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Theresa May: “We’ve got to make the case for free markets all over again. That message has been lost”

13 min read

Theresa May fears the Conservatives’ free market message is under threat at home and abroad, as under-40s turn to ‘socialist’ Labour and world leaders turn to protectionism. But does she have the answers to the challenges facing her party and her country? As the Tories gather for their first conference since the general election, the Prime Minister talks to former leader Michael Howard about what went wrong – and how she plans to put it right

The election obviously didn’t result in the way that you or I hoped it would. What lessons have you learned from the way the election went, and above all from the result?

I would say a couple of things, straight off. Obviously as a party we’re looking closely at the election. But from my point of view I would cite two things. First of all, when I came into Downing Street I stood on the steps and I set out my platform for the future. That didn’t come through in the election. The sense of a country that works for everyone, and the way that I wanted to take that forward. I think that was one issue.

I think the other issue was the need to have, in a sense, a less centralised campaign. You obviously need to have a central focus in the campaign. But I think that an awful lot of people out there in the party worked hard on the ground, and there is a feeling that there wasn’t the ability to do what they wanted to do. There weren’t the links with the centre that there should have been. That’s one of the issues we need to look at.

With a snap election of course you have to do a little more from the centre, in relation to the selection of candidates. But I think it’s in relation to ensuring that the campaign at the centre is reflecting what’s happening at the grassroots.

So the fact that it was a snap election was a significant factor?

I think it was, because by definition in a snap election you’ve not been able to prepare people for it. So out there people have to work quite quickly to put their local campaigns together, and you do get slightly more of a central approach. We need to look at that very carefully, and to make sure we get the connection between what people want to do locally and the central campaign.

One of the challenges which the election threw up – really very starkly – was the inability of the Conservative party to appeal to young people. We didn’t have a majority with any age group under 40. Do you think that that age group has forgotten the importance of free markets? Is it a lesson that, somehow or other, needs to be relearned?

I think you’ve put your finger on something really important there. As somebody who was heavily involved in the pre-1997 Conservative government, so much work was done to get that message across, of the importance of free markets, of sound management of the economy, of global trade. And sadly we do see that that message has been lost.

I think in a sense we thought those arguments were done and dusted. That everybody understood it. That we didn’t have to go back to them. I think now we see we do have to go back to them. We’ve got to make that case all over again, because there is a generation who have grown up in a different environment and perhaps haven’t seen the problems that can occur when you don’t believe in free markets and sound management of the economy.

How do we do that?

Well, I think we do it in a number of ways. There is a lot of interest in the party, among parliamentary colleagues, for getting out there and having that debate and actually making that argument. Not just as a government, but also as individuals getting out there and making that argument at local level.

I think we have to show for younger people – and it used to be the case that Conservatives, when they talked about younger people perhaps not supporting the party, they were thinking about students and people under the age of 25. Now it’s under the age of 40 – I think we need to show that we have the policies that will provide for people and will deal with the issues they’re concerned about. 

I think there is a generation out there who feel that they’re going to be worse off than their parents. And what we want as Conservatives is that people should be able to see a brighter future for their children. 

On the mechanics of it, what about the part played in the election by social media? I think by common consent we were out campaigned. What’s being done about that?

There are several elements. First of all there is no doubt the party has to look very carefully at how we use social media. How do we communicate on social media? I was the first leader during the election to do a Facebook Live interview. What’s interesting about it is the way that social media interaction gives you much faster and much more comprehensive interaction with people. Thousands and thousands of people put their questions into that. Of course we couldn’t in the time available get through thousands of questions, but we got through far more questions and answers than we would do in a normal radio phone-in, for example. There is an immediacy about social media that I think is appealing to a lot of people.

But there can also be a downside, in the sense that, what we saw in the election was an awful lot of abuse on social media of candidates. That I think is problematic. We need to think quite carefully about that side of it, those problems. A lot of people had some really quite difficult campaigns because of what was said across social media.

It almost brings us to question the nature of political debate, which is changing. It’s quite difficult to get a handle on that.

It is. There was the day when there much more of an emphasis on people coming together for debates during election campaigns. Now it’s much more disparate, campaigning and messaging, precisely because there are so many more people on social media talking to each other about the campaign and political parties interacting with that as well.

Campaigning is changing. My own view is that you should never move away from the more traditional forms of campaigning. I still think knocking on doors and talking to people is an important part of campaigning, I still do it outside of campaigns. But all these other ways of campaigning mean that there is a much more disparate way of campaigning and we’re talking to more individual members of the public though social media.

But the Labour party in particular seem to be much more organised on this. Almost every time there is an interview on the mainstream media, on the Today programme or on television, involving a Conservative politician, there are tweets in their multitude denigrating that politician. And if there is a Labour politician who may occasionally be given a relatively hard time by one of these interviewers, the tweets in their multitude denigrate the interviewer. It’s bound to have some effect. 

This is something we have to think about very seriously. I think that, perhaps as a party or as a government, we’ve seen social media as a means of trying to disseminate a message. But others are using it in a much more varied way. They’re using it to create an atmosphere around what is being said, around interviews, around events, which leads people to question them.

