What is the purpose of the Conservative Party? If the answer is simply to retain power, then the past 13 years have been a success. Not only has the party continually held office, it has also increased its vote share at every general election since 2010.
Yet over this period, the Tories’ ideological contradictions have been exposed. The party has cycled through Cameroon austerity, Mayite statism, Johnsonite pro-Brexit populism and Trussite libertarianism with bewildering speed. This strange odyssey has now reached the dead end of Rishi Sunak. He is a prime minister who oscillates between banal technocracy and shallow gestural politics.
In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has retreated from the Conservative Party’s previous net zero commitments and has hinted at dropping inheritance tax, the second stage of HS2 and A-levels (replacing the school exams with a “British baccalaureate”). These policy proposals do not amount to anything resembling a coherent agenda. Mr Sunak, who promised “grown-up” government, is now threatening projects that have long been a matter of cross-party consensus, such as decarbonisation and essential rail and infrastructure investment. As even Boris Johnson observed: “It is no wonder that Chinese universities teach the constant cancellation of UK infrastructure as an example of what is wrong with democracy.”
Similarly, no reasonable evaluation of the British tax system would conclude that inheritance tax is its greatest ill. Only 4 per cent of estates pay the tax, which allows couples to transfer £650,000 (or £1m in property) without charge. As we have long argued, there is a strong case for rebalancing the tax system so that it rewards work rather than unearned income, such as rents and static assets.
Mr Sunak is desperate for short-term electoral advantage as he prepares for a general election next year. Yet, as his ambitious rivals understand, the Prime Minister is unlikely to lead the Conservatives for much longer. Who, then, will shape the future of conservatism?
In this issue we publish our inaugural Right Power List, a guide to the 50 people shaping conservative politics in Britain (we published the Left Power List in May).
Our choice for number one is, perhaps surprisingly, Nigel Farage, the GB News presenter and former Ukip and Brexit Party leader. Brexit alone gives Mr Farage a legacy that few postwar politicians can rival. But his influence has since grown in other areas. When he first championed action against “stopping small boats” crossing the Channel, he was ridiculed; but it is now government policy. And last year Mr Farage demanded a referendum on net zero targets. Mr Sunak was listening.
The Conservative Party is broadly united over Brexit – two thirds of those on our power list publicly backed Leave – but it is increasingly divided over economics and cultural issues. Free-marketeers such as Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch and David Frost co-exist in a fractured coalition with post-liberals such as Nick Timothy, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger. The liberal conservative Cameroons have been marooned by history, and the One Nation tradition has few prominent advocates.
At its next leadership election, politicians from the Christian conservative right and the hard right (such as Suella Braverman) will seek to lead the renewal of the party and the wider movement. The contest between Ms Truss and Mr Sunak last year ultimately offered two competing versions of free-market fundamentalism: one committed to unfunded tax cuts (Truss), the other to fiscal conservatism (Sunak). What comes next?
In the United States conservatism is also in crisis. The Republicans have been captured by Trumpian populism but, in the Washington think tanks and learned journals, the so-called American New Right has emerged, and its proponents are directly grappling with the failures of capitalism. On cultural and social matters, the New Right are conservatives, and value order, continuity, community, security, family, faith-based association, and the local over the national. But on economic matters, they are pro-worker and favour a more social democratic political economy. Is this the direction the British Conservative Party may go after electoral defeat? Or will we witness more of the same: an exhausted party floundering around in search of meaning and moral purpose?
[See also: The New Statesman’s right power list]
This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List