The left should weep not cheer at the decline of Compassionate Conservatism

It is fatal to think that the worse the Tories look, the better Labour appears.

A final nail has been bashed into the coffin of Compassionate Conservatism this week and the left should weep, not cheer.

Those receiving benefits, desperate burglars, Europeans, teaching unions, pregnant women and more are now in the sites of a vindictive Britannia that is being unchained before our eyes. In sorrow not anger we should morn the passing of what could have been - a decisive shift in British politics with the rebirth of a caring Tory Party that has turned into a fading dawn. Why and how can this be the case?

The real job of politics is to shift the centre of gravity in your direction for the longest possible period of time. To do this means not just changing your party but your opponents so that when you lose, and you will, nothing really changes. Thatcher realized this when claimed her ultimate triumph was not changing the Tory party but changing Labour. Blimey did she succeed.

The possibility of a one-nation, compassionate Conservatism taking root under Cameron's early leadership was a distinct and tantalizing possibility. Going green, hugging hoodies and the whole big society opened up space that was to the left of the arid spot New Labour finally landed on. A strong connection could have been made to the Disraeli and Macmillan strain of Conservatism that had been lost under the Thatcherite storm. After all, it was a Tory minister that founded our post war system of secondary education, it was a Tory government that built more council houses than any Labour government and under the Tories the NHS used to be safe. Of course it was a paternalistic politics born of an old class system - but a system that recognized obligation, duty, respect and tolerance. Cameron appeared to be of this ilk and not of the dry, utilitarian brand of market fundamentalists that took hold of the party after 1975.

That compassionate Conservatism failed to re-root itself is of course Cameron's fault. He didn't do the work politically or organizationally to dig in. Or perhaps he never really meant it? The crash didn't help either - giving Osborne an easy target with which to attack the state and to have a very lop-sided view of being "all in it together". But the forces outside of the Tory ranks acting against the back-sliding to compassionless Conservatism where too weak to act as an effective countervailing force.  Labour, the unions and wider civil society simply haven't been up to the job.   Too little of the New Labour legacy has survived because it was hardly ever based on principled argument and popular support and was therefore incapable of defining a lasting moral consensus once Labour was turfed out. Devolution stands but little else.

I come from a working class family. I didn't really know any Tories until I was an adult. It confounded my youthful prejudices to find out they could be kind and caring. But such traits find little echo in their party today. Cameron promised but failed to deliver. What happens to these people now - who speaks for them? And what about Ferdinand Mount, Ken Clarke, Peter Oborne and the Red Tory Philip Blond? These people have been adding a richness to the political debate and policy that no longer has a home. Where do they go and what has the country lost?

Some in Labour's ranks will cheer. The lines become clearer for them, a simple world of black and white, good and bad. The worse the Tories get the better Labour looks. Such a view is fatal. It either opens up the threat of Labour marching to the right again to eat up the space being vacated by the return of the great moving right show, or it polarises politics and the whole adversarial system that has done such damage to Britain. Can those who are cheering be so sure the centre of gravity, because of these preference shaping right wing Tories, won't shift even further right?   

The point at which our country was at its most equal was an era in the 1950s called Butskellism, named after the consensus between the hugely influential and decent Tory RA Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.  Compassionate Conservatism is not an oxymoron but it's taken another big hit. We should hope it recovers. The NHS being safe in the Tories hands is a good thing. It means poor people don't suffer unnecessarily. The left has to understand its victory comes is when it converts the Tories again to a humane form of politics.

PS The debacle of the West Coast Mainline franchise is yet another example of free market failure being turned into an attack on the state. In echoes of the banking crisis, that was the result of too little not too much state intervention, the right argue that civil service 'failure' merely shows how daft it would be to let the state ever run the railways again. You have to admire their brass neck.  The reality is that in our warped world we have private sector consultants paid £650k a year to shaft civil servants paid just £65k in the battle of who wins the franchise contract war. I wonder? The former are incentivized to make as much profit as possible while later are incentivized by what's in the public interest. The sooner the railways are run by and for the public the better. Where is Labour's brass neck?

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.