Addressing the annual British Conservative Party conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her game plan to defeat Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
May was under pressure to deliver a powerful performance after Corbyn's own conference speech last week was reviewed positively. Fortunately, May was up for the challenge. Her vision for Britain, she said, "can be summed-up in three words: Security. Freedom. Opportunity."
Befitting her own natural impulses, May's speech was not a rallying cry for conservatism per se. Instead, it was a rallying cry for moderate conservatism. The prime minister argued that she would always stand for business enterprise and free markets, but with the caveat of regulation, well-funded public services, and ensuring that the wealthy pay a high share of total tax receipts. While this bigger-government conservatism might seem odd from an American perspective, it reflects the current Conservative government's belief in the U.K. that defeating Corbyn requires towing to the political center. With Labour retaining steady parity with the Conservatives in the polls, May believes she cannot risk more ideologically-conservative policies such as tax cuts. And while May does not need to call an election before 2022, if Parliament rejects her Brexit deal with the European Union sometime before next March (which is eminently possible), she will come under extreme pressure to call an early election.
Yet, recognizing that Corbyn's carefully-crafted image as a kind, honest, and reliable liberal is taking hold in many British hearts, May also offered tough words. She noted that "today millions of people, who have never supported our party in the past, are appalled by what Jeremy Corbyn has done to Labour. They want to support a party that is decent, moderate, and patriotic."
To make this case, May pointed to recent examples of Corbyn's failure to lead.
Referencing Russian President Vladimir Putin's nerve agent poisonings on British soil, May noted that many Labour members of Parliament had supported the government's declaration that Russia was to blame. But she added that "there was just one dissenting voice — Jeremy Corbyn." Corbyn, May said, was happy "dismissing the findings of our security services. Suggesting that the country responsible for the attack should double-check the findings of our chemical weapons scientists. Refusing to lay the blame squarely where it belonged. Just imagine if he were prime minister."
Having set up the audience, May then delivered her hammer blows.
"[Corbyn] says Britain should disarm herself in the hope others follow suit. I say no — we must keep our defenses strong to keep our country safe. He says a strong NATO simply provokes Russia. I say no — it is the guarantor of our freedom and security. He poses as a humanitarian. But he says that military action to save lives is only justified with the approval of the Security Council — effectively giving Russia a veto. I say no — we cannot outsource our conscience to the Kremlin."
It's a clever strategy. While Corbyn's far-left economic vision will be the target of many Conservative Party attacks in the next election, the economic arguments alone might not be enough to defeat him. But Corbyn's unrepentant foreign policy extremism is anathema to many independent voters in the aftermath of the Russian nerve agent attacks. By thus presenting herself as the moderate, reliable leader who can secure Britain effectively, May dilutes Corbyn's credibility as a leader. The polls already suggest that May is trusted more by voters on security issues, but May wants to widen that gap.
Will it work? I suspect so. In the end, Corbyn's greatest strength (his unconventional nature) is also his greatest weakness when applied to the issues. She might not be the most charismatic prime minister in British history, but May believes that a moderate economic agenda and national security reliability will sit well with voters.