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Theresa May will use speech to reposition Tories on 'the new centre ground'

Published 04/10/2016

Prime Minister Theresa May will offer legal protection to British troops
Prime Minister Theresa May will offer legal protection to British troops

Theresa May will use her first conference speech as Conservative leader to draw a clear line under the era of her predecessor David Cameron by declaring her determination to reposition the party on "the new centre ground of British politics".

Denouncing Jeremy Corbyn's Labour for a "sanctimonious pretence of moral superiority", Mrs May will state her intention for the Tories to usurp its traditional position as the party of "ordinary working-class people", the NHS and public servants.

But she will also distance herself from the small-state politics of earlier Tory leaders like Margaret Thatcher by insisting that government can be "a force for good", providing benefits for society that individuals, communities and the market cannot.

Concluding a four-day conference in Birmingham which has been dominated by Brexit, Mrs May will seek to turn attention away from Europe towards her broader vision of the economic and social reforms needed to deliver on her slogan of A Country That Works For Everyone.

She will tell delegates: "I want to set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics - built on the values of fairness and opportunity - where everyone plays by the same rules and where every single person, regardless of their background or that of their parents, is given the chance to be all they want to be."

In a telling rhetorical shift away from her Eton-educated predecessor's promises to help "hard-working people", Mrs May will say her administration's aim will be to "put the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people".

Amid a global wave of disillusion with traditional politics, Mrs May will align herself with voters who complain that politicians are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

"Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public," she will say. "They find their patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than 17 million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering."

Labour's conference in Liverpool last week showed that under Mr Corbyn's leadership the party is "not just divided, but divisive - determined to pit one against another, to pursue vendettas and settle scores and to embrace the politics of pointless protest that doesn't unite people but pulls them further apart", she will say.

"Let's have no more of Labour's absurd belief that they have a monopoly on compassion," Mrs May is expected to say. "Let's put an end to their sanctimonious pretence of moral superiority. Let's make clear that they have given up the right to call themselves the party of the NHS, the party of the workers, the party of public servants."

But she will also set her face against what she terms the "libertarian right" in her own party, which sees the private sector, free markets and competition as the solution to all problems.

"A change has got to come," Mrs May will say. "It's time to remember the good that government can do. Time for a new approach that says while government does not have all the answers, government can and should be a force for good; that the state exists to provide what individual people, communities and markets cannot; and that we should employ the power of government for the good of the people.

"Time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up - and not back - to act on behalf of the people.

"Providing security from crime, but from ill health and unemployment too. Supporting free markets, but stepping in to repair them when they aren't working as they should. Encouraging business and supporting free trade, but not accepting one set of rules for some and another for everyone else.

"And if we do - if we act to correct unfairness and injustice and put government at the service of ordinary working people - we can build that new united Britain in which everyone plays by the same rules, and in which the powerful and the privileged no longer ignore the interests of the people."

Stating her willingness to intervene in response to market failures, Mrs May will firmly nail her colours to the mast of active government.

"That's what government's about: action," she will say. "It's about doing something, not being someone. About identifying injustices, finding solutions, driving change. Taking, not shirking, the big decisions. Having the courage to see things through."

Conservative aides pointed to a string of policies announced at the Birmingham gathering which they said were designed to help ordinary working-class people, ranging from a review of employment practices and a consultation on immigration to the creation of "opportunity areas" in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, a £5 billion house-building package, a promise to protect workers' rights following Brexit and a £140 million fund to help communities deal with the pressure of migrants.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: "In her short spell as Prime Minister, Theresa May has led a Conservative Brexit government that wants to pull out of the Single Market, re-introduce grammar schools and use human beings as bargaining chips in trade negotiations.

"Only today the Conservatives indicated they want to force British firms to list all their foreign workers. These are all policies of a party that is reckless, divisive and uncaring."

"Only the Liberal Democrats are fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united."

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