The Conservative Party had three great assets at the last general election and it has lost them all. The result is that it is in the throes of an identity crisis, pulled between its recent history as the party of spending cuts and social liberalism, and its more recent guise as an economically protectionist party with conservative social instincts.
Before we get to the crisis, consider its three causes. The first lost electoral asset was Boris Johnson. He extended the Tory vote, fuelled by the political toxin of Brexit, into places unheard of in recent history. He was on the right side of the great European divide and he seemed like a good laugh to boot. He promised to do something about those inner cities and he promised that Westminster would start to listen to the rest of the country.
At the local elections, the people of Westminster showed that they are no longer listening to Boris Johnson. The Tories lost Westminster council and seem to have abandoned London altogether. Even more alarming, Johnson’s ratings in the country have collapsed to a level from which politicians rarely recover. He is probably the first party animal ever brought low by his attendance at a party. The Johnson who surged through the 2019 election has disappeared and he is not coming back.
Neither, mercifully, is Jeremy Corbyn, the second great Tory electoral asset. It remains astonishing to think that Labour went into the last election led by a man who would have been soft on Vladimir Putin in the war against Ukraine, had Corbyn, by some cosmic fluke, managed to convince enough of the sensible British people that he was a worthy prime minister. There were plenty of voters who, although they were far from convinced about Johnson, were absolutely certain about Corbyn. Labour now has a serious leader; that barrier to voting Labour has been removed.
So has the biggest barrier of all: Brexit. The most intriguing aspect of the local elections was that Labour and the Liberal Democrats started to do better in areas that voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. This suggests that Brexit is ceasing to act as an electoral solvent into which the left-of-centre parties dissolve. Johnson won his electoral victory on a single issue and it is disappearing. He might try, pathetically, to revive it but the culture war is a silly joke. In a funny way, the culture war shows what a metropolitan elite the Tory party really is. Out in the country nobody is talking about what a disgrace it is that Doctor Who is a woman regenerating into a black, gay man.
What they are talking about is that they don’t have enough money to pay the bills. An unpopular government, of a decade’s standing, which is about to go through economic troubles, really is in a very weak position. And, in the absence of its three former advantages, the government is all over the place. The Prime Minister doesn’t agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on fiscal policy, which is why the Tories are raising taxes while proclaiming their love of low taxes, and why they are building trade walls in the name of free trade.
The Queen’s Speech is rarely a document of pristine philosophical clarity, but this government’s effort pointed in all manner of different directions at once. The economic signalling was more of a nod to the years of austerity than is usual under Boris Johnson. The traditional fantasies of the Tory right – unspecified deregulation and supply-side reform, random tax cuts – have suddenly reappeared after a couple of years in which the Prime Minister seemed incapable of resisting any spending option. Now, when a bit more spending, to alleviate a serious crisis in the cost of living, might make more sense, the government is strangely reluctant. The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, has started mocking the idea of an emergency budget in a funny voice in interviews.
It is obvious from his dry and rather dreary Mais lecture, delivered in February, that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, wants to be a traditional fiscal conservative. He has the pressure of the Tory backbenchers behind him, so expect plenty of absurd red-tape-slashing announcements – and expect pathetic lap-dog newspaper editors to put them on their front pages. But it will all be for the birds, for two reasons. The first is that the increased cost of living will be a real, unavoidable material fact with far greater force than policy clichés such as “deregulation”.
The second is that the new Conservative vote – the people whom Boris Johnson and Brexit brought into the fold – has nothing to gain from Sunak’s unquestioning free-market bromides. The contradictions of Brexit have turned up in the Tory vote. Some advocates of Brexit wanted buccaneering “Global Britain”. Some wanted life in Scunthorpe to be a bit better. The implied policies of the two have no meeting point, and an electoral coalition based on these two opposing demands cannot hold. That is why the Conservative Party appears to be saying two things at once and why that strategy will end up satisfying neither constituency.
The Tory party is a notably elusive body. It has had spells in its time of being overtly protectionist, usually for imperial reasons. It has had a recent history of austere fiscal conservatism and market liberalism. But it has always, at any given moment, chosen one of these two courses. At present, it is trying out the strategy of saying both but doing neither. Caught on the horns of both protectionism and free trade, while real incomes decline, the Conservative Party is lost.