Blog: Theresa May resets what it means to be Conservative

Head of Communications Jonathan Roberts blogs on Theresa May's first party conference speech as Prime Minister.

A new political leader has limited time to define themselves.  If you don’t define yourself, others will do it for you – and it won’t be as favourable.

Theresa May’s first speech to Conservative Party Conference as Prime Minister wasted no time.  Her intentions were made clear. Conservatism has been reset, its recent classical liberalism capped and ‘what’s good for business is good for the country’ approach to capitalism scrapped entirely. Worker rights matter as much as tax cuts, the social matters as much as the economic. We did what was necessary after the crash, she argued, now we have to do what’s right.  

May declared herself an economic interventionist, a concern for any lover of free markets, but preliminary reports from the commentariat that her remarks were anti-business are exaggerated.  Her mission is to stamp out corporatism masquerading as capitalism.  The former, she believes, works for the few, the latter works for the many.  This, she believes, will clean up the name of capitalism, and restore its ability to spread the creation of wealth to anyone with an idea and a strong work ethic.

Well, that’s the plan.  But it's a risky strategy.  At this time, doing anything that sounds even remotely critical of business will be seized upon by those questioning Britain's post-referendum economy.  If she wants to reform capitalism, she'll need to be subtle about it. 

Where she needs to be careful also is the dichotomy between her demand for a more global outlook, and the British jobs for British workers rhetoric – particularly in the Home Secretary’s call for companies to report data on the number of foreign workers they employ.  Maintaining access to the world’s best talent is fundamental to the UK’s economic well being.  Certainly in maritime services, this complements, not detracts from the homegrown workforce.  

Her speech redefined compassionate, one nation Toryism.  Whilst previous incarnations of the philosophy focused on the power of the individual to change their lives, this speech focused on the power of the state.  Government can be a force for good so long as you have the right leader.  No guesses for who she believes is the right leader, but by referencing Prime Minister’s past, from Disraeli to Atlee to Thatcher, she is clear hers will be an historic premiership and she framed her mission as equivalent to any of her predecessors.

For anyone who thought Brexit was a victory for nu-libertarianism, such open flirtation with statism may stick in the craw.  But it was clear that Brexit is now in the hands of the State.  There will be no running commentary – Article 50 will be issued by March 2017 but we won’t be told what the negotiating positions will be. 

That is, of course, perfectly reasonable.  You don’t tell your fellow poker players what your hand is.  But Government is inherently a sieve of information.  Negotiating positions will leak and government will need to be prepared for the consequences (or, if it’s smart, it may well ‘leak’ false information about what it wants).

But for those who want to know more than ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we’ve got it.  Her commitment to border controls and to leaving the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice, de facto means we will be leaving the Single Market.  A harder Brexit is more likely than a soft one, and with it, membership of the Customs Union is now looking unlikely.  One can presume therefore, that government’s favoured option is a Free Trade Deal with the remaining members of the EU. 

Free trade of course does not necessarily mean no customs reporting – a bureaucratic and costly exercise.  This would have to be negotiated.  £120bn of trade moves through Dover alone each year, and growth has been facilitated by the ease with which those goods can move through the ports.  No checks, no paperwork, trading with Munich is as easy as it is with Manchester.  Lose this ease of doing trade and you may well find you lose the trade, and with it, economic growth. It is not in anyone’s interests, the UK’s or Europe’s, to see that trade diminish, but whilst pragmatism may prevail in the end, the politics of the UK trading with the EU free from customs-controls, but outside of the Single Market, does not play well for the Europeans. 

We have made these representations directly to the Department for Exiting the European Union and we will continue to do so.

But Theresa May today announced there will be no shortage of support for British industries of strategic importance.  This is the challenge for shipping – we may know that we are strategically important but we have to ensure government knows it too.  That will be front and centre of our communication strategy.  Government believes there is a great deal of opportunity to be found in Brexit, many people I have spoken to in the industry believe that too, albeit rather more quietly.  But our belief is clear that Brexit can only work if it works for the UK’s most global of industries too – shipping.

A party leader speaking for the first time is always afforded free rein.  It is a convention that allows rhetorical flourish, ideological purity and relative immunity from a demand for real substance. It is designed to let us know who they are.  But with real economic uncertainty, time for such frivolities is limited.  This speech marks the end of her honeymoon period, she made the most of it, she made her mission clear, but the real work starts now.