Leader: The new mood of conservative triumphalism is at odds with reality

The coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms.

The opening years of this parliament provided few opportunities for the self-congratulation that comes so naturally to the present generation of Conservative politicians. The economy barely grew, the NHS was left in chaos by Andrew Lansley’s reforms and the coalition government’s promise of a “new politics” was tainted by repeated scandals.

But in recent weeks a mood of triumphalism has taken hold in the Parliamentary Conservative Party and among its press supporters. In the final Prime Minister’s Questions before the summer recess, David Cameron declared: “The deficit is down, unemployment is falling, crime is down, welfare is capped and Abu Qatada is back in Jordan. Every day this country is getting stronger and he [Ed Miliband] is getting weaker.”

And yet, by any reasonable measure, the coalition’s record remains one of failure, even on its own terms. The economic recovery of which ministers boast is the slowest in more than 100 years, with GDP nearly 4 per cent below its pre-recession peak. In the US, by contrast, where the Obama administration maintained fiscal stimulus, the economy is 3.2 per cent larger than in 2007 after growth four times greater than that of the UK. And rather than rebalancing the economy away from debt-driven consumption and towards investment and exports, as was promised and was desirable in 2010, George Osborne appears intent on creating another housing bubble through his Help to Buy scheme, which will reflate demand without addressing the problem of supply.

The headline fall in unemployment, which remains unacceptably high at 2.51 million (7.8 per cent), masks the sharp rise in so-called underemployment, with a record 1.45 million people in part-time jobs because they are unable to work full-time. To compound this, long-term unemployment has reached a 17-year high of 915,000 and youth unemployment is at 959,000 (20.9 per cent). That total joblessness has not risen to the heights experienced in the 1980s owes more to workers’ willingness to price themselves into employment (real wages have fallen by a remarkable 9 per cent) than the success of the government’s strategy. To voters enduring the greatest squeeze in living standards in recent history, ministers offer scapegoats – “welfare dependants”, “health tourists”, “troubled families”. In the meantime, Britain’s core problems, such as its economic short-termism, its lack of social mobility and its extreme income inequality, remain largely unaddressed.

As global competition intensifies, the UK needs a government that, as well as encouraging enterprise and enabling small businesses to flourish, will be prepared to use the state innovatively to promote balanced growth, that is capable of maintaining old international alliances and forging new ones, and that can revive a sense of national purpose of a kind that, for now, is largely absent.

David Cameron greets Olympic volunteers whilst on a visit to the former Olympic site on July 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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