The Conservatives have not won a comfortable majority since 1987. To attend the party’s conference was to be reminded of why. After nearly a decade in power, the Tories are politically and intellectually exhausted – and they don’t know what to do about it.
A vapid, one-word slogan – “Opportunity” – greeted visitors to the conference centre. Opportunity for what? For who? We were never told. When Tory MP Ben Bradley, the party’s former vice chair, was asked at an IPPR fringe event what policy announcements had stood out, he replied with admirable honesty: “None”.
There were often comically few Tory members in the hall to hear the paltry measures that were unveiled (the party has just 124,000 subs-payers to Labour’s 540,000). On the fringe, by contrast, activists queued for hours to watch Europhobic darlings Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg inveigh against Theresa May and the c-word: “Chequers”. But they did so without having the decency to offer a workable alternative.
The conference did not collapse into open warfare, as some had predicted. May’s rejection of the EU’s “bullying” at Salzburg won her a reprieve. But the battle has merely been deferred, rather than avoided. The Prime Minister was careful not to rule out further concessions to Brussels – and they are inevitable if the calamity of no-deal is to be avoided. MPs have vowed not to let May near another general election campaign and few expect her to last long beyond next spring (if that).
In the meantime, an ugly contest (the word “beauty” is hardly appropriate) has begun to succeed her. Jeremy Hunt, originally a Cameroon Remainer, shamelessly pandered to the party’s grassroots by likening the EU to a Soviet “prison”. Brussels has never denied Britain the right to leave – indeed, the ability to do so was explicitly included in the Lisbon Treaty (Article 50) – it has simply pointed out that there are consequences to doing so.
The Conservatives, who in their more reflective moments acknowledge the need to win over Remainers, made no attempt to do so this week. “For young people, we are the Brexit party,” universities minister Sam Gyimah lamented when I interviewed him. He likened his party to a “jammed radio signal”. When Brexit inevitably disappoints (expectations having been carelessly inflated), voters will be handed an invitation to change the station.
The Brexit pyrotechnics, however, masked deeper divisions: over austerity and the future of capitalism. The 2017 election, which cost the Conservatives their first majority in 23 years, demonstrated the public’s discontent with spending cuts and a broken economic model (Ben Bradley MP helpfully revealed that he still had to insist to voters that his party did not “hate the poor”; in 2012 he suggested that a “vast sea of unemployed wasters” should be sterilised).
But the Tories remain profoundly split over how to respond. Some, such as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, champion turbo-Thatcherism: continued austerity, tax cuts and deregulation. Others, such as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and backbencher Nick Boles, advocate a One Nation approach: more generous public spending and a more inclusive, paternalistic capitalism (drawing inspiration from trust-busting US president Theodore Roosevelt).
Rather than resolving such divisions, the party’s conference simply intensified them. Absorbed by the task of Brexit, and permanently discredited by the 2017 election, May lacks the authority to settle the Tories’ contradictions.
Austerity has been moderated: 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, a dry Thatcherite who May once hoped to sack, signalled that spending cuts would endure elsewhere.
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. A more agile Conservative Party would simply have annexed Labour’s most attractive policies on the basis that, as Oscar Wilde observed, “talent borrows, genius steals.”
Instead, the Chancellor ridiculed Labour’s programme: “Railways? Nationalise them. Wealth? Confiscate it. Run out of money? Just borrow more.” Yet opinion polls consistently show that all of these policies – railway renationalisation, higher wealth taxes, and greater infrastructure investment – are supported by the overwhelming majority of voters – and not without cause. Britain’s railways have become a national shame, wealth inequality has surged since the 1980s, and the UK invests less than any other G7 country. “Labour are setting the framework at the moment, they are setting the rules of the game,” Tory MP Lee Rowley admitted.
The defining problem of the May era – the gap between analysis and prescription – endures. But this week, the Tories had no greater ambition than to “just manage” (to borrow May’s description of the overworked and underpaid). Worse, however, there was little sign that any alternative leader could do more (and the next prime minister, recall, will be chosen by an ever more right-wing membership).
Labour, to be sure, faces its own formidable challenges. It must navigate Brexit, which divides its voters and MPs. And as the Corbynites are well aware, a “new centrist party”, or another force, need only depress Labour’s support by a few points to block their route to power.
But consolation is at hand: the Tories show every sign of being prepared to lose the next election, even if Labour does not win it. William Hague, the former Conservative leader, once likened the eurozone to a “burning building with no exit”. The problem for the Tories is how well that description increasingly fits them.