In many ways Theresa May is to be applauded. If she is successful in repositioning the Conservative party not only on the centre ground of British politics, but (and I can hardly believe that I am writing this) does so with one foot to the left of centre, she could assign the Labour Party to the margins for a long time. If (and I admit that this is a big ‘if’), if the country as a whole believes her rhetoric of support for not only British workers, but the British working class, and actually manages to introduce legislation that protects workers’ rights, the number of voters available to support the Labour Party will be reduced to only those who support them at a theoretical level. Those that vote on practical grounds will be lost for a long time.
However, two fundamental problems arise out of her keynote speech to yesterday’s Conservative Conference. If she is really drawing a line under David Cameron’s premiership, if she really believes there is “a need to change again” the direction of her Party, she is surely forfeiting her mandate to govern. She can parry the accusations that she has not been elected as the Prime Minister by pointing out the technically correct point that in the UK we do not elect a Prime Minister, but a party to govern – a party selected on the basis of the manifesto presented to the electorate. But if that manifesto changes, which surely it must if there is a need to change direction from that taken by the Cameron government, then the mandate to govern changes with it.
The second problem, of course, is that if she does accept that this change of direction requires the support of the British pubic before she has a mandate to govern, she will need to produce a fresh manifesto – a manifesto that all her party could support, not just those with one foot on the left of the centre line. Making a highly rhetorical speech to conference is one thing, but providing the policy detail to support her thoughts and getting the whole party to commit to the change of direction is something all together different. Getting those members with both feet firmly planted to the right of the centre line to publicly endorse such a manifesto would, I suspect, be next to impossible.
But the second problem is hers, and hers alone. The first has much wider democratic implications. The Conservative 2015 manifesto was only endorsed by 37% voters. Since then the Conservative Prime Minister who was re-elected on the ‘strength’ of that manifesto has resigned, and the new Prime Minister has just announced the need for a change of direction from that taken by his government. Under what conceivable stretch of the imagination does she consider that she has the democratic right to govern?