Citizens of the world, look out
If you were so inclined, at the Conservative Party Conference you could don a virtual reality headset, sit on a McDonald’s branded lorry, grasp the steering wheel in front of you and pretend to be a potato farmer. Delegates who liked more violence in their fantasies could have a go on the grouse shooting simulator. If it was retail therapy you wanted, a cushion with John Major’s face on would set you back £30, but you could buy two white babysuits printed with ‘Little Iron Lady’ or ‘Future Prime Minister’ for the same price.
In the days before Theresa May’s main speech, her cabinet ramped up the anti-migrant rhetoric, calling for a transition to an NHS without foreign-born doctors, plans to force businesses to reveal how many foreign workers they employ, and making student visas even harder to obtain. The rhetoric was dragged to the right to make the prime minister’s keynote speech seem calmer, more centrist by comparison. She began by heralding ‘a new united Britain, rooted in the centre ground’, but then lurched to the right, ditching David Cameron’s cautious centrism for a more calculated populism and xenophobia.
‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,’ May warned, after squarely blaming migration for unemployment: ‘To someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair.’ She went for dog whistles rather than the outright xenophobia of her colleagues: she used the word ‘immigration’ only three times, but referred to Britain as ‘the country of my parents’. The message was clear: post-Brexit, Britain withdraws, turns inward, relies on patriotism to quell the fears of impending economic catastrophe, and halting and expelling migrants is more important than any real certainty of our place in the world.
She used the term ‘working class’ seven times: talking of ‘ordinary voters’ as part of a ‘quiet revolution’ who voted for Brexit in order to be listened to. May promised ‘an economy that works for everyone’, though ‘everyone’ does not include migrants. The dream set out by Tory party conference sees a mass exodus of foreign workers, with skilled migrants relinquishing jobs for British-born workers. Jeremy Hunt promised to ‘train up to 1500 more doctors every year’, which he would pay for by ‘ask[ing] all new doctors to work for the NHS for four years’, like ‘army recruits’. Andrea Leadsom, briefly May’s challenger for the leadership and now the environment secretary, said she hoped young Britons will fill the low-paid, low-skilled fruit-picking jobs currently done by migrant workers in many parts of England.
But the audience at the conference was anything but working-class. One man, on learning I often write about housing, asked how many homes I own. I told him none. He thought I must be joking. I heard three more people closing deals on houses; two of them seemed to be paying cash. The Legatum Institute’s fringe event ‘From Poverty to Prosperity’ was cancelled. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation had gin and tonic made with Spectator-branded gin. Another fringe event was entitled ‘Inequality – does it matter?’ For all May’s feigned concern for working-class Britons, it was business as usual for the Conservatives in Birmingham.
After Cameron left Number 10, May was hailed in many quarters as a more centrist leader, likely to be more cautious, aware of her precarious position as an appointed rather than elected prime minister. But she won’t hold her position by being cautious. The Conservatives’ majority is slim: too slim to withstand too many rebellions in parliament and far too slim to assure victory in 2020. To win, she has to echo Margaret Thatcher in 1979: lurch to the right to swallow Ukip voters, while claiming to be centrist enough to cling onto more modern Tory voters. There are names for rampant xenophobia combined with economic populism, but 'centrism' isn’t one of them.