Malcolm Turnbull must be staring at UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s poll numbers with vaulting envy. The Britain Elects polling average puts the Conservatives at 47 per cent primary vote at the time of writing, giving her a potential majority of up to 130 seats – up from David Cameron’s working majority of just 12. In stark contrast, Turnbull’s latest Newspoll places the Coalition at an election-losing 36 per cent primary vote.
It is easy to attribute this to circumstance. May is the preferred Prime Minister by 61 per cent of voters; just 23 per cent want UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the incompetent babbling unreconstructed Marxist.
May’s success, however, is not pure luck or inevitable. She came to power facing extraordinarily challenging times – a deeply divided party and country over the Brexit vote, (false) predictions of an immediate economic downturn and needed to define her leadership and manage leaving the European Union. She has proven an adept, steadfast political operator. But more than anything else, May understands that, now more than ever, values matter in politics.
May’s first speech as Prime Minister made clear who she represents: the ‘just about managing,’ known as the JAMs. These are her Howard’s Battlers or Menzies’ Forgotten People. Not the top, able to guide their own way, or the bottom, supported by a generous welfare state, but the in between. May’s approach revolves around connecting to this group, the hardworking, dedicated, and traditional, too often ignored by London-elites.
She talks about values. As a Christian, and daughter of a vicar, she expressed her opposition to Cadbury removing the word Easter from their annual egg hunt events. As a supporter of the ‘fundamental British value’ of freedom of speech, she has deplored university ‘safe spaces’ and shutting off debate. As someone from a modest background who went to a grammar school—a selective school for the educationally gifted—she supports their expansion against strong opposition.
May’s values are striking in her most difficult task: defining and negotiating Brexit. She has notably declared ‘I want us to be a truly Global Britain’. This sentiment shows comparisons between Brexit and the nativist rhetoric of Trump in the United States, or Le Pen in France, are misleading. May has committed Britain to free trade with the EU and new deals with the rest of the world including Australia. Importantly, she has rejected calls for Britain to stay in the EU common market, which would have made a mockery of the Brexit decision to ‘take back control’ by leaving rules, regulations, and immigration in the EU’s hands.
May is returning Britain to its position of global leadership on trade. These are the same liberal principles that, after the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846, led to Britain’s immense prosperity and global success in the second half of the nineteenth century. Britain’s leadership is good news for Australia, which stands to benefit in the shorter term from a trade agreement, as well as in the longer term from a new independent free trading voice at the World Trade Organisation.
Her steadfast leadership on Brexit has transformed the country from deeply divided – 52 per cent in favour, 48 per cent against – to form a new general consensus that accepts the referendum result. A recent poll from YouGov found that 68 per cent want Britain to just get on with leaving the European Union – 45 per cent ‘Hard Leavers’ who originally supported Brexit and 23 per cent who supported Remain but accept the national vote. Just 22 per cent of Britons are ‘Hard Remainers’, who believe the government should ignore the referendum result.
Sadly, on domestic economic policy, her liberal instincts are dramatically lacking. She is no Margaret Thatcher. Last year at party conference May declared that the government ‘should be prepared to intervene,’ supposedly in the name of the JAMs. The Conservatives’ election manifesto includes capping energy prices, increasing the minimum wage, abandoning Cameron’s pledge to not increase income tax, and requiring workers representation on boards. This agenda will not only face internal opposition after the election, it will make Britain poorer.
The act of Brexit itself has distracted from other important tasks. The government cited Brexit to justify abandoning plans for a budget surplus by 2020—now stretched out to 2025. May has not expressed any interest in reducing the size or scope of Britain’s bloated government (42 per cent of GDP, we’re at 36 per cent in Australia). In addition, there is a lack of commitment to dismantle burdensome EU regulations, which are to be transferred into domestic law for continuity.
May’s leadership style is boring and unflashy. She exudes stability in uncertain times, presenting a timid yet firm projection of strength. May has, for example, refused to do live televised election debates, a relatively new feature of British politics that began in just 2010. The display of macho is not for her — and would likely elevate Corbyn.
Notably, May also understands the importance of listening to the backbench and base of her party. Despite supporting Remain in the Brexit vote, she appointed of prominent Leave supporters to Cabinet, including Boris Johnson to the foreign ministry. She has been responsive to the base’s concerns. Earlier this year the exchequer announced an increase in income tax on the self-employed, in clear contradiction to 2015 election commitments. The announcement faced immediate backbench and public backlash and was dropped within a week. This contrasts starkly with Turnbull’s broken promise on superannuation changes last year – which were damagingly left on the table because the base was assumed to not matter.
May’s plentiful success should be closely watched by the right side of politics in Australia. Although imperfect, she has charted a values-driven course, responds to her public’s concerns and successfully united a divided party and country. There is much more work to be done but, politically, it’s difficult to argue against Ms 61 per cent.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. He is in London and writing about the general election.
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