Plan to rein in business will be test of Theresa May’s mettle
British leader will need intestinal fortitude to overturn Margaret Thatcher’s legacy
British prime minister Theresa May delivering her keynote speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: PA
Much of the instant commentary on Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative conference yesterday characterised it as a grab for the political centre, capitalising on Labour’s weakness. It was much more audacious than that, not so much an attempt to reclaim the centre ground as to redefine it.
In a frontal assault on the political orthodoxy which has held sway for decades, not just in Britain but throughout most of the western world, May tore to shreds Margaret Thatcher’s notorious assertion that there was no such thing as society.
She also rejected the consensus shared both by New Labour and the liberal Conservatives around David Cameron that the free market, lightly regulated, will provide prosperity for the nation’s citizens.
The prime minister renewed her party’s vows of fidelity to the market but she devoted much of her speech to outlining the ways in which government ought to intervene to ensure it serves the public interest.
And although she sneered at the “socialist left”, most of her fire was trained on what she called the “libertarian right” and the excesses of businessmen like Sports Direct’s Mike Ashley and BHS’s Philip Greene.
James Sproule from the Institute of Directors was among the business lobbyists to respond to the speech with an expression of wounded pride.
“Business leaders are not pantomime villains, evading taxes and employing cheap labour from abroad out of some destructive desire to do Britain down, and for every Mike Ashley or Philip Green there are hundreds of thousands of hard-working entrepreneurs who are more likely to remortgage their homes than own a superyacht,” he said.
There is much that is unattractive about May’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain, notably her proposal to compel businesses to publish the number of non-British workers they employ.
Her anti-elitist rhetoric was crude at times, and her trumpeting of the patriotic values of “ordinary” British people sounded cheap.
It is, as many commentators hastened to point out yesterday, one thing for May to set out a vision and quite another to put it into action. Britain’s political and media establishment, and perhaps a majority within her own parliamentary party, remain committed to the liberal consensus she has in her sights.
The business of negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will sap much of the intellectual energy as well as the resources of her government. And business will not accept any restrictions on its activities without a struggle.
Thatcher also faced strong headwinds within her own party and among elite opinion-formers when she set out to reshape Britain in 1979.