Part of the problem with becoming an “old fart” (45 last week, with my birthday falling, regrettably as ever, during attendance at Conservative party conference) is that the tendency to explain what it was like back in the day becomes more difficult to resist. Think Theresa May has had a good start? Remember Gordon Brown in 2007. Theresa’s Tories are remaking the ideological map for ever? Tony Blair in 1997 springs to mind and look what happened there in the end.

And then there are the historical echoes of Brexit, billed last week by Rafael Behr, a leading commentator of the Left, as a Tory Reformation. The Tudor parallel is appropriate because the UK is again abandoning oversight by a continent-wide project, then Rome this time the different EU. Somehow the new position – control of borders and making your own laws without reference to a higher authority – is considered outlandish by opponents of Brexit. Only crazy and insignificant countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States of America, India and China practice self-government, obviously.

Even so, the process of Brexit will be messy and turbulent, as has been indicated by the fortunes of the pound in recent days. Forex traders and analysts who failed to anticipate the financial crisis, the eurozone crisis and the vote for Brexit, now pronounce Britain doomed or certainly much poorer in the years ahead.

Standing the other day outside the main conference hotel in Birmingham, inside the secure zone, a bright youngster asked me in passing about the pound and the wider economic impact of Brexit. The question transported me back to another economic crisis and a late September evening in 2008, standing on almost the same spot when Congress voted down the $700bn Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) that had been designed by the Bush administration to prevent the US financial system collapsing in the wake of the sub-prime crisis and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

In autumn 2008 the Tories in opposition were gathered during a global emergency and feeling impotent while trying not to show it. The atmosphere that TARP night at Tory conference was quite unhinged. The packed bars flowed with booze with an intensity unmatched since, while upstairs in his suite David Cameron decided what to say. Cancel what was left of the conference and go back to London for the end of the world? Or keep calm and carry on? Sensibly, he chose the latter option. Even so, while it was unfolding the whole episode had a last hour on the Titanic feel to it.

In part the intensity that day in 2008 was down to the inherent strangeness of the British four day party conference, when the political and media class are crammed together with not much to do other than gossip, network and blag their way into parties that are paid for by public affairs firms and media companies. That is the truth about conference for most attendees, other than those slaving in the galleys producing television programmes and writing up stories, or the hard-working security and catering staff. Beyond that, most of it is glorified hanging around. There is an echo of Charlie Watt’s famous declaration when asked about his first quarter century with the Rolling Stones: “Worked five years, twenty years hangin’ around.”

Leaders put so much effort into conference because it offers air time and they can telegraph their key message direct to the voters in short snippets suitable for the news bulletins. For the rest of us – journalists in particular – conference is a good time to assess the weather and to make forecasts.

In that respect, the atmospherics at Tory conference were odder than at any conference I have ever attended, with the possible exception of the hilarious 2007 sessions at Labour and then the Tories. That autumn Gordon Goliath Brown went into his first conference as Prime Minister as a giant ready to flatten the Tories in an early general election. By the end Brown ended up flat on his back, brought down by a series of brilliantly delivered blows from David, Cameron that is, and George Osborne.

This year in Birmingham one might have expected Tory over-confidence but if there was hubris I did not see or hear much of it. A few panglossian types in the parliamentary party persist in the deluded idea that Brexit is easy when it is not. More broadly, the task ahead on Brexit is of such enormity and complexity that it has produced in the Tory tribe a mood of realism about the prospects, even though Labour is in a mess. The Tories have a new leader and hope that she knows where she is going on Brexit and beyond.

Where is she trying to get to? What her team seems to be attempting is a complete redrawing of the ideological map, with the referendum result providing a guide to the terrain. Research from the pollster YouGov last week suggested that British voters identify more strongly with either side in the referendum than they do with individual parties. The prize is obvious for May if she can build a new winning coalition and take as much as possible of the 52% that was for Brexit. This explains why she positioned herself in her speech simultaneously on the illiberal Right, populist parts of the centre-ground and the working class centre-left. The vocal media representatives of the 48% can complain about this all they like, but the opposition is divided and incoherent. It is almost as though there is the need for some kind of centrist opposition party to organise an alternative…

Meanwhile, in the Tory tribe May is knowingly making enemies. The free market and libertarian right, in think thanks and pockets of the media, finds to its horror that the David Cameron they despaired of was, in comparison, pretty free market. May wants workers on company boards and a new morality. She hasn’t quite advocated a return to British ownership of industry and the imposition of capital controls, but such retrograde steps are not impossible to imagine in an emergency. May is moving decisively away from what the Left terms “neoliberalism” – meaning away from open global markets, free flows of capital in and out and minimal government interference in business and industry.

Big business is troubled by all this, as well as by Brexit, but because it is run by pragmatic types with access to lobbyists it can adapt easily in the short-term to a dose of corporatism and state interference as long as the measures are not too onerous. The damaging impact could be on the entrepreneurial, emerging part of the economy if the Tories go too far. The last thing the economy needs is an excess of government activism, which means planning and regulation. The Treasury under Philip Hammond is also ready to block the more anti-business measures, reminding colleagues that the government has enough on its plate in the era of Brexit without launching a war on commerce.

The other risk for the Tories is that the new moralism on business has a whiff of the ill-fated “back to basics” campaign launched by John Major, which encouraged journalists to go Tory-hunting in the mid-1990s. If this government has declared war on sharp but legal practice on tax, wages and employment arrangements they had better be damned sure every Tory minister, MP and donor can withstand the scrutiny of a BBC Panorama or Channel 4 Dispatches investigation.

What gave the whole package a deeply unseemly edge was the disgraceful language on foreigners and immigration. This is perhaps rooted in May’s determination to show her credentials as a champion of Brexit, after backing Remain in the referendum.Indeed, it seems to be leading Tory former Remainers – over-compensating perhaps, and keen to give the new boss what she wants – who are most enthusiastic about bashing foreigners and adopting a nativist approach. It also gives the Scottish Nationalists, trying to decide whether to go for a new independence referendum, an opportunity to paint the Tories and by extension the Union as an inward-looking Little England project.

The view of the majority in England is not hard to discern on migration, however, and it is entirely reasonable. It has been apparent in the polls for a decade, among what became leavers and remainers, super-charged by the failure of globalism in the financial crisis. The majority think immigration has run at excessive levels, at a speed and intensity which is difficult to manage in terms of social cohesion. They want a degree of sensible control and only in racist pockets is there a desire for it to diminish to nothing. The world is on the move and immigration will continue to be high by historical standards, but the non-metropolitan public is determined to see some change delivered. In such circumstances – with a subject so difficult to manage – it is more important than ever that the language used by ministers is calm and considered and does not create unrealistic expectations.

When I returned to London to watch the Tory leader’s speech (always better viewed and assessed on television which is what they are designed for) it occurred to me that May was declaring war on the world of party conference itself, on media elites, on fashionable opinion, on about a third of her cabinet, on liberalism. The Prime Minister is striking out in pursuit of the support of the bulk of Brexit voters in the knowledge that “smart” opinion has been discredited and is derided out there.

Think of it not so much as a “A Country That Works For Everyone” (the Tory slogan at conference) as a country that works for everyone who has for years been thinking what May is now saying. Will it work? The Mayist cultural revolution might win her an election but unless she is careful her tenure will end up being deeply, deeply divisive rather than unifying.