Ruthless pragmatism runs deep in the Conservative party’s DNA. For almost two centuries the party has repeatedly changed and adapted according to circumstance. It is an ability which allowed the party to dominate the twentieth century.
In the wake of Brexit, the Conservative party is undergoing another period of change as Theresa May crafts the next stage in Tory modernisation. It is a process which has been developing, with varying levels of success, since the catastrophic 1997 defeat.
May’s blue-collar rebrand of modernisation differs from David Cameron’s more liberal emphasis on issues such as poverty, diversity, and climate change, but that is not the whole story. After the financial crisis, a lot of work was done to advance a blue-collar conservatism which could help the Conservatives shed their image as “the party of the rich”.
Organisations such as Blue Collar Tories, Renewal, and The Good Right appeared during the Cameron-era and produced a number of policy ideas. Nick Timothy, now May’s Chief of Staff, outlined his blue-collar conservative philosophy on Conservative Home as a columnist from 2015 to 2016. Today there is the Conservative Workers & Trade Unionists group, admirably led by Rob Halfon MP, which continues to promote a pro-working-class agenda.
These efforts did not go unnoticed by the Cameron governments. Cameron’s six years in power saw generous increases in the personal allowance, freezes in fuel duty and cuts to beer duty, the introduction of a National Living Wage, and the creation of Metro Mayors. It is a strong foundation on which May’s government can build and use to transform the Conservatives into the new workers’ party.
May’s brand of blue-collar conservatism has already made serious headway over the past year. In a recent YouGov poll, the Conservatives stood at 49% of working-class voters while Labour lagged behind with 32%. The triumphant by-election result in Copeland earlier this year, a Labour-held area since 1935, was the first concrete sign that May’s Conservatives can make a serious breakthrough in Labour’s working-class seats.
What makes this success so surprising is how May does not enjoy a significant Mayite base of support in the conservative movement. May’s popularity largely flows from her personal attributes. As the daughter of a vicar and a living embodiment of provincial Britain, May appeals to people in a way which Cameron, as the son of a stockbroker and a product of Britain’s elite, could not. By leading an almost presidential-style campaign, May is speaking directly to the “ordinary working people” she needs to give her a landslide victory next month.
Even if May does achieve an electoral breakthrough, future success can only be guaranteed if her government has lasting achievements which secure the loyalty of working-class voters. Failing to do so would undo the progress which has been made and confirm many voters’ belief that the Conservatives care only for the privileged few.
May can deliver lasting change with the help of the broader conservative movement. An intellectual voice for Mayism provided by journalists, policy thinkers, and academics is needed to help produce policy ideas and defend them in the public arena. If Mayites do not emerge soon, then May will find it extremely difficult to bring about a much-needed realignment in British politics.