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Like any big political coalition in a two party system, the Conservative Party is the natural home for many ideological strains. Yet, despite the party’s name, its small-c conservative thinkers who have been more or less absent without leave for some time – arguably since Mrs Thatcher’s second term of office, when her focus shifted from addressing existing problems (e.g. curbing union power, reducing the state’s involvement in business, reducing contributions to the EEC) to removing theoretical opportunity costs and implementing ideological visions (e.g. the Big Bang, the National Curriculum). David Cameron’s period of office was hardly conservative, with unwise concessions made to Lib Dem coalition partners and unpredictable referendums on disruptive issues such as the system of voting, Scottish independence (both fortunately defeated) and Brexit (what is less conservative than undoing a 40 year constitutional settlement?).

Partly, this neglect of the ideological tradition of Edmund Burke, David Hume, Adam Smith (who is not the free-market ideologue of Cold War legend), Lord Salisbury, Arthur Balfour, Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton has been driven by the needs of government to dominate the 24/7 news cycle with hey-wow initiatives and knee-jerk responses to this morning’s Daily Mail headline. The old saw that the hardest thing for a government to do is nothing, is doubly true now.

On the other hand, actually implementing real change can be hard; so mighty, complex and resistant to change has the state grown (thanks largely to all that governmental hyperactivity) that turning it around will always be a slow and difficult process. Violent rhetoric outstrips actual progress, and it is the rhetoric that features in the media. Grands projets proliferate, with politicians preferring to cut ribbons than fix what is wrong – HS2 and Hinkley Point C are classic examples of the neglect of conservative virtues, pouring billions down the toilet for the sake of an announcement on tonight’s news, irrespective of the uncertainty of future benefits.

Now, suddenly, a conservative Conservative manifesto has emerged. Perhaps emboldened by puerile opposition, confident in victory, Mrs May and her team have dared to ignore the needs of the media cycle, and eschewed (for the most part) the populist gestures of the other parties. She probably also wanted liberation from Mr Cameron’s own expensive crowd-pleasing gestures like the triple lock on pensions, and the refusal to raise taxes.

It begins by acknowledging – and, more to the point, correctly identifying – five major challenges. Three are serious conundrums skated over by the other parties: Brexit, the ageing society and technological change. The fourth challenge, of healing social divisions, is wise if that means reducing social tensions between groups. The focus on intergenerational justice is a welcome example, and a brave and honest one, given the propensity of pensioners to vote, and to vote Tory. One imagines that Mrs May would have been less likely to pursue that line had the opposition been credible. Her response to the fifth challenge, the economy, is her weakest link; she happily departs from liberal orthodoxy, but seems to anticipate more control over outcomes than is feasible.

The drive behind conservatism’s problematisation of change is to keep the world understandable and legible for citizens. This is why immigration can be a problem – the undoubted economic gains from migration are offset by the unfamiliarity and dislocation that it creates. It’s a tricky balance, and Mrs May probably hasn’t got it right. But the blithe insouciance characteristic of the pre-Brexit era is no longer tenable. Demonstrable control over immigration is the precondition for consent to it.

Her willingness to use the state to gerrymander outcomes (“government can and should be a force for good”), rather than rely on free markets to deliver everything, shows she understands the importance of social legibility. Markets, efficient allocators of resources and capital, can be blind to, and deeply disruptive of, settled patterns of behaviour. All things being equal, a free market beats the alternative (and Mrs May’s dalliance with price caps is worrying) but it is pure dogma to suggest that markets always produce the best solution every time (best for whom?).

Her focus on workers’ rights looks sensible, as long as she isn’t tempted to follow the continental style of disincentivizing employment entirely. Workers in all sorts of industries, not only rust belt manufacturing, are bearing the brunt of sociotechnical change, and their interests are no longer defended by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. It is essential that such a large and important group in society is represented coherently, and Mrs May is showing entrepreneurial opportunism to steer Tory policy away from its home ground of economic liberalism and toward traditional Labour concerns. Hopefully it will help the Tories regain ground in the urban North of England, Wales and Scotland, but even if not it’s worth taking the gamble now. By the next election it is quite possible that Labour will be inoculated against the Corbynista virus and be back on the case – 2017 may be Mrs May’s best opportunity to interest these voters in Tory realism. The Tories’ move from liberalism is likely to be only temporary.

To be sure, not every measure is sensibly conservative. Even small matters, like demanding ID upon voting, can change the experience of democracy for the vast majority of people in unpredictable and complex ways. The evidence for harmful voter fraud needs to be far stronger before taking the risk. Similarly, our Parliamentary constituencies should be based on coherent communities, not artificial entities that happen to have identical populations, so it’s a shame that Mrs May is persisting with the principle of equal seats. On the other hand, three hearty cheers for the repeal of the ghastly Fixed Term Parliament Act, reform of postal voting, and the retention of first past the post, paper and pencil voting and the voting age of 18.

While the left channels Gramsci and fantasises impotently about creating a progressive hegemony, Mrs May is taking the opportunity to piece together a conservative one. Practice beats theory every time.

Kieron O’Hara is an associate fellow of Bright Blue and associate professor and principal research fellow at the University of Southampton.The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.