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Conservative manifesto: Theresa May's 'mainstream' pitch

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

media captionTheresa May tells Laura Kuenssberg there are "hard choices" for the future but her plans will ensure fairness.

Until not that long ago, Theresa May was perhaps best known for her characterisation of the Tory party as a group that some voters thought was "the nasty party".

Years and years later, it feels her first manifesto pitch as prime minister is the logical conclusion of that.

In her manifesto she tried to make a bold claim, that the Tories had never been the party of untrammelled free markets, that they had always believed that government could be a force for good - indeed that it is time for an end to political tribes, that she is for and represents the mainstream.

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The manifesto explicitly rejects the idea of a centre ground that is defined by what she described as Westminster "elites". Instead, she is putting forward the notion that somehow, she can genuinely represent everyone - well, everyone who is in the middle.

Her close team will tell you this is genuinely what she believes, that her long years of campaigning with the Tory voluntary party make her a different political animal to her predecessors and the Cameron clique, placing her firmly in the solid mindset of middle England.

Her values of hard work, more fortitude less flash, match more closely the views of most voters than the Notting Hill gang of before. She went much further too than rejecting the recent past, seeming to spurn what would be considered more Thatcherite values. The roots of her hoped-for "great meritocracy" that includes social obligations go back much further than that.

'Nasty party'

But don't imagine for one second that this message has not also been tested and discussed with political number crunchers, with Lynton Crosby, the campaign chief and political supremo of the Tory backroom.

The message of new "mainstream" could, they hope, work on many levels. Core to their campaign is to scoop up millions of votes in parts of the country where traditionally the Tories have been considered toxic, where huge numbers of the public would agree with her characterisation all those years ago of the "nasty party".

So whenever she is questioned about being a "red Tory", or a "proper Tory", that fits precisely the narrative that Tory central office are trying to create. That for voters who've never chosen the Tories before, it's "safe" to do so because she is somehow not like the rest of them.

Of course "proper" Tories may be irritated that balancing the books has been pushed back, again. Free-marketeers will be annoyed by the arbitrary immigration target that may have a cost to the economy.

More intervention in industry, no new significant tax cuts, and more or less matching Labour's promised spending on the NHS might rankle.

Like the Labour Party, but on a very different scale, there will be more spending, and borrowing for longer. But rather than trying to please the diehard of her own party, Theresa May wants to win, and win big, by trying to reach out.

The much bigger test of whether her claim to be "mainstream" will come later, if she wins.

How policies are actually delivered is rarely a mirror of their grand-sounding claims in their manifestos. But is her rhetorical redefinition really likely to bring an end to the divisions of left and right?

In this election, the gulf between the two sides is greater than it has been for many years. The Tories were heckled and jeered by protestors as they gathered in Halifax today, where they hope to take Labour seats. Her desired goal of putting an end to political tribes seems a very long way off.

Related Topics

  • Conservative Party
  • Theresa May