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25 March 2022

The Tories are learning that the culture war is no match for an economic crisis

As the cost-of-living, rather than Brexit, starts shaping public opinion, Conservative strategists are alarmed and confused.

By Philip Collins

“Politics”, said Ronald Reagan, in an epigram which defines the trade, “is simple, just hard to do”. For a long time analysing British politics was a relatively simple affair and then Brexit complexified it. Perhaps the Spring Statement and the announcement that Michael Grade will be the new chairman of the broadcasting regulator Ofcom show that politics is being simplified again.

All of my adult lifetime, British politics was simple. Rather like sport, it was always made complex by people who weren’t very good at it but, if you had the courage to ignore everything that was noisy but irrelevant — which is to say almost everything — then there was a formula that worked. Any party that led on both economic competence and the attractiveness of their leader would win. The party which occupied a position closest to the centre of public opinion, arranged on a spectrum from left to right, would win.

It isn’t exaggerating at all to say that this was all you needed. On that basis, the apparently surprising victories of John Major over Neil Kinnock or David Cameron over Ed Miliband should not have come as a surprise at all. The rules held in those instances, as they did, just about, in 2017 when Theresa May beat Jeremy Corbyn. Yet there was obviously something peculiar about 2017. That such an epically hopeless candidate as Corbyn could have come so close to power suggested that the old formula was redundant.

It had been upset, of course, by Brexit. The 2016 referendum captured and accelerated a trend in political affiliation which had been developing all over the developed world. The dividing lines between the parties were less class-based and more cultural. Education and age had become better predictors of voting behaviour than income. The 2017 general election was the first at which the occupational status and the income of the voter was immaterial to their vote. It had no predictive value at all. The electorate divided instead on a series of cultural questions which can be collectively summarised as, “Do you think change has been too far, too fast?”

The upshot of the change was the 80-seat majority won by the Conservatives in 2019. Labour fought a traditional income-based campaign and lost the allegiance of many of its former voters for whom their life chances were refracted through cultural questions. Framing the issue cleverly as “get Brexit done”, Boris Johnson found in the European Union a metaphor for generalised discontent. The Remain side has spent years complaining about the dastardly cunning of all this. In truth, it was good politics. Find a telling issue that gives the people a flavour of who you are. Good political strategy is always annoying when it is done by people we don’t like.

The Johnson Tory party therefore landed itself with a coalition which it will find impossible to serve. The incoherence of the modern Conservative Party was perfectly dramatised by Rishi Sunak’s least assured performance yet, in his Spring Statement this week. After setting out the various means by which he would compete with the 1945 Labour government for the title of biggest public spender in modern British history and by which he would impose the highest tax burden of any Conservative chancellor, he tried to pretend none of it was true in his final twist. A promise of a 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax, probably, maybe, two years from now, was a desperate signal that Sunak wants to be a real Tory one day. I do like cutting tax, honest. It is not surprising that the statement has gone down badly. It’s too clever by half, and half is about the measure of what is going to happen to household income.

The Office for Budget Responsibility numbers show real household disposable income falling this year at the fastest rate since records began in 1956-57. A 5p cut in fuel duty will do little for those households struggling badly with energy costs. And the Chancellor’s strange aversion to lifting Universal Credit — the cost of which would have been almost exactly that of a cut in the basic rate of income tax — means that people on benefits will get a 3.1 per cent rise in their income when inflation is set to average 7.4 per cent this year. The Resolution Foundation showed that the Chancellor’s notable lack of support for low-income families will mean 1.3 million people will fall into absolute poverty next year, half a million of them children.

This is going to hurt but whether the Conservative Party is among those hurt remains to be seen. That depends on whether the simple formula of politics — in which voters react principally to the cost of living — resumes or not. Conservatives strategists are clearly alarmed and confused. The Prime Minister’s foolish comparison of the fight for freedom in Ukraine with the Brexit referendum suggested he is still keen to summon the Brexit electoral magic one more time. Yet the announcement that Michael Grade, a former chief executive of Channel 4, chairman of the BBC and executive chairman of ITV, is the government’s preferred candidate to lead Ofcom suggests that the heat has gone out of the culture war. Grade has his critics but he is no Paul Dacre. And appointment of a former agent to Morecambe and Wise might be appropriate for a government that may be playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order.

The truth is that they do not know. The promise of the tax cut is the most traditional of political presents, the pre-election bribe. The Downing Street election gurus are hardly gearing up for a cultural battle if that is anything to go by. Maybe politics will start to get simple again. It is unquestionably now going to get hard to do.

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