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22 August 2022

Why Conservatives are dreaming of opposition

Does the party need some time “in a darkened room with a towel on its head” thinking about what it stands for?

By Charlotte Ivers

“Somebody had to do the night shift” William Hague once said of his time as leader of the Conservative Party in opposition. Increasingly, Tory MPs are beginning to wonder whether that person might now be Liz Truss. With a well-rehearsed litany of woes facing the country, and the economy set to enter a long recession, some MPs are predicting electoral doom in 2024. What is more surprising is that some seem to welcome this.

There is an idea taking hold in Conservative circles, which runs along these lines: after 12 years in government, the party has lost sight of its purpose. Ideologically incoherent, it exists now only to hold power, and has no idea what to do with that power. What it needs is a period in opposition to reset and work out what it believes.

That this strain of thinking is coming to the fore can be attributed to a variety of factors. In some cases, MPs are simply coming to terms with an outcome they view as inevitable: muddling into the acceptance phase of grief a full two years before the bereavement. There is more at play, however. The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the Labour leader means many Conservatives feel less horror at the prospect of the party being in government. Many also feel that they have achieved little in the last few years that could be accurately termed conservative. “We just bounce around responding to events in an increasingly left-wing way,” one senior Tory told me this summer.

The party’s leadership contest, of course, should provide the perfect opportunity for renewal. The Conservative Party is currently holding a proper conversation with itself about what it believes, perhaps for the first time since David Cameron went up against David Davis in 2005. But MPs on both sides of the leadership race worry that the conversation has been rather disjointed and chaotic. Yes, Liz Truss wants to rip up the economic orthodoxy of the past 20 years, but she also veers around randomly announcing unconservative policies like forcing Oxbridge to interview every pupil with top grades. For many MPs, this does not look like a coherent ideological project. 

[See also: How to nationalise water by stealth]

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Would their party perhaps benefit from some time – as one politician put it to me this week – “in a darkened room with a towel on its head” thinking about what it stands for? It is perhaps an odd proposal, given how successful the Conservative Party has been at reinventing itself while in power. For the past 12 years the Tories have thrived by creating their own internal opposition. Each new leader has been able to present themselves as a change candidate.

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The problem has been that they have been too successful. Every administration has spent its time in government undoing what was done by the last one: something that looks set to continue under Truss. This, and the fact that much government energy has been taken up reacting to external events, means that many Tories feel that not much has actually been achieved.

In 2017, following Theresa May’s disastrous narrow general election victory, there was a brief flurry of excitement in the intellectual quarters of the party. Many Conservatives – who had written Jeremy Corbyn off – were shocked by his electoral success. There was a sense that the proponents of capitalism had become complacent. Meanwhile, the May government made it clear that it was in the market for new ideas. A brief flowering occurred. Think tanks were relaunched. Papers were published. For a while it looked like the Conservative Party was undergoing an intellectual renaissance.

Then, of course, came that scourge of high-minded political ideology: events. With her tiny majority, May could barely govern day to day, let alone undertake a project of huge structural change. Most of the ideas withered in the waste paper bins of Whitehall. In opposition, the argument goes, these day-to-day challenges are less pressing, which would allow for more time to work out a broad and coherent ideological agenda.

This argument is given short shrift by those who sat out the opposition years under Blair. Perhaps one of the reasons why such ambivalence about opposition has taken hold is that these MPs are few in number: even under May over half the parliamentary party had never known opposition. With so many new MPs at the last election, that number is far higher now. “They have no idea how bleak it was,” says one long-serving Tory. “It’s all well and good having time to fine-tune your ideas and strive for ideological purity, but nobody is going to care about those ideas when you are in opposition. You’ll be begging to get them on page seven of a Tuesday newspaper.”

The thinking among those who would welcome opposition is this: Labour won’t win an outright majority, and will have to form an unstable coalition – so the Tories could be back within a couple of years. Others cite this as the very reason why opposition could be so dangerous. They fear that a Starmer government propped up by the Lib Dems could bring in a new voting system, while one propped up by the SNP could offer another referendum on Scottish independence. “This is the type of thing that changes the electoral calculus forever,” one Tory told me this week.

It is for this reason that many Tories still believe – despite their myriad disappointments with this government or the last – that it is, as one put it, “always better to have someone from the blue team rather than the red team in Downing Street, no matter who it is and what they are doing”. Of course, it doesn’t really matter if they are right. They won’t get to choose. In politics you can hold on to the day all you want, but in the end the night shift is always coming.

[See also: Can Liz Truss resist becoming Boris 2.0?]

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