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PM's conference speech sees Tories march towards centre ground

Prime Minister Theresa May makes her keynote address on the fourth day of the Conservative party conference at the ICC in Birmingham yesterday PICTURE: Joe Giddens/PA
Andrew Woodcock

THERESA May has vowed that "a change is going to come" as she set out her plan to take the Conservatives onto the centre ground in a speech marking a clear break from her predecessor David Cameron.

In her keynote address to the Tory Party conference in Birmingham, the prime minister spoke of her determination to make Britain a "Great Meritocracy" based on the values of "fairness and opportunity".

She made a bold march onto traditional Labour territory, branding Jeremy Corbyn's opposition "the new nasty party" and declaring that the Tories were now "truly the party of the workers, the party of the NHS, the party of public servants".

And in stark contrast with small-state Conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher – who vowed to roll back the frontiers of the state and said there was "no such thing as society" – she insisted that it was right for government to use its powers for the public good by intervening to rein in "dysfunctional" markets and support key industries.

Mrs May hinted at upcoming policies to end abuses in the energy sector and boost regional growth, affordable housing and access to broadband.

In comments apparently heralding an end to the practice of "quantitative easing", she said it was the rich who benefited from the Bank of England printing money and cutting interest rates in the years after the 2008 financial crash, while "ordinary working-class people" were asked to make sacrifices in terms of stagnating pay, job insecurity, unaffordable housing and wages undercut by competition from low-skilled immigrants.

She told the wealthy "elite" she was ready to act against exploitative bosses, tax-dodging multinationals and tech giants who refuse to co-operate in the fight against terrorism, saying: "I'm putting you on warning. This can't go on any more."

In an unusual move for a Tory leader, she stressed the positive value of taxation as "the price we pay for living in a civilised society" and said that business leaders depend on public investment in infrastructure, health and education – and not just on their own efforts – for their success.

And she warned: "Whoever you are you – however rich or powerful – you have a duty to pay your tax. And we're going to make sure you do."

Conservatives should value not only wealth creation and success, but also a "spirit of citizenship" and a "sense of public service" that respects "the bonds and obligations that make society work", Mrs May said.

She hailed the example of triathlete Alistair Brownlee, who helped his exhausted brother Jonny across the finishing line, as demonstrating the "essential truth that we succeed or fail together, we achieve together or fall short together".

"That's why the central tenet of my belief is that there is more to life than individualism and self-interest," Mrs May said.

"We have a responsibility to one another. And I firmly believe that government has a responsibility too."

She handed out praise to public institutions such as the BBC and NHS, which have sometimes borne the brunt of Tory criticism. And she named Labour icon Clement Attlee alongside Churchill, Thatcher and Disraeli as she listed former occupants of 10 Downing Street who had changed Britain for the better.

Aides denied that the speech represented a repudiation of the Cameron era, pointing out that Mrs May had singled out her predecessor for praise.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson waves before Prime Minister Theresa May gave her keynote speech on the fourth day of the Conservative party conference at the ICC in Birmingham yesterday PICTURE: Stefan Rousseau/PA

But the prime minister's words were peppered with calls for change, as she warned that the UK's vote for Brexit on June 23 marked a "revolution" which politicians must not ignore.

"If we don't respond – if we don't take this opportunity to deliver the change people want – resentments will grow," she said.

"Divisions will become entrenched. And that would be a disaster for Britain."

Referendum voters were voicing not only a desire to quit the EU but also a "deep, profound and... justified sense that the world works for a privileged few but not for ordinary working-class people" as well as concern over growing inequalities between young and old, rich and poor and London and the regions of the UK.

Mrs May repeated her vow to tackle the "burning injustices" faced by members of ethnic minorities. And she won warm applause as she said that expanding the grammar school system would provide opportunities for children from disadvantaged backgrounds to get on in life.

"I want us to be a country where it doesn't matter where you were born, who your parents are, where you went to school, what your accent sounds like, what god you worship, whether you're a man or a woman, gay or straight, or black or white," she said.

"All that should matter is the talent you have and how hard you're prepared to work."

Concluding her 59-minute speech to warm applause, Mrs May told delegates she was offering "an agenda for a new modern Conservatism that understands the good government can do, that will never hesitate to face down the powerful when they abuse their positions of privilege, that will always act in the interests of ordinary, working-class people".

But her opponents said her inclusive rhetoric was belied by policies announced during the four-day conference to require businesses to list foreign workers and force out overseas doctors.

Mr Corbyn accused Tories of fanning the flames of "xenophobia and hatred", while Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said Mrs May's vision of Brexit Britain was "deeply ugly" and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron claimed voters would be "revulsed" by her plans.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband – who was derided by Tories for his plans to intervene in markets – joked that the new PM's plans looked like "Marxist, anti-business interventionism".

But unions welcomed confirmation of plans to put consumers and workers on company boards, which TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady described as "a good first step towards building a fairer economy".

CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn backed the PM's "vision of a fairer society, with more inclusive growth underpinned by good business and great jobs" and urged her to work "hand-in-hand with industry" to make it a reality.

But James Sproule, of the Institute of Directors, warned that business leaders should not be treated as "pantomime villains" and would now be watching Chancellor Philip Hammond's Autumn Statement "like a hawk, expecting more measures to promote enterprise and investment than we saw in this speech".

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