May's pitch to voters: market intervention and stiffer rules for business

HALIFAX, England (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May rejected “untrammelled free markets” and promised to rein in corporate excesses in pre-election pledges on Thursday designed to woo not only her core supporters but also those of her left-wing rivals.

With surveys suggesting she is on course on June 8 to emulate Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 majority of 144 seats, May dismissed comparisons with her Conservative predecessor, promising to build a “Great Meritocracy” and a government for “mainstream Britain” as it leaves the European Union.

“There is no ‘Mayism’,” she said. “There is good solid Conservatism, which puts the interests of the country and the interests of ordinary working people at the heart of everything we do.”

Her proposals merge tough rules on immigration, cuts to corporation tax and a vote on overturning a ban on fox hunting, which will bring cheer to her party’s heartlands, with a promise to cap energy bills, tackle excessive boardroom pay and introduce greater workers’ rights.

“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets,” she wrote in her party’s election manifesto, entitled “Forward Together”. “We reject the cult of selfish individualism.”

May, initially an opponent of Brexit, won the top job in the political turmoil that followed last summer’s referendum.

The policy document sets out her plans for Britain’s $2.6 trillion economy as she plots tortuous two-year divorce negotiations with the 27 other members of the European Union.

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In a clear attempt to court traditional supporters of other parties such as the main opposition left-wing Labour Party and the right-wing UK Independence Party, May said she would ensure that markets worked in the interests of consumers, and tackle what she called exploitative behaviour.

May said the public were rightly affronted by the remuneration of some corporate leaders, and that the next Conservative government would legislate to make executive pay packages subject to strict annual votes by shareholders.

Labour said that, behind the rhetoric, May’s plans would hit pensioners and cut most workers’ living standards, with higher taxes for middle and lower earners.

“The Tories (Conservatives) stand up only for the few. For the many, they offer the prospect of five years of insecurity,” said Labour’s election coordinator, Andrew Gwynne.

May said she would tighten laws on company takeovers and ensure that any foreign group buying important infrastructure did not undermine security or essential services.

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If she wins, May will have one of the toughest jobs of any recent British prime minister: holding the United Kingdom and its economy together while conducting Brexit talks with EU leaders on finance, trade, security and immigration.

“The negotiations will undoubtedly be tough, and there will be give and take on both sides, but we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK,” May wrote in the manifesto.


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May, who looks back to Thatcher, Winston Churchill and his post-war successor Clement Attlee for inspiration, has cast the Brexit vote as a “quiet revolution” that exposed the failings of modern Britain in a way that can no longer be ignored.

She has promised fundamental - though yet to be detailed - reforms to fix problems ranging from arrogant elites and venal bosses to workers’ rights, immigration and Britain’s obsession with class privilege.

Rising inflation is a sign that Brexit could already be hitting the economy, and May and her finance minister, Philip Hammond, are keen to gain some flexibility.

May committed her government to erasing Britain’s budget deficit by the middle of the next decade, sticking to the softer fiscal programme she adopted after taking power last year.

Thursday’s policy document also said there would be no increases in value-added tax, and corporation tax would be cut to 17 percent by 2020, as previously planned.

But it did not repeat the promises that former Conservative prime minister David Cameron had made not to increase income tax or National Insurance contributions - another payroll tax.

Hammond tried to raise National Insurance contributions earlier this year, saying he wanted to steer public finances back to full health, but was forced into a U-turn when Conservative lawmakers protested that the plan breached the party’s 2015 election manifesto.

With concerns over immigration one of the main reasons why Britons voted for Brexit, May again vowed to cut migration annually to the tens of thousands, a target the Conservative government has missed since first taking power in 2010.

Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, Costas Pitas, Michael Holden, Estelle Shirbon and Andy Bruce; writing by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kevin Liffey