2016 has been a tumultuous year indeed in British party politics. The completely unexpected decision by the British public to vote to leave the European Union has hit Westminster like a warhead, causing absolute disarray in every major British political party.
The hard-line socialist, populist Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, found himself the target of an ultimately unsuccessful leadership challenge, which has further widened the seemingly irreparable rift between him and his own parliamentary party and left the Opposition completely hamstrung.
The Conservative government itself was culled, with long-time Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne both resigning from their posts in disgrace, after failing in their bid to keep Britain in the EU. This was followed by a confused and frantic leadership election within the Conservative party, which turned ugly very quickly, and eventually saw former Home Secretary Theresa May running unopposed to become the new Prime Minister.
The centrist Liberal Democrats, who had been part of the government until last year, have continued down their steep decline into irrelevance, with a mere eight seats remaining in the House of Commons.
Despite being on the winning side of the Brexit referendum, UKIP has since seen perhaps the most violent and chaotic implosion of all, with new leader Diane James resigning after a mere 18 days in the job, and the man hoping to replace her, Steven Woolfe, having recently been left in a “serious condition”, suffering from “bleeding of the brain” after being punched by a colleague from his own party. UKIP has since descended into a state of virtual civil war, after recent allegations of a conspiracy against the “toxic” leadership of Nigel Farage in the run-up to the referendum, supposedly orchestrated by UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, both libertarians and long-time eurosceptics.
It was to this backdrop of utter political turmoil that Theresa May made her first major speech as Prime Minister, at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham this month. With the ongoing political vacuum at the very top of British politics, and the total lack of a viable opposition at present, this would be British voters’ first chance to get an idea of the plan held in store for them by the woman who could well be their Prime Minister for a considerable time to come. Mrs May might have been hoped to take the opportunity to call for unity, or to push for ambitious policies that might not have been possible in the presence of a functioning opposition. Unfortunately, however, she instead chose to attack and denounce a significant contingent within her own party. The clear and overriding theme of the speech, which will likely come to be seen as one of the most important of her premiership, was her call “to reject the ideological templates provided by … the libertarian right”.
Indeed, much of the new PM’s speech was as extreme a rejection as we’ve yet heard from the Conservative Party, of Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to “roll back the frontiers of the state”. May even came armed with her own soundbite, to counter Thatcher’s famous dictum: “[We need] to embrace a new centre-ground in which the government steps up — and not back”. Sadly, however, this is only the most recent development in more than a decade of Conservative retreat from the ideas of Thatcher and the free market thinkers (notably the great Austrian economist F.A. Hayek) who influenced her. May’s predecessor, David Cameron, was quite conspicuous in his refusal to describe himself as “Thatcherite”, and his premiership seemed in many ways to be a return to the non-ideological, pragmatic Tory Party that had existed before Thatcher.
If the speeches at this year’s Conservative Party Conference were anything to go by, however, it seems Theresa May could well accomplish the almost unbelievable feat of making the Tories even more economically interventionist and invasive than they had been under Cameron. The significant noise was made about imposing price controls on energy companies, a preposterously wrong-headed policy originally proposed by the previous Labour leader Ed Miliband, and rejected by the public when they voted against him in last year’s general election. Now the unelected Mrs May hopes to impose the policy anyway.
She also used her speech to express her desire to “fix” the UK financial system and took the opportunity to threaten businesses for ambiguous bad behaviour. “I’m putting you on warning,” she said, before asserting her preparedness to “intervene”. She also made the vague assertion that something should be done about Britain’s out of control housing bubble, without considering the possibility that that very problem could have been caused, to begin with by ill-conceived interventions such as her own. Perhaps most ominous of all was the new government’s stance on immigration. May’s government – many of whose members, including Mrs May herself, campaigned to remain in the EU – still seem to have little idea why 52% of Brits voted for Brexit, and have badly misdiagnosed the cause as massive antipathy toward foreigners. They now apparently believe they must do all they can to appease this non-existent anti-immigrant majority, with new Home Secretary Amber Rudd shamefully asserting that businesses would be forced to publish lists of their foreign-born workers and be publicly shamed by the government if they employed “too many”.
All this certainly paints a bleak picture of the future of British politics, particularly for those sincere, free market inclined Tories who had hoped Brexit would be the first step back down the path toward free trade and freer markets. However, one conspicuous elephant still remains in the proverbial British political room, which should be the greatest cause of both hope and trepidation amongst libertarians. Namely, the unprecedented political vacuum that exists in Westminster at present. It is difficult to recall another time in British history when almost every single opposition party found itself in such a severe degree of disarray, all simultaneously. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the empty space across from the Prime Minister’s dispatch box will surely be filled eventually, but by whom is an altogether more uncertain question. With a significant number of classical liberals from UKIP and even the Lib Dems now finding themselves without a home, after the implosions of their respective parties, and Conservative libertarians being openly attacked by their own leader, it is not inconceivable that a new classical liberal party could emerge in the next few years, to challenge May’s centre-left Tories. Or perhaps party loyalties will remain too strong, and free market Conservatives will instead try to change their party from within, as Thatcher did in the 1970s and ‘80s. In either case, if Theresa May continues in her misguided attempt to repudiate and end the principled wing of her own party, then when the time comes, she may well find that it is the principled wing of her party that ultimately ends her.