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How freedom was lost in Brexit

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 26 May 2017

When the UK voted to leave the European Union in last year’s referendum, it was widely interpreted as a victory of the political right.

That was not incorrect. The right wing of the Conservative Party and the populist UK Independence Party were the forces behind the Leave campaign.

How ironic, therefore, that 10 months later the entire spectrum of British politics has shifted to the left.

Having spent the past week in London, meeting politicians and think tankers, it was impossible not to miss this great irony of British politics. Those who were most jubilant about the Brexit vote 2016 are the most downbeat about the prospects of the 2017 election.

And there is a second irony: those depressed Brexit-supporting Tories stand to win this election by a landslide. Yet not even that prospect can cheer them up. So what has happened?|

The answer to this question has a name: Theresa May. The British Prime Minister has fundamentally transformed the Conservative Party. She has changed it from the party of Margaret Thatcher to a party whose main purpose is winning elections.

Admittedly, this is not such a big shift from the party Mrs May inherited from her predecessor David Cameron. He, too, spent an enormous amount of time and effort on “modernising” the Tory brand. Yet even Mr Cameron was not as outspoken in his repudiation of Thatcherism as Mrs May.

When launching her election manifesto last week, she did not only distance herself from Thatcherism. She also rejected the use of Mayism as a label for her own political philosophy. Little wonder: she barely has one.

It was striking that in conversations with people who have known and followed Mrs May for decades, no one could explain what really makes her tick. Think about her legendary predecessor Margaret Thatcher what you will, but determining her position on anything was never too hard.

With Theresa May, on the other hand, we are witnessing a politician with a more tactical approach to positioning. Rather than being guided by deeply held beliefs, she has moved her party to where it stands the best chances of electoral success – and that is much further to the left than any other Conservative leader in half a century.

There are two factors that probably determined Mrs May’s repositioning of the Tories. The first is the Brexit vote and the divided country it revealed.

For many of the leading Brexiteers, the quest to leave the European Union was about gaining self-control for Britain. For many of the voters opting for Brexit, it was about something completely different. It was a valve to vent their anger and send a message to the political class – not mainly in Brussels but in London.

To those disenchanted voters, Mrs May sends a clear signal that she is listening to their disquiet. This is why her manifesto promises more checks on corporate power. It is also why she is promising a reduction of Britain’s migration intake and greater efforts to upskill the British workforce. With these measures, Mrs May aims to reach those people who feel as the losers of globalisation.

The second factor behind Mrs May’s shift to the left is the state of UK Labour. Under their hapless leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has become a hard-core socialist party making Cuba’s communists look centrist.

Mr Corbyn promises a blend of higher spending, higher taxes, nationalisations and increased regulation that has not been on offer since then Labour leader Michael Foot launched his ‘longest suicide note in history’ – also known as the 1983 Labour Manifesto.

Labour has moved so far to the left that from a purely pragmatic perspective it makes sense for the Tories to move leftward, too. The Conservatives are unlikely to lose any votes on the right in doing so since there is no alternative for right-leaning voters.

But they stand to gain plenty of centre-left voters. These are people who would have usually voted Labour but for whom Mr Corbyn is too far to the left.

As a result, we are now witnessing a Tory party that promises an election manifesto that previous Labour leaders such as Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown or Tony Blair could have been proud of. But one thing it clearly is not: a conservative manifesto.

Mrs May’s left-shift of the Conservative party is not just visible in the manifesto promises. It also shows in the selection of candidates.

Because it is a snap election, the party’s headquarters had much greater say in picking candidates than in normal elections. Local associations could typically only choose from three pre-approved candidates.

It is notable that a number of prominent Thatcherites such as Daniel Hannan and Syed Kamall, both members of the European Parliament, were effectively blackballed in this way. They may be popular with the Tory grassroots but they obviously do not fit into Mrs May’s new left-leaning Conservative party.

For those people who campaigned for Brexit in the hope that it would yield a more liberal, more free market Britain, these developments are a huge disappointment. Their desired referendum result had the effect of moving the country in the opposite direction.

At least for some centre-left Labour supporters, there is some good news. The party that was destroyed by Jeremy Corbyn has just been resurrected. It is now called the Conservative Party.

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