The speech of British Prime Minister Theresa May on the final day of the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham on Oct. 5 was a clever piece of populist rhetoric. It appealed effectively to British suburban prejudices and aspirations.

She cemented her support among the Tory right-wing Brexit supporters by confirming her slogan that indeed “Brexit means Brexit.” She declared that Britain would start the process of leaving the European Union by the end of March next year.

She affirmed that legislation would be brought forward incorporating EU regulations into British law with a view to repealing in due course rules the British government dislike. She once again declared that Britain would take back control from Brussels. She specified in particular that this included immigration.

She made a strong pitch for support from opposition Labour voters. She condemned tax dodgers and greedy bosses and unprincipled bankers. She declared her support for workers’ rights and for intervention in the economy in the interests of fairness.

Her vision of Britain was of a meritocracy where everyone would be able to succeed if they had the necessary talents and motivation. She supported faith schools and sought the backing of traditionalists and those who believed in the Protestant work ethic. She declared that she wanted “a global Britain” and asserted that Britain would not “leave the continent of Europe” (It hardly could!). But she did not spell out what this meant in practical terms.

She attacked the internationalist elite declaring that anyone who called himself “a citizen of the world” was a citizen of nowhere and did not understand the meaning of citizenship. In a reference to patriotism she unashamedly, though metaphorically, wrapped herself in the Union Jack, Britain’s national flag.

She did not directly discuss the state of the economy. Her references to big business were unflattering. She criticized “dysfunctional markets” and undertook to identify, support and promote promising sectors through a new industrial strategy. She backed “small business,” which had given some support to the “leave” campaign.

She seemed determined to demonstrate that she was in charge and that she was different from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “the iron lady” of the Conservative Party. Thatcher notoriously is said to have denied the existence of society. May believes in society, was critical of individualism and self-interest, and believes that government has an important role to play and should have an industrial strategy.

There was more than a whiff of the nanny state in her speech and nostalgia for an imaginary past when everyone worked together for the common good.

It is hardly surprising that the speech has had a mixed reception. The reaction among EU leaders has been of dismay and a hardening of their attitude toward Britain, leaving them even less inclined to make concessions on free movement and market access.

Big business is critical of her proposals to reform corporate governance and concerned that she seems to ignore or at least not understand the reasons why the single market is so important for British companies. They fear that in the interests of the chimeras of “sovereignty” and “taking back control,” she is ready to sacrifice the prospects of growth for the British economy. Tax revenue and our ability to deal with the deficit in public finances and the current account depend on Britain being a prosperous economy.

The banks and international finance houses working in the City of London were dismayed that she had not acknowledged the contribution they make to the British economy. They were upset by her apparent disdain for their concerns about retaining “passporting rights” for City institutions within Europe.

The negative reaction to May’s speech was amplified by remarks made by Amber Rudd, the home secretary, who among other things is responsible for border controls, hence immigration. She indicated that companies might be required to declare how many foreigners they were employing. The slogan of “British jobs for British workers” seemed to be behind her call. These remarks attracted fire from European and British critics who saw them as signs that the government were prepared to pander to xenophobia.

Not surprisingly, the value of the pound against the dollar crashed on Oct. 7 to a low it has not seen for decades. May appeared to brush this aside and her aides noted that a cheap pound was good for exporters. They did not admit that many British exports contained imported parts and that prices of energy and raw materials would inevitably increase.

The Brexiteers have been encouraged by the rise in the prices of shares on the London stock exchange, overlooking the fact that most of these gains are because many of the big companies are involved in international business and their share prices benefit from the fall in the value of the pound. They have also been encouraged by other data that suggest the British economy has not suffered the downturn forecast by members of the “remain” campaign. But it is still too early to claim that the outlook is favorable. Britain remains within the EU and is likely to do so at least until 2019, when negotiations triggered under the British notification of its intention to leave the EU must be completed.

May has refused to publish her strategy for negotiating with the EU, arguing that to reveal her hand in advance would make negotiations more difficult, but she has no electoral mandate to negotiate. The referendum was only advisory and the resulting vote to leave was based on lies or at best misinformation. After all, 48 percent voted to remain. To go ahead with negotiations without a parliamentary mandate seems to many in Britain undemocratic if not unconstitutional.

May is not yet the autocrat she perhaps thinks she should be. Her party and the country are divided and many are unhappy. If she goes ahead with a hard Brexit she will damage British interests.

Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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