What is the Conservative Party for? It traditionally sought to embody the wisdom of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who declared that to be conservative “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible”.
By any measure, this disposition led to remarkable electoral success. Rather than being surpassed by the Labour Party – as some believed inevitable – the Conservatives dominated British politics for much of the 20th century. Pragmatism and a willingness to change in order to conserve were crucial, as John Gray explains in an essay on the conservative paradox on page 26.
Even Margaret Thatcher’s administrations were less doctrinaire than is often assumed. She never cut public spending as ruthlessly as the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010-15 or taxes as recklessly as Liz Truss’s government. Confronted by the proposed sale of Royal Mail, Mrs Thatcher remarked that she was “not prepared to have the Queen’s head privatised”.
Today, however, the Conservative Party is gripped by an identity crisis. Rather than a coherent political force, it resembles a loose association of feuding factions or families. Libertarians, post-liberals and One Nation Tories increasingly revile each other more than they do their Labour opponents.
Having chosen five prime ministers since 2010, the Conservatives are arguing over whether to anoint a sixth. Rishi Sunak, who entered No 10 in October 2022, was supposed to herald another Tory reinvention. But his continual changes of strategy have merely deepened the party’s malaise.
When Mr Sunak took office he vowed to bring stability, resisting demands for hyperactive policy. But after this approach failed to dent Labour’s poll lead, the Conservatives panicked. Mr Sunak was rebranded as a “change candidate” who would overturn a “30-year political status quo”. But in the absence of a compelling vision of change, the Tories have pivoted again. Mr Sunak is now inviting voters to let him “finish the job” – the orthodox strategy deployed by John Major in 1992 and David Cameron in 2015. Inevitably, tax cuts are being promised.
Yet this approach represents a misreading of the economic times and the mood of voters. Asked by a recent YouGov poll whether the government should “spend more on public services even if it means not cutting taxes”, 62 per cent of voters agreed and just 22 per cent disagreed. Even among Conservatives, the split was 52-36 in favour of higher spending. Faced with record NHS waiting lists, crumbling schools and cancelled trains, voters want a government that will provide a shield against insecurity.
Conservative strategists are reportedly surprised that the recent 2p reduction in National Insurance contributions has failed to boost their party’s poll ratings. They should not be. For the first time in modern history, British households are projected to be poorer (by an average of £1,200) at the end of a parliament than they were at the start. Voters are unlikely to offer gratitude for tax cuts to a government they blame for deepening the living standards crisis.
Despite repeated changes of leader and strategy, the Conservatives have failed to adjust to a world in which voters yearn for economic security and an active state. Theresa May spoke of “the good that government can do” and denounced the “libertarian right” but struggled to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. Boris Johnson’s “levelling up” never evolved from a slogan into a strategy.
Under Mr Sunak, the Tories have defaulted to free-market orthodoxy. Miriam Cates, the co-founder of the post-liberal New Conservatives, has argued that “Thatcherite economics are not really Conservative because in my part of the world in South Yorkshire, in Stocksbridge, in a steel town, Thatcherism destroyed our local economy”. As John Gray writes, “For the Conservatives, whose pursuit of an imaginary centre ground has brought their party to the edge of the abyss, worse might now be better.” Fourteen years in power has bred decadence among the Tories. As they once more indulge in their favourite pastime, plotting, it may yet take an emphatic election defeat to force a true reckoning.
[See also: Labour in power]
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State