Like Rocky Balboa facing Clubber Lang, Theresa May has come out fighting in the face of batterings from both Brussels and Boris Johnson and buffetings from what Harold Macmillan termed “events”. Many of the blows the British prime minister has suffered were an inevitable consequence of the botched 2017 election result.
A key reason Mrs May lost support from the electorate was a public perception that she had moved away from addressing society’s “ burning injustices” to a manifesto that could have been written by satirical Tory villain Alan B’stard. There was talk of taking away free school meals, abolishing the winter fuel allowance and threatening pensioners with taking their homes to pay for social care. Her poll lead fell as domestic policy was choked by the smothering Brexit fog.
The prime minister went back this week to being the leader she promised she would be in 2016. Two years on, she has been transported back to the beginning of her premiership on the steps of Downing Street, speaking passionately about tackling Britain’s social problems.
In her conference speech in Birmingham, we heard about greater spending on the NHS and affordable housing — recognising that one in four of the population have just £95 in savings and that a million people live in overcrowded accommodation. Hers was not a retreat from a property-owning democracy, far from it. Decent social housing is the first step — not the last — for people to get on the housing ladder.
The fuel duty freeze, dismissed by some of the chattering classes as a minor change, has huge impact on families and businesses, too. It is also a symbolic move demonstrating that Tories really are on the side of workers. Now we must do more on the cost of living, building on the energy price cap to extend competition and ending rip-off practices by those companies operating essential public services.
The conference slogan highlighted opportunity: the prime minister’s speech seized on the theme. Mrs May is attempting to reconnect with those who are just about managing and to convince those on lower incomes and from disadvantaged backgrounds that Conservatives are on their side. She sounded again like a politician who understood that neither society nor a Conservative government can flourish without tackling the causes of those burning injustices.
Her supporters and opponents should take her words as a serious statement of policy intent.
To answer Labour’s assault on capitalism, I believe the Conservatives should establish a special “capitalist redistribution fund”. The extra tax revenues that have poured in from corporation tax cuts (receipts were up 21 per cent in 2017 compared with 2016). This money should create a special fund to either spend on poorer communities, or continue to focus tax cuts on lower earners. This could include reducing the cost of national insurance or continuing to raise the tax threshold. The fund would help re-make the case for capitalism and for tax cuts — showing that boosting incentives for the wealth creators can directly benefit the less well-off.
To improve our struggling public services, the government must raid the overseas aid budget, cutting it at least in half. The billions saved should go straight into our roads, railways, schools and police service — areas where the public is desperate for more spending. Blue-collar voters cannot understand why, at times of economic austerity, billions are sent overseas where there remains so much to fix at home.
The one key thing missing from Mrs May’s speech, however, was an efficient response to Jeremy Corbyn’s offering to the young — particularly on tuition fees. Our country has a huge skills deficit. The next generation of employees is facing a disaster of lost opportunity. Staggeringly, a third of England’s 16 to 19-year-olds have low basic skills; 28 per cent of jobs currently taken by 16 to 24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s.
Mrs May should set up a royal commission to examine effect of AI, robotics and automation on employment and skills. Instead of the Corbyn student taxpayer subsidy for the middle classes, the prime minister should guarantee a high quality apprenticeship for every young person who wants one.
Following the lead of the Birmingham speech, the Conservative government must act to create social justice. We must deliver fairer redistributive capitalism, housing for everyone, not just the few, and build an apprenticeships and skills nation. In becoming the party of jobs, decent wages, welfare, rights and services for workers, we must extend the ladder of opportunity to all.
As Rocky Balboa once philosophised: “Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.” Show us what more you can do prime minister.
The writer is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the education select committee