James Millar: Theresa May is modelling herself on Nicola Sturgeon
The prime minister is on a mission to capture the 52% who voted for Brexit.
When, just days after moving into Number 10, Theresa May set a course for Edinburgh – viewed from SW1 as something of a swampy political backwater there was some surprise. But it’s now clear that the Prime Minister didn’t go north in a show of respect for Holyrood or the Scots, she was on a mission to learn from the master.
For the last few days of Tory conference have shown that May’s model is not Maggie Thatcher, but Nicola Sturgeon. Her conference closing speech ranged across the political spectrum not simply because it could in the absence of any ideological or practical opposition right now. It veered from left to right in an effort solely to keep the 52% together.
Sturgeon’s success since the independence referendum in 2014 has been in keeping the 45% who voted Yes on her side. No mean feat given 1.6 million Scots walked out of the polling booth that day having backed independence but each with their own vision of what the future might hold. The 45%, as many styled themselves in the immediate aftermath of defeat, had one thing in common, but little else.
May will not have been surprised by this week's research showing people identify more clearly with Remain or Leave than with any given political party. It’s why she’s keen to make the Tories the party of Leave as the SNP have largely melded their own identity with that of the Yes campaign (the downside of that being they take the heat when Yes put on an ill judged skit making fun of Ruth Davidson’s sexuality).
And it’s why her cabinet Brexiteers (there are five, not three despite the media being blind to the women involved – Leadsom and Patel) were given free reign to talk up a hard Brexit, and why she joined in.
The Labour voters apparently inspired by feelings of powerlessness? May promises a change will come, that the Tories are the party of the workers and sensible intervention. Ukip supporters who don’t like them foreigners? May promises increasingly outlandish schemes to control immigration and name and shame overseas workers already here. The people of no party who made a rare foray to the polling station on June 23? She throws them a bit of Olympics because it’s the sort of thing political wonks think normal people like (and they’re probably right).
Many Tory members in the conference hall in Birmingham looked bewildered by May’s speech – but she can take them for granted knowing they’ve nowhere else to go in British politics right now. Electoral mathematics is nothing more than bald numbers at the end of the day. At the 2015 general election the bulk of the Yes vote backed the SNP while the No vote splintered and Sturgeon sent a clone army of new MPs to London. She’d have repeated the feat in May this year were it not for the complicated voting system used for Holyrood elections, which in turn allowed the Yes vote to splinter a little in favour of the Greens.
Ruth Davidson sussed what’s going on and made the Scottish Conservatives the natural home of No voters. That’s why Davidson introduced the PM in Birmingham yesterday. Not because they share a gender or even an ideology but because the Scottish Tory leader has experience of building an electoral coalition based not on economic outlook but on being on the winning side of a referendum and attempting to convert that into a lasting electoral coalition.
Ironically it was Ian Murray, Labour’s lone Scottish MP, who first spotted this and convinced enough Tories and Lib Dems in Edinburgh South to lend him their votes to fend off the nationalists in 2015. But now Labour look all at sea in the new reality in Scotland and nationwide while Tim Farron attempts his own Sturgeon tribute act positioning the Lib Dems as the party of the 48% post EU referendum.
Westminster and its watchers still see politics through the prism of left and right, Labour and Tory, it’s a symptom of the tendency in London to ignore Scotland and the seismic shifts there but for two weeks in September 2014 when politicians and lobby alike decamped north (and complained about it a lot).
There is now a post referendum reality both in Scotland and across the UK. May’s achievement is in getting ahead of the curve to try capture the 52%. If she carries anything close to that into a general election the other parties are doomed.
May is not focused on Brexit, she’s concentrating on a general brelection. But she will need the skill of a Sturgeon to pull it off.