It seems a strange thing to say that sometimes political parties don’t want to win, but it happens. It looks like it might have happened to the Conservative Party, which is unusual because the only constant in its history is the desire for power. But the Tory conference in Birmingham was not the gathering of a party that still has the hunger. The complete breakdown of collective responsibility, as cabinet ministers freelanced on the fringe, suggests a party that knows it’s over and is half in love with the fate that awaits it.
The rot starts at the top. The accelerated cycle of Brexit has emptied the party of its talent. The only surviving member of David Cameron’s last cabinet, from 2016, is Liz Truss. The last woman standing is thus prime minister by default. The rest of the places are filled up with the likes of Suella Braverman who is making a bid, which will likely be successful, to be an even worse and nastier home secretary than her predecessor, Priti Patel.
The low quality of the personnel is telling but it could still be counteracted by a political plan that made sense. Mediocre people carrying out sensible ideas is hardly a rallying cry for the ages but it’s better than the current Tory idea, which is to try the opposite – hopeless ideologues picking fights.
The vital line of Liz Truss’s clunking conference speech was not the laughable idea that we can grow pies. It was her throwaway attack on the “anti-growth coalition” who, apparently, “taxi from north London townhouses to the BBC to peddle the status quo”. It’s so silly that it might not be worth analysing but in fact it reveals an attitude. It shows a prime minister who is devising enemies as she goes, and it shows a party that is intent on falling out with just about everybody.
Clearly, the 48 per cent of the nation who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 are a bunch of unrepentant whingers who would have us all living on gruel if they got their way. People on benefits have got too much money and people who can’t pay their energy bills should go out and get themselves a new job. The institutions of the nation – the Treasury, the universities, the judiciary, the BBC, the immigration service – are all staffed by people doing the country down by concentrating on the distribution of income and preventing growth. It doesn’t say much for the 12 years of Tory government that the cultural fabric of the nation is, according to its own account, entirely left wing.
The Truss plan is to counteract this broad, left-wing nation with a narrow right-wing sect. She could have chosen to have included people of ability who supported other candidates, but she didn’t. A government that brought in Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Greg Clark, and took out Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jake Berry, Chris Philp and Kwasi Kwarteng would obviously be a lot weightier. Bring Theresa May back, for that matter.
It might be a stretch to call this a cabinet of all the talents, but it would at least be the best available. It implies, though, a strategic political move of which Truss is probably incapable. The majority she inherited from Boris Johnson was won in former Labour seats because the people there thought, with the example of Brexit in mind, that the Tory party now represented them better than the Labour Party. There is literally nothing in Truss and Kwarteng’s low-tax, low-regulation programme for those voters. It’s close to the opposite of what they thought they were getting.
The Conservative Party has turned cartwheels over the past decade and, sooner or later, it was bound to crash down. The coalition of voters that Johnson won was glued together by Brexit and by Brexit alone. Yet they might have stayed loyal to the Conservative Party if the Conservative Party had stayed loyal to them. Whether they understand it or not, the mood of the short Truss premiership is to make it abundantly clear that the Tory party has different priorities.
Its main objective now, it seems, is “growth”. This is never going to work as a plan. Keir Starmer has himself delivered a speech in which he said he wanted to bring about “growth, growth, growth”. The idea that Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens are bound together in some coalition opposed to economic growth is either incomprehensible or false. Besides, “growth” is not an idea that anyone actually experiences. Indeed, the political predicament of the past 15 years is that economic growth has been more and more concentrated towards capital and away from labour. It’s no consolation, if your household budget is being depleted, to be told that aggregate growth is going up.
The parties of the anti-growth coalition are currently on around 75 per cent between them in the polls. If it is a coalition, it’s a pretty popular one. The truth is, of course, that pro-growth vs anti-growth will go down with “producers vs predators” as one of the more feeble political dividing lines of recent times. The Tory party has given up economic competence and replaced it with ideological fervour. It’s a poor swap. One of the secrets of successful Conservative operations is that they tend to attract a large proportion of the people who do not think of themselves as political at all but who just want a quiet life and a solid government. Labour now looks like the better option because the Tory party sounds like it hates those people, just like it hates almost everyone else.