Like Tony Blair in 1997, Mrs May is where the majority of voters are: to the left on the economy and to the right on social issues. She plays to this mood, a political judgment that risks society closing in on itself rather than opening up.
Theresa May’s manifesto reveals more about her plans to refound the Conservative party than her plans to run the country. Her programme for the Tories would read as a heretical document to many in her party, brought up on a diet of state-shrinking, me-first Thatcherism. Instead, Mrs May talks about rejecting the “cult of selfish individualism” and says her party does not now believe in “untrammelled free markets”. To see how big a leap this is. consider how much the Conservative party of the recent past changed the temper of Britain, fostering a mood of materialistic individualism. Mrs May consciously jettisons this individualist heritage because she knows that the public associate Thatcherism less with an unleashing of economic virtue than an unfettering of the social vices of selfishness and greed. It has contributed, as Mrs May has long contended, to the Conservatives’ reputation as the “nasty party”.
In many ways Mrs May is swimming with, not against, the political tide. No classical liberal party is contesting this election. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have moved leftwards. By proposing to cancel key Lib Dem achievements – such as the constitutional reform of fixed-term parliaments – Mrs May signals that she wishes to wipe out traces of “Liberalism” from government.
There’s a mood afoot in the country against free markets and a cultural change in favour of a politics that combines greater economic justice with more social concord. Mrs May taps into this when she talks of the NHS as part of a system of solidarity that is more than mutual self-interest. This sits awkwardly with the harsh reality that the NHS is under the worst financial pressure it has ever faced. But if Mrs May can persuade voters that she can be trusted with the NHS then she will have succeeded in capturing key electoral terrain with what appears to be very little extra money.