Is Theresa May running a government or a Daily Mail column?

PM echoes populist press with shopping list policies


If you wrote down a list of policies likely to please the right-wing press, it would probably look a lot like what Theresa May is offering the country. In the weeks since her coronation as Prime Minister, May has committed to:

  1. Bring back grammar schools
  2. Control immigration
  3. Escape EU laws and regulations
  4. Protect the armed forces from ‘vexatious’ legal cases
  5. Leave the EU post-haste
  6. Renew Trident

Add to this her defence of the union and anti-terrorism, and it’s practically a shopping list of Daily Mail causes.

The cynical nature of these policies is impossible to notice. The vote on Trident, for example, was rushed through before the summer recess, partly to milk divisions in the Labour Party, but mostly for a ‘big win’ and tough stance on defence for May early in her premiership.

(She even wrote an op-ed on Trident during the Tory leadership contest – published in the Daily Mail.)

And this ‘safe pair of hands’ PM has been struggling to explain her grammar schools policy ever since it was leaked out before it was ready, insisting it doesn’t signal a return to the past.

I’ve argued that the Conservative Party’s balancing act between liberal modernity and reaction – David Cameron’s famous efforts to ‘detoxify’ the brand – throws up contradictions May can’t really escape.

With every piece of nasty demagogy, (such as Jeremy Hunt’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ move today, tacitly promising to rid the NHS of foreign nurses), she risks alienating swing voters and social liberals, while austerity creates a mass constituency of resentment and disaffection.

Brexit only intensifies these pressures, as her chancellor seems to realise, hence his sotto-Keynsian noises about borrowing and housebuilding.

But the cement for all this is May’s talk of social justice, equality of opportunity, and the Tories being ‘the true workers party’. This could be lifted word-for-word from Daily Mail editorials over the last year, designed partly to neutralise the populist appeal of Ed Miliband. (Yes, the Tories were stealing Labour clothes long before Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘revolution’.)

The idea that free market Tories are the true champions of ‘ordinary people’ goes back at least to Thatcher and Reagan, and has long been a staple of the right-wing press, with papers like the Mail and the Sun claiming to speak in the vox populi.

Of course, Corbyn was quite right in his conference speech when he called the Conservatives ‘the party of the privileged few, funded by the privileged few, for the benefit of the privileged few’. The same could be said of these populist newspapers, controlled as they are by right-wing millionaires.

But this doesn’t mean the Tories won’t get support from the unprivileged many, as Theresa May repeats the formula of what are, after all, the best-read newspapers in the country.

Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13 

See: David Cameron detoxified the Tories, but on terms that led to his downfall

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