The Conservative Party is having yet another identity crisis. Its uninspiring and mediocre conference in Birmingham merely confirmed this diagnosis. Brexit is the most politically visible divide. A party once renowned for its “majestic pragmatism” is increasingly defined by the dogma of Brexitism. As their fantastical promises have been exposed, Tory Leavers have begun openly to advocate leaving the EU with no agreement – a remarkable failure of statecraft.
The headline divisions over Brexit mask other differences. The 2017 election, which cost the Conservatives their first majority in 23 years, demonstrated the public’s unhappiness with austerity and a crumbling public realm. Ever since, the Tories have been profoundly divided over how to respond. Some, such as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, champion more neoliberalism: continued austerity, tax cuts and greater deregulation. Others, such as the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and Tom Tugendhat, advocate a more benign One Nation approach: generous public spending and a more inclusive, paternalistic capitalism.
Rather than resolving such divisions, the party’s conference intensified them. Absorbed by the epic task of Brexit, and permanently discredited by the 2017 election debacle, Theresa May has lost authority and confidence. But one cannot criticise her resilience or fortitude.
Austerity has been moderated in certain areas: the NHS has been promised £20bn more by 2023/24 (an increase of 3.4 per cent a year) and the public sector pay cap has been lifted. But in his conference speech the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, whom Mrs May once hoped to sack, signalled that spending cuts would endure elsewhere. Mr Hammond’s speech encapsulated the Tories’ ideological crisis. He acknowledged “that too many people feel that they have lost control, that they are working for the system but the system isn’t working for them” and that “[Labour’s] questions deserve a response”. But his answers were entirely inadequate.
The Chancellor ridiculed Labour’s proposed economic programme: “Railways? Nationalise them. Wealth? Confiscate it. Run out of money? Just borrow more.” Yet opinion polls consistently show that these policies – railway and water renationalisation, higher wealth taxes and greater infrastructure investment – are supported by the overwhelming majority of voters. Britain’s railways have become a national shame while wealth inequality has surged.
The irony is that Mrs May once understood perhaps more than any recent Conservative leader the need for her party to embrace a more communitarian politics. She sought to rehabilitate the state as an economic actor and condemned, rather than excused, market failures and crony capitalism. She understood the importance of social cohesion and how the forces of globalisation destroy communities and the bonds of belonging. Yet following her electoral humbling, there is no prospect of the Prime Minister remaking her party in the way she hoped. This task will fall to her successor. After nearly a decade in office, the Tories, who have not won a comfortable majority since 1987, give every impression of being politically and intellectually exhausted.
This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right