It creates an atmosphere of disbelief in people’s minds, rather than an atmosphere where people are actively thinking about the arguments that are being put forward. If you are constantly being told that this interviewer is completely against your way of thinking then you start to believe that and approach what you hear with that in your mind.

The ways in which social media can be used not just to disseminate a message but to create those negative atmospheres – and of course positive atmospheres in relation to members of a party, in the cases you’re quoting in the Labour party – is something we need to think very carefully about.

It’s another aspect of the changing nature of campaigning, which I think is changing more radically and dramatically than it has in my lifetime.

You’re right. But it’s a reflection of a changing approach in society as a whole – and obviously it’s fed through into political campaigning. It does create an entirely different world for political campaigning, and as Conservatives we need to not just look at what we didn’t do or could have done better in this election campaign, we need to say where is this going for the future, and how can we ensure that we respond to that? 

Your speech in Florence was a basis on which the Conservative party can and should unite. What do you think the prospects are – despite some of the newspaper articles we’ve read over the weekend – for maintaining or perhaps creating a degree of unity as the negotiations proceed?

I thought it was important before I did the speech in Florence that I brought the Cabinet together to look at that speech and to give their views on it. As you know as a former Cabinet member, we don’t talk about what was said in Cabinet, but we had a good debate and what came out of that was absolute unity across the government about that speech. Now we have to take that forward, we’re going into the third round of negotiations. The negotiations will be lasting for some time; we know the date that we will come out of the EU is March 2019. But the government is very clear that the approach that I set out on Florence was the right one.

You must very often feel like knocking heads together, but you manage to appear serene.

I think as prime minister, but also as leader of the party, it’s important always to keep ones focus on your vision and your aims for the future. In Brexit terms, I have two aims – one is to deliver on the aims of the British people, the other is to do that in the way that is best for the British people.

I want to take you back to the speech you made on the steps of Downing Street when you became Prime Minister. How are you going to be able to deliver on that? Because that struck a resonant note. I think you were one of the first Western leaders to really point to the fact that globalisation – which we all subscribe to because of its overall benefits – doesn’t actually benefit everyone. So how can you get back to that message and how can you deliver on it?

I think you’re right, it did strike a real chord that message. And we are getting back to it in a number of ways. On the globalisation point, I think there is a real challenge globally today, free trade is being challenged in a way that it hasn’t been for many, many years. There are elements, as we see across the world, of protectionism creeping in. And that is because there are people who do feel that globalisation has not benefited them, that however good it might be it’s always other people who get an advantage out of it.

I want to hold on to global free trade. It’s very important as a principle and something we want to encourage. So I think it’s important for us to be able to show people how it can make a difference and how it can bring prosperity and jobs. But we need to do that by making sure that what people see in their own country and here in the UK is that it’s doing that everywhere. People have felt that parts of the UK have benefited more than others. In policy terms, our Industrial Strategy is part of that. It’s ensuring that we can encourage growth and jobs across the whole of the UK, rather than seeing it far too often being concentrated in certain areas.

But there are other parts of the speech that I believe were equally important. The injustices that I referred to. For example on mental health, we’re already acting on some of the issues, training staff in schools, the National Citizen Service will be bringing mental health awareness into the work they do from next summer. There are a whole variety of ways that we’re starting to change the way people think about mental health and raise awareness of mental health problems and the importance of dealing with them.

To return for a moment to globalisation, you’ve talked about global bullies, large multinational corporations who dodge the taxes they should be paying, who spend millions of pounds lobbying governments, including ours, and who go to extraordinary lengths to stifle competition. What can be done to deal with that? That’s a legitimate target for people who criticise globalisation, because it’s an aspect of it that does not work to the benefit of the common good.

You’re right, and it leads to a wider issue, which is that it leads to people lacking confidence and lacking trust in big business. That in itself can feed into the arguments about whether or not global free trade and free markets are what we want to see. I think that’s very important, and that’s why in some of the things that I’ve spoken about, looking at corporate governance, for example, at issues of executive pay. These are all issues that we have to look at. We need to rebuild trust in business. But we also want to make sure that markets are genuinely competitive. We believe that competitive markets drive better service and are of real benefit to people.

Could a more vigorous competitive policy play apart?

I think there are certain markets where we do need to ensure that those markets are truly able to operate in a competitive way.

An issue which has bedevilled the party for a long time is the argument on modernisation. Do you think that’s now been put to bed?

I think that’s an argument that we had in the past. I think there was a time when we needed to do that. But I think we’ve moved on from that.

More broadly, what does Conservatism mean to you?

The difference that I always feel between socialism and Conservatism, is that socialists believe in holding people down, and we believe in pulling people up. In helping people to rise up, to achieve their very best.

I’ve always believed that Conservatism is about freedom, it’s about individuals being able to make decisions for themselves and their families. That’s why were a low tax party, we want people to be able to keep as much of the money they’ve earned as possible. It’s about economic security and also wider security. But it’s also crucially about opportunity, about helping people to achieve their very best in life. And that’s why one of the things I said prior to the election campaign, and I did say during the campaign, I absolutely fundamentally believe that I want this country to be a country where how far you can get on depends on your talents and your willingness to work hard, not where you come from.

I think it’s so important that we encourage aspiration, we inspire young people to be their best. For me that’s what Conservatism is about, and it’s about providing an economic environment where people can do that.



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