to help communities that feel left behind is to educate and upskill, cut taxes, liberate entrepreneurs and put capitalism to work on creating real jobs. A richer Britain is more likely to be a country moving “forward” and “together”.
Of course, most voters do not read manifestos cover-to-cover. Such a document is critical to judge the achievements and integrity of a party in power, but at election time the goal is to set the tone. Mrs May’s tone taps into the particular anxieties of this era. The country craves leadership, a sense of purpose, politicians who listen and greater national unity. Hence, the Prime Minister pledges to take it through Brexit without abandoning anyone – to be a One Nation Tory properly rooted in the mainstream of British life.