When she became Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May promised to take on the "burning injustices" of deprivation and discrimination. But according to a report in the Times, the Tories' own private opinion polls now tell them that promising to stop things being so unjust is losing them votes.
The problem is, people don't believe May's Tories will do anything about these injustices, so reminding voters they exist just pushes them towards Labour, who they believe are more likely to actually work for social and economic justice.
May first warned Tories that they were seen as a "nasty party" back in 2002. But she really cranked up her message of "reform" when she became Prime Minister in 2016. In her first speech, on the steps of Downing Street, May said she had a "mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone". She would stand up for the "ordinary working class" and the "just about managing", and stand up to the powerful and the wealthy. May said it was terrible that "if you're young, you'll find it harder than ever before to own your own home", and that "if you're black, you're treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white".
However, according to the Times, two years on and the party want to shut up about May's big themes.
Conservative Central Office pay for private opinion polls every month. These polls show that on "burning injustice" issues, nearly 40 percent of people trust Labour to make things better, whereas less than 20 people of people think the Tories will fix these injustices.
It's hardly surprising: May said racial bias was unfair, but the Windrush scandal showed that, under May's lead, the government was stealing black people's citizenship. Universal Credit is squashing the poorest. Frozen wages are squeezing the "just about managing". The chance for the young to own a home – or even rent without being ripped off – feels further away than ever.
So Central Office advice to MPs is not to mention May’s burning injustices because it just makes voters wonder why they haven’t done anything about them. May said it was her "mission" to fix these injustices. Talking about them again makes it seem like "mission unaccomplished". May wanted to inject "hope" into the Tory party, but the new advice is that they should be the party of hopelessness.
American linguist George Lakoff impressed many politicians with his 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff argued that politicians must avoid using language that reflects the way their opponents "frame" the debate, because this plays into opposition hands. If you say "don't think of a rampaging elephant", you will immediately place the image of a rampaging elephant into the minds of your audience. Current Tory advice is that saying "injustice" automatically conjures up an image of a rampaging, unjust Tory elephant that needs to be tamed.
For two years, pundits have talked about May "parking her tanks on Labour's lawn". In the endlessly repeated metaphor, May supposedly occupied Labour’s space with her big, righteous tanks, their tracks churning up Labour territory, their turrets turned towards Labour’s heartlands, threatening to blast holes in the party's vote with big shells full of social justice.
But the promises were all empty. Pundits treated May's speeches like drama critics, and barely stopped to think if she really would make any change beyond the theatre of Westminster.
In the end, the simple view – that these were empty Tory promises – turned out to be not only correct, but more politically perceptive. May is now caught by the gap between her promises and the lack of positive change over housing, wages or justice.
In the end, May didn't park her tanks on Labour's lawn. She parked Labour’s tanks on her own lawn, and now the Tories want to stop talking about them in the hope they’ll go away.