I WATCHED Theresa May’s conference speech in Manchester. The main hall was full, so I experienced the May self-destruct in an overflow marquee set up inside the “security zone” by a lobbying and PR firm, PLMR.
They represent a variety of companies, including Costa Coffee and BAE systems. So thanks to the corporate political influence machine I was able to watch the Prime Minister falling apart in real time, while enjoying a supply of free pizza and champagne. It felt a bit hyper-real.
The mood among the assembled Tory-friendly lobbyists was real shock. It looked like power dissolving before our eyes and led to many involuntary, pained “ooh” and “uhn” sounds, and a general will-someone-please-end-her-misery feeling.
May’s malfunction has been blamed on many things — a “conference cold.” Ineffective magnetic letters. A prankster.
But I think May’s difficulty with her words reflects a contradiction that hobbled the Tories at the election. A rift that seems to be getting wider.
The long period of stagnation after the 2008 financial crash has worn away remaining support for both the “New Labour” and Cameroon-y way of managing the economy. Throwing a bit of cash from a booming, finance-driven economy at social welfare doesn’t work when there is less and less cash and the economy is stagnating.
The Tories got some distance by promising a sharp shock of austerity would be the basis for economic revival. But they ran out of road when the revival didn’t happen and the shock became dull, continuous pain.
Which has left the Tories flipping between offering feel-better reforms and promising more stern measures.
So in the election they wobbled between half-baked “reform” ideas promoted by May’s rubbish Rasputin, the mediocre monk Nick Timothy, and “tough talk” offered by “Lizard of Oz” Lynton Crosby.
May opened her conference speech admitting this, saying the election campaign was “too scripted. Too presidential. And it allowed the Labour Party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change.”
So it looks like May wants to restart the “change” agenda. The attempt to “park her tanks on Labour’s lawn.”
Her problem is, as I’ve said before, the “tanks” are so obviously fake. They are not the dangerous battlefield steel machines. They are easily spotted decoy tanks, made of wood and canvas.
As May’s speech faltered under her coughing fit and lost voice, it was hard not to think some of the problem came from her lack of belief in the words she mouthed.
Because Jeremy Corbyn seems more committed the eye-catching parts of May’s speech than Theresa May does.
May said the background to the speech was how “the effects of the financial crisis — nearly a decade of low growth, stagnating wages and pay restraint linger.”
But stagnating pay doesn’t “linger” — it is forced on the public sector by her pay policies. It infects the private sector by the growth of phony self-employed and temp work, which her government has allowed to spread.
May declared she had “always taken on vested interests” and “called out those who abuse their positions of power” because she was always “sweeping away injustice.”
This was the Theresa May who voted against the introduction of the minimum wage and for keeping the anti-gay bigotry of Section 28.
May declared that “the National Health Service” is “the very essence of solidarity in our United Kingdom.” Yet her government is trying to squeeze away that essence with cuts and break up the solidarity with privatisation.
May announced that “we will oversee the biggest expansion in training for doctors and nurses.”
But May is also forcing student nurses to pay £9,000 tuition fees and abolished their bursaries. So nursing school applications have — unsurprisingly — collapsed.
May said that she was about “fixing our broken housing market” by getting government back into the business of building houses with “a new generation of council houses” and rules giving “more security” for “families who rent from a private landlord.”
But it turns out the “new generation” of council houses is a negligible 5,000 a year, some time in the future.
The “security” for renters just a code of practice.
May also promised “a price cap on energy bills” because “the energy market punishes loyalty with higher prices.” But is this the full price cap or the partial, temporary price cap for some customers? May flits between the two.
What was in the speech — an end to wage stagnation, extra NHS money, council houses, energy price caps, taking on vested interests — are all the things Corbyn passionately believes, but May merely mouths. It was hard not to see the loss of voice as May’s body being honest about how much she means this stuff.
The problem for her is that the reforms look unconvincing. And with every month in power, every failure to introduce these reforms, makes them look less convincing.
But the pure “stern” approach just doesn’t win votes. The message from conference was that May will make the “reform” promises.
Other cabinet ministers — like Chancellor Philip Hammond — will put out the “stern” messages.
But the formula isn’t working. The “nice” and “nasty” just cancel each other out.
The continuing ideological split creates a big advantage for Labour. But is also a big warning.
May is raising expectations she cannot meet. But the shadow cabinet must look like it can meet those needs. And when it becomes a cabinet it must deliver them. Neither are easy.
Unless Labour ministers end up physically handing over the keys of attractive new social houses to tenants, they will suffer the same fate as May.
Unless words become solid, they will, like May, become a broken reed.
Actually forcing through social change after years of technocratic tinkering by governments will be hard. To do so Labour’s MPs will need a unity of purpose and force of will that they are only beginning to show.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @Sol_Hughes_Writer
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