BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May laid out her vision for post-Brexit Britain on Wednesday, calling for a new approach to government that serves working-class people who voted to leave the European Union in protest at the elite.
Appointed just three months ago after the referendum on EU membership forced the resignation of her predecessor David Cameron, May sought in her closing speech at the ruling Conservative Party conference to stamp her authority on government.
Earlier in the week, she had placated the eurosceptic wing of her party by vowing to restore sovereignty to Britain and controls over migration in Brexit talks.
Now she pitched for the centre ground, calling on party members to appeal to millions of traditional Labour voters who defied the opposition party’s pro-EU stance and voted for Brexit. She wants the Conservatives to shed their image as what she has called “the nasty party” that protects the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor.
“So if you’re a boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after your staff, an international company that treats tax laws as an optional extra ..., a director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust, I‘m putting you on warning,” she said to a huge cheer.
“This can’t go on anymore,” May said in what was widely seen as a reference to British retail tycoon Philip Green who has been blamed for the collapse of department store BHS this year after he sold the business in 2015 to a serial bankrupt.
It was a clear break with Cameron, who was often criticised for protecting the “rich and powerful”, some of whom attended the elite Eton public school with him and moved in similar upscale social circles.
May herself lives in a wealthy village in the bucolic Thames Valley, but was primarily educated in state schools.
“(We have) a bold plan to bring Britain together, to build a new, united Britain rooted in the centre ground, 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 position of privileged, that will always act in the interest of ordinary, working-class people,” she said.
After several standing ovations during the speech -- and loud applause when she walked on the stage to the Rolling Stones song “Start Me Up” -- many of the Tory faithful in the audience praised her call for change.
But, at the same time some questioned whether the former interior minister would be able to carry it through such an ambitious agenda.
“It’s been more about the establishment before, but it is centre-ground now isn’t it? It’s for everybody,” Roy Hewlett, a healthcare worker and long-term Conservative voter.
“The big problem here is delivering. The vision was brilliant, but actually delivering that vision is going to be really difficult.”
Her aides say the leader is keen to tackle the underlying causes of why millions of Britons, especially in the former industrial north of England, voted against the establishment at the June 23 referendum and in favour of leaving the EU.
May said that with Labour deeply divided since the re-election of leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn, it was time for the Conservatives to snatch the opposition party’s mantle as “the party of the workers”.
“So let’s have no more of Labour’s absurd belief that they have a monopoly on compassion ... Let’s make clear that they have given up the right to call themselves the party of the NHS (National Health Service), the party of the workers, the party of public servants,” she said.
Since May was appointed prime minister, the Conservatives have maintained an opinion poll lead of around 8 percentage points over Labour.
Her own approval ratings as a leader dwarf Corbyn‘s. A poll late last month said only 16 percent of voters thought Labour was likely to win the next election under Corbyn, compared with 65 percent for the Conservatives under May.
Some critics say she is only enjoying a political honeymoon, but May hopes to take advantage of the turmoil in Labour and the anti-EU UK Independence Party, which has lost its new leader after just 18 days, before an election due in 2020.
“Change has got to come,” May said, using a phrase she repeated seven times throughout her speech.
“Because if we don’t respond - if we don’t take this opportunity to deliver the change people want - resentments will grow. Divisions will become entrenched. And that would be a disaster for Britain.”
writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Mark Trevelyan