Tory Conference

Theresa May Promised a Future That Doesn't Exist

The "end of austerity" might make a good headline, but that's all it is.
Simon Childs
London, GB
October 3, 2018, 3:09pm
Photo: Andrew McCaren / Alamy Stock Photo

Theresa May’s conference speech was delivered without calamity, and mostly without substance.

It was "a good speech", in the sense that you could hear what she was saying and the set didn't fall apart, despite her coming onstage to Abba's "Dancing Queen" as she reprised her awkward dancing from a recent diplomatic event in Cape Town. A quick joke about how she had been "up all night super-gluing the backdrop" and it was onto the important business of setting out an inspiring vision: British people are genetically predisposed to succeed, unless they vote Labour, who are shit.

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The overriding message was one of baseless optimism: "I passionately believe that our best days lie ahead of us and that our future is full of promise," she insisted in the face of all available evidence. She said Brexit will succeed because of "fundamental strengths as a country", our "greatest strength of all" being "the talent and diversity of our people". It's all on us, guys.

"Don't let anyone tell you we don't have what it takes: we have everything we need to succeed," she said. Everything, it seems, except a workable Brexit plan. She defended her Chequers plan, which the EU sees as dead, without actually mentioning the word Chequers – which, to many in her party, means "sell out".

This was a speech that was always going to be understood in relation to both her fever-dream of a speech last year and Boris Johnson's speech yesterday, which, without saying anything new, was enough to keep the Boris vs May leadership show on the road. But really, it was a speech played out in the shadow of Jeremy Corbyn. "Labour" was mentioned 21 times. The Labour leader was mentioned by name seven times.

May tried to cast Corbyn as some kind of grim pariah – a bold move from the leader of a party that is on friendly terms with far-right parties across Europe.

Corbyn is not just a weirdo commie, the story went, but something completely alien to the traditions of British politics and the Labour party – these assertions delivered as if Corbyn being an outsider is not exactly his appeal.

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May even answered the question of who the Conservative Party is for in relation to Labour's current campaign slogan. In response to "For the many, not the few", she offered, "A party not for the few, not even for the many, but for everyone who is willing to work hard and do their best" – an update on banalities about "hardworking families", only this time framed around a narrative set by the Opposition.

What else can you do when you have so little to say for yourself?

Well, after years spent re-toxifying the Conservative Party, you could cast yourself as a calming saintly presence in a tumultuous and nasty political landscape: "Let's rise above the abuse. Let's make a positive case for our values that will cut through the bitterness and bile that is poisoning our politics," said the former Home Secretary who introduced vans to our streets threatening migrants to "Go home or face arrest".

You could also gloss over your terrible record and repackage a country you made a hostile environment for migrants as a place of "opportunity". "If your grandparents came to our shores as part of the Windrush generation, you could be the next Mayor of London," she said, referencing Shaun Bailey, the Tory Mayoral candidate. Well, you could. Or you could see your grandparents being deported and losing everything in what would later become a national scandal.

As for actual policies to back up all this optimism, there was very little: scrapping the cap on how much councils can borrow against their Housing Revenue Account assets to fund new developments, a reiteration that Britain is to become a tax haven with the lowest corporation tax in the G20, a new Cancer Strategy and, supposedly, the "end of austerity".

The end of austerity is a big headline. You can end austerity as an on-going policy of emaciating public services to the point of crisis – although a genuine commitment on that was punted to a spending review next year.

"A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over and that their hard work has paid off," said May – which seemed a grimly euphemistic way to draw a line under a policy that has caused 120,000 unnecessary deaths. Plus, can you really "end austerity" as a ten-year period in which vast amounts of public wealth were transferred to private wealth? When austerity involved a massive fire-sale of public assets to the private sector, the question is: who it has "paid off" for? And to whose loss?

If austerity does come to an end, it will have made Britain a worse place based on bogus economics, and caused a number of social crises – for which May offered no solutions.

@simonchilds13