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Dan Hannan: Prevented from seeking selection in Aldershot (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)


Theresa May is heading for the biggest general election win for any Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory of 1983 — or so it seems at the time of writing, three weeks before polling stations open. May — especially when she is contrasted with the hapless, hopeless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — has caught the public imagination and seems to be reaching parts of the UK — in Wales, Scotland and the North — that previous Tory leaders could only have dreamt of.

Under these circumstances, one might imagine that there would be terrific enthusiasm for May and her impending victory among right-of-centre policy wonks and the Conservative Eurosceptic commentariat. Instead, the reaction is distinctly muted; there is none of the euphoria and impending excitement one might expect to find. The situation is the opposite of that under Mrs Thatcher. The only other female Prime Minister had her enthusiastic cheerleaders in the press and the think tanks long before she caught the public imagination. For Mrs May the Tory supporting press will go through the motions and express faux-enthusiasm for her project during the campaign — but its heart does not appear to be in it. The private thoughts of these same commentators are often all but openly hostile.

What explains this lack of enthusiasm? After all — even though she campaigned for Remain — Mrs May has wholeheartedly embraced the Brexit cause and is committed to reintroducing grammar schools, something many of these same commentators have championed for years.

The Conservatives’ commitment to introducing an energy cap has gone down very badly with pro-market opinion. It has been vigorously attacked, not least by the new Sunday Telegraph editor, laissez-faire evangelist Allister Heath. For all the hype around the policy, it is frankly trivial: the cap will save households, it is said, “up to” £100 per year. Since most people pay for their energy by direct debit it will mean just over £8 off bills per month — or just about enough for an extra half-pint of beer per week. It is hardly something that will transform lives, or capture the public imagination.

But those attacking the policy regard it as totemic — as it is intended to be — in that it signifies the May government’s willingness to intervene in the market. The Conservative Manifesto proposals to extend employment rights — clearly clever politics in stealing Labour’s clothes and trying to show that the Tories too are for the many, not the few — extend these fears. Yet commentators who negatively contrast Mrs May’s actions with those of earlier Conservative leaders seem to forget that the party has never been market-fundamentalist. All Tory leaders, included the sainted Mrs Thatcher, have been willing to intervene aggressively in the market. It is not just Michael Heseltine among Conservative grandees who has been willing to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea, before dinner”; much as one may regret it, it has been a long-standing tradition of the party to, as the 2017 Manifesto puts it, “not believe in untrammelled free markets”.

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