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Strong and stable, or back to the future?

Theresa May’s Conservatives offer a vision closer to Macmillan than Thatcher. But will that translate into policy, asks Ehsan Masood introducing Research Fortnight's special election 2017 supplement.

As Research Fortnight’s election supplement went to press, Theresa May remained the odds-on favourite to return to Downing Street and govern for a full five-year term.

Although the prime minister’s earlier 20-point poll lead is being whittled away, most commentators still think it will be May rather than Jeremy Corbyn driving to Buckingham Palace on 9 June to seek the Queen’s permission to form the next government.

The Conservative leadership’s confidence that this would be one of their easiest wins is palpable. Why else would they publish a manifesto devoid of costings? But in other ways the party’s hierarchy and strategists are leaving nothing to chance.

So May declared early in the campaign that she would not be appearing alongside her rivals at televised debates, but she did put in a now-famous appearance on the BBC One Show’s sofa.

Likewise, interviews with Conservative candidates and appearances at election hustings are being tightly rationed. For this supplement we were unable to pin down a science-aware Conservative MP to contribute an article on the party’s plans for research.

This tactic seems to be predicated on the belief that May’s impressive poll lead can be preserved so long as she is kept locked away. However, although it means she is statistically less likely to be tripped up by awkward questions, one unintended consequence of such an approach is that it leaves journalists with more column inches and airtime for opposition arguments, especially those of Labour. And Corbyn is by all accounts having a better-than-expected campaign.

Still, as we report (see Related Article) centrist Conservatives are getting quite excited by what many are calling “Mayism”. The prime minister is promising a turn from today’s post-Thatcher Tories to a form of Conservatism represented by the late prime minister Harold Macmillan and Michael Heseltine. This is a Conservatism that is not ashamed to celebrate words such as “state”, “government”, “skills” and “industrial strategy”.

That is quite a departure from the ideas of Margaret Thatcher and her mentor Keith Joseph, for whom such planning was rank socialism. It will be interesting to see the language that May and her colleagues deploy when, as expected, public spending is increased for these and other aims. It will also be interesting to see whether the government can effect such a shift while also negotiating Brexit, a task that promises to be all-consuming.

If the prime minister genuinely believes in a more benign and enabling role for government, then she will also need to find a way to return power to local administrations, which have been crippled by centralisation and austerity. May, though, seems cooler on devolution than David Cameron and George Osborne, and her manifesto is strangely silent on the issue.

Time will tell if the manifesto commitments turn out to be more than slogans. But if, as is being promised, every UK city can expect a new Institute of Technology; if more young people—those not going to university—can look forward to real opportunities to develop their skills, then May will have left a proud and lasting legacy.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight’s Election Special 2017 under the headline "Back to the Future".