Should it be Boris? He was twice elected mayor of a Labour city and if the Tory mission is to stop Jeremy Corybn, surely you need someone charismatic to see off a populist. Then again, David Davis is a dependable caretaker, a bruiser who can hold the line on Brexit. Or why not skip a generation? There’s the articulate Priti Patel and the accomplished Dominic Raab. And to make this party go with a bang, why not ask Michael Gove to be someone’s campaign manager? He’ll change his mind on the day and then: pow! They’ll all form a circular firing squad, like last time, and whoever’s left standing wins.
To their credit, the Conservatives recognise their capacity for self-destruction. Theresa May has survived because they’ve applied the lessons of last summer, or perhaps of the Iraq war: toppling a leader is easy but the ensuing tribal warfare is the killer. The Tories are divided on Brexit, on the deficit, on where they went wrong in the election and what they should stand for now. Such disagreements were suppressed until 8 June because they agreed to fight a vacuous campaign on a managerialist platform promising ‘strong and stable’ government. Its failure has left them facing awkward questions: not so much who should lead us, but who are we? What do we stand for? What is the point of us?
Philip Hammond unwittingly demonstrated the problem in his Mansion House speech. He mocked Theresa May for not mentioning the economy and rightly said the lowest-paid have done better than in any other major economy. But he credited the minimum wage, a Labour policy now aped by the Tories. There was no link made with tax cuts for low-paid workers, which have encouraged so many to move from welfare to work. And no mention of the corporation tax cut, which sent revenues surging and left employers better able to hire those workers.
This isn’t a failure of communication, it’s a basic lack of belief. Tories used to be able to explain that tax cuts bring prosperity but also — crucially — were able to explain the point of prosperity. It brings a stronger, fairer, more cohesive society: that’s why Conservatives want it. The aim is to reduce poverty, augment life chances, foster creativity and confront social evils. When David Cameron offered tax relief to the low-paid, the results were extraordinary; he managed things so the incomes of the lowest-paid rose faster than anyone’s. But this is a success that dares not speak its name.
As leader of a coalition, Cameron didn’t talk much about conservatism — instead, the party let itself be defined by its enemies as wonkish, selfish, cold-hearted and greedy. But the coalition era did mean that proper conservative ideas were tolerated in isolated areas, mainly welfare and education. The results? Unemployment plunged, poverty fell, thousands of secondary schools opted to become independent of government. The level of attainment in what was once Hackney Downs, the worst school in Britain, now surpasses that of most private schools.
But Cameron shied away from discussing, let alone explaining, such successes. When he won his majority in 2015 he decided to copy Labour party ideas (the highest minimum wage in Europe, etc) rather than deploy more conservatism. It was a remarkable moment: the Tories had an unexpected opportunity to woo Labour voters, persuading them that conservatism could deliver the progressive goals that Labour never managed. But instead they copied the very agenda they defeated.
So when Theresa May stole more Labour ideas at the last election, in a manifesto that sought to bury Thatcher-ism, it fitted a trend. But as the results showed, if voters are sold Labour ideas, they’ll buy them from the Labour party. If they’re told that state diktat, not competition, is the best way of reducing prices, then why not back Jeremy Corbyn and be done with it? The Tories disparaged Corbyn as a relic from the 1970s, an attack that does not necessarily horrify voters born in the 1990s. A new generation has emerged to whom socialism seems like a new idea — not an old debunked one. In their arguments (or lack of them), Tories are showing their age.
In wrongly thinking that old debates had been settled, the party of Wilberforce, Churchill and Thatcher ended up serving clichés and platitudes to a country that faces serious issues and wanted a discussion. Crying Brexit was no substitute for that discussion. In the 1945 general election, Churchill found out that defeating Hitler was not enough: people wanted to know what came next, and Labour had the more interesting answer. The Tories now struggle to describe what comes after Brexit, what benefits might lie ahead for a country able to set its own trade deals, or what wider goals are in sight.
The social justice agenda that the Tories carved out under Cameron is now being abandoned — to Labour’s astonishment and delight. The Grenfell Tower disaster showed the results. The Conservatives forgot that they are supposed to be on the side of
the victims of bad, negligent government. It’s nonsense to blame austerity if flammable cladding was fitted to a 24-storey tower block: this was bureaucratic failure, with lethal results. Two years ago Michael Gove said that Tories should consider themselves ‘warriors for the dispossessed’. His suggestion was ignored and Corbyn’s message is clear: Labour are the warriors now.
So who are the Tories? If they’re not insurgents against failed vested interests and uncaring government, if they’re unconvinced by the need to promote individual freedom and social cohesion, if they don’t really believe in competition and won’t even invest properly in a military, then why vote Tory? Their answer, for years, has been: because the other lot are even worse. An addiction to negative campaigning has hollowed the Tories out, which perhaps explains why they haven’t won a convincing majority since 1987. If they’re seen as economic cleaners, called in to sort out a mess, what’s their pitch when there’s less of a mess?
Just as Mrs May was wrong to discard David Cameron’s achievements, the Tories would be wrong to consider her an abject failure. She staked out new territory in politics — a middle ground between nationalism and globalisation, a new axis more relevant than left vs right. On problems such as care for the elderly, and intergenerational fairness, she had the beginnings of an answer.
But only the beginnings. There are far more questions. What to do in an economic recovery where jobs are plentiful but incomes stagnant? How to give the young a greater stake in the economy, when an asset boom has made housing so hideously unaffordable? There’s much to discuss — assuming that the Tory party can stop bickering long enough to hold a conversation.
There isn’t much time. The momentum is with Jeremy Corbyn, who has proven he can out-campaign a decaying Tory apparatus. The surging Corbynites know what they believe in. If the Conservatives can’t say the same, they’ll lose power completely.
There’s no telling when the next general election will be — but we do know that it will be a battle of ideas. Next time, the Tories had better be willing to fight.