What Conservative activists want

In Birmingham, May spoke both to and for her party rank and file

It is what she didn’t say that has been the most interesting aspect of Theresa May’s Conservative party conference performances.

This is a woman in love with her party and its activists, which was never the case with David Cameron or Tony Blair.

We forget at our peril that, from her early schooldays, May was a Conservative party ‘geek’.

When she left Oxford university with a degree in geography, she worked for the Bank of England. Former BoE officials recall a woman obsessive to the point of being boring about local Tory party politics. She spent her 20s and 30s climbing the greasy ladder of south London municipal politics, rising to the heights of chair of the education committee of the South London Borough of Merton – which may explain her curious 1950s retro obsession with restoring grammar schools.

When she became an MP she had no children to bring up, so she spent her spare time immersed in grassroots Tory politics. She reads the activists of the Conservative party as if they were her own family.

Hence her pandering to their continued obsession with Brexit. No prime minister has made so many speeches at a party conference or spent so much time on the BBC’s flagship political shows.

But what did May say in Birmingham? The most important reference was to reject any role in UK law for the European Court of Justice. In fact, to remove UK courts from supranational accountability, she would have to leave the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights – set up by the government of Winston Churchill in the 1950s.

Britain does not become ‘sovereign and independent’ by leaving the European Union. It requires leaving the ECHR. Indeed, as home secretary May seemed more angry with ECHR decisions than those of the ECJ.

But she did not say in specific terms that the UK would leave the EU customs union, the nuclear option for ‘hard Brexit’. This would require every product or component leaving Britain for Europe to be cleared by customs, with an enormous increase in paperwork and bureaucracy performed by thousands of new customs officials.

May also swerved around concrete proposals to ban some EU citizens from entering the UK. There is much chatter about quotas, and work permits, even an updated ‘Passport for Pimlico’ just for City bankers – again, very 1950s retro. But every single EU head of government has said on the record that any UK discrimination against their citizens (and voters) will be seen as a hostile act.

There is no chance of any passporting or full, unfettered access to the EU market, particularly in financial services, if Britain treats EU citizens as unwelcome and unwanted.

But this is what Tory activists want – even if many Conservative MPs are frightened about the economic impact on the UK when the message goes around the world that opening a plant in the north of England or an office in London means you can only do business in the UK. And that any product or service destined for the world’s biggest market on our doorstep will be treated on the same basis as if it were coming from Asia or Africa.

This week May was not speaking to the world, or even the nation and its elected representatives, but rather to her beloved Tory party rank and file.

As the BBC’s shrewd political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, noted, there is no agreement at cabinet level on what kind of Brexit is desirable. Universities in particular are quaking on their high tables at the prospect of being cut off from Europe. All the servants in Oxbridge colleges are now from eastern Europe. At my old Oxford college, the head butler is a Lithuanian woman with a Ph.D.

But Oxford dons will have to get used to pouring their own port if the prime minister listens only to what her party rank and file want.


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