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Theresa May declares herself champion of the working class

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives her speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain, October 5, 2016.

Toby Melville/Reuters

Theresa May, Britain's new Prime Minister, has turned the political page. She says the little people are in charge, globalization is over, bad bosses are to be brought to account and even central bankers must be brought to heel.

In her keynote speech at the Tory Party conference, she declared herself champion of a quiet and as-yet-unfinished revolution that started when the British people voted to leave the European Union. She will be interventionist, a scourge of bad business owners. She will meddle with markets, if necessary, for the benefit of "working people" and in a barbed comment that will still be ringing in the ears of Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, Ms. May let rip at the bank's cheap money policy.

The "money-printing" strategy of low rates and quantitative easing adopted by the central bank since the financial crash, intended to boost investment and consumption, has skewed the game in favour of the privileged few. "People with assets have got richer. People without them have suffered." She said a change was needed and she would deliver it.

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Mr. Carney must soon decide whether he will seek to continue as Governor after the end of his scheduled departure in 2018. What might have been a career issue now looks more like a political choice. Can he work with a Prime Minister who has made clear she thinks that governments run the economy, not central banks?

If the British people said they would "take back control" by voting for Brexit, it's clear that Ms. May intends to take back control in all sorts of other areas that might even include aspects of monetary policy. It would be a dramatic change; prime ministers have treated interest rate policy as a taboo subject since the Bank of England was made independent of government in 1997. However, Ms. May has made clear she wants to steer the economy, not watch from the sidelines.

Borrowing shamelessly from the rhetoric of former (and failed) Labour leaders, Ms. May told her somewhat astonished but delighted audience that the Tories were "the party of the workers." She said her government would not shrink from intervening in dysfunctional markets, she would force big companies to pay their taxes and treat their staff better. with employee representatives in boardrooms. It is a bare-faced attempt to strip the clothes from the Labour Party. She used the words "ordinary, working class people" several times.

Socialists and other anti-globalizers might, however, pause before sending a donation to the British Conservative Party. Ms. May is shifting her party's stance to the left foot but she is marching to a rather different tune and a different destination, one that is populist and pro-government but also strongly nationalist and proudly parochial. In case we didn't know, (Ms. May was a quiet supporter of Remain in David Cameron's government), the new Prime Minister buried her former boss and declared herself a strong believer in Brexit. She described the referendum on EU membership as a "quiet revolution," which she would now continue by righting the wrong done to the "ordinary working people" who, she says, paid the price for the financial crash.

Twisting the knife, a little further, the new Tory leader made it clear who she didn't support, "those people in positions of power who behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road" or the commentators who "find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal."

If Margaret Thatcher was the grocer's daughter, Ms. May is very much the vicar's daughter and she is a reminder that small-town conservatism can be as much about the values of the pulpit as those of the cash register. She has cast her political net wide to capture disgruntled Labour voters who hate the metropolitan student radicals who have seized control of the Labour Party, and she doesn't care if in doing so she alienates City of London financiers, international business class travellers, sophisticated urbanites or anyone who employs lots of people. On the eve of her conference speech, The Times newspaper revealed a government proposal to force businesses to reveal the numbers of foreign workers they employ , a policy dubbed "name and shame" that would force employs to and prioritize "British" job applicants.

No surprise that the business community is horrified but, tellingly, the leaked story has not been denied. Instead of retreating, Ms. May struck out at swaggering multinationals: "If you believe you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere. You don't understand what the very word 'citizenship' means."

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The rhetoric will play well in the North of England and the Midlands, where she made her speech, but in London, a city almost eight times the size of its nearest British rival and the motor of the U.K. economy, it doesn't make much sense. If London works, it is because it is the great meritocratic society that Ms. May would claim to support. More than a third of Londoner's are foreign-born and the city voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU; it is a place where citizenship is often in transition, where your résumé, not your passport, is the document that really matters. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is one example, the son of a Pakistani bus driver. In a recent interview, he admitted that he had thought, half-jokingly, after the Brexit vote, about supporting a referendum for London's independence.

But in Ms. May's world, money, talent, skills, success or even ambition are not the measure. What matters is where you belong; in her deglobalized, carved-up world, of small-town patriots, the real question is citizenship. Where is your loyalty, which team do you support, whose side are you on?

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.

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About the Author

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in the U.K. With a career spanning investment banking, journalism and consulting for global companies, he was for many years a financial writer and columnist for The Times of London. More

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