A weakened and divided UKIP to the right of her, a weakened and divided Labour party to the left of her, and a hole in the centre where the Lib Dems used to be. No wonder Theresa May thinks she rules the world.
But I’m afraid she is in for a nasty (her favourite word) shock. Her message to the Conservative party conference on Wednesday was audacious if you took it at face value – and deluded nonsense as soon as you started to pick it apart.
It was politics as fantasy. A speech delivered by a prime minister who seems to believe that the question on the referendum ballot paper last June was: ‘Do you want Theresa May to reinvent the UK in her own image?’ and that 99% of us voted Yes.
The prime minister wants us to be in no doubt: she is not Dave. If it was always possible to imagine her predecessor as a Cavalier, all periwigged, shiny-faced and tight breeches, she is a Roundhead, stern, no-nonsense, disapproving of fripperies. She would never have joined the Bullingdon Club, even if they had allowed her in. (Mind you, the snazzy clothes and shoes are a glaring contradiction, a sign perhaps of some inner conflict still raging. Is she really a crazy party girl, forced to deny her true nature by the dictates of her father, an Anglican vicar?)
Mrs May apparently thinks she now has free rein to do all the things she has wanted to do during those long years she sat at the Cabinet table and bit her lip. Reintroduce grammar schools? Try getting that through the House of Lords. Workers’ representatives on corporate boards? Wait till the CBI’s lobbyists have wined and dined a few Tory backbenchers.
Oh, and then there’s this thing called Brexit. Not a thing at all, of course, but a process, a long, difficult, fiendishly complex process that could well take a decade, or even two decades, to complete. A process, by the way, that Mrs May, in theory, was opposed to all along, although she has now jumped on board with all the unbridled enthusiasm of a born-again religious convert.
But watch what happens to investment plans once the truth about the UK leaving the single market kicks in – and listen out for the screams of anguish from hi tech bosses as they discover that whizz kids from overseas have started looking for opportunities anywhere but in the UK. Plus the wails from the universities who rely on fees paid by overseas students to balance the books, once word gets out that Britain isn’t so keen any more on students from beyond our shores.
Some major banks are already reportedly making their plans to move out of London. According to the Brussels-based website Politico EU, suiters from Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin are already hard at work in the City, and Luxembourg has been sending industry experts, lawmakers and consultants across the Channel to offer advice on ‘contingency planning.’
Perhaps you wouldn’t be too distressed to see the backs of those over-bonused bankers, but you should probably bear in mind that the UK financial services industry generates between £190 billion and £205 billion of revenue annually and employs 1.1 million people, according to a report this week. The industry also pays between £60 billion and £67 billion in taxes each year. They’ll leave a helluva hole in the government’s coffers if they up sticks.
Mrs May clearly thinks there is mileage in being rude about the UK’s corporate culture. I’d like to think that she is right, because there is a lot to be rude about. But wait till the Conservative party’s donors start kicking up a fuss, and all those non-executive director Tory MPs report back from frosty boardrooms.
Worst of all, though, wait till people have had a chance to ponder what on earth she meant when she said: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’
Tell that to the 135,000 NHS employees in England and Wales who were born overseas. Or the tens of thousands of British school and college leavers who hope to travel or find work abroad. Or the refugees and asylum seekers who fondly believe, as my own parents did more than 75 years ago, that Britain was a country where they could find a safe haven to build a new life.
Citizens of the world are also known as cosmopolitans, people who, according to my dictionary, are ‘familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures’. Both the Nazis and Stalin railed against such people (Jews in particular were called ‘rootless cosmopolitans’), and we know where that led. I sincerely hope that Mrs May had no idea what deeply unpleasant undercurrents she was tapping into when she spoke those words.
On the other hand, what she said about inequality, tax dodgers and market failures could have come straight from the mouth of Ed Miliband. What she said about the role of an interventionist government in improving the lives of ordinary people would be music to the ears – if they believed that she meant what she said – of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
But what she and her mini-me home secretary Amber Rudd said about immigrants was straight from the UKIP playbook. Let us not forget who was home secretary when those vile ‘Go home’ billboard vans took to the streets three years ago. It was not exactly Mrs May’s finest hour. Fortunately, Ms Rudd is already frantically rowing back from her nasty (it’s that word again) suggestion that companies should be shamed into disclosing how many foreign workers they employ. But the message was clear enough: foreigners not wanted. Go home.
Are you a Labour voter unhappy with Jeremy Corbyn? Climb aboard Theresa’s train: she is the champion of the working class. Or are you a UKIP supporter, in despair as your party’s MEPs punch each other’s lights out? Don’t worry, Theresa knows how you feel: she’s there for you.