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The Tories have learned to love state intervention – for now

MPs who used to flaunt their small-state credentials now talk of how a bigger government works better. What happened?

By Charlotte Ivers

The Conservative Party has won victory over itself: it loves the Big State. The transformation has been remarkable and total. Today, confronted with any problem, the government’s natural instinct is to ask how the state can fix it.

This interventionist mindset spans both social and economic policy. MPs who used to flaunt their small-state credentials now talk enthusiastically of calorie counts on menus to tackle obesity, warnings on digitally altered images to combat low self-esteem among teens, or restrictions on “legal but harmful” online content. Meanwhile, after 12 years of ostensibly centre-right government, the tax burden is the highest it has been since the 1950s. This is, it is fair to say, not your grandparent’s Conservative Party. This is something else entirely.

You can find examples of this shift across every policy area, but it is Rishi Sunak’s decision to address the cost-of-living crisis by offering everybody in the country £400 off their energy bills, rather than by lowering taxes, which many MPs point to as the high watermark of the new state-first conservatism.  

So where has this ideological earthquake come from? Inevitably, most MPs point to coronavirus. Perhaps the most successful and internationally lauded policy of the pandemic was the furlough scheme: a policy so interventionist that it would have seemed absurd a few years ago to imagine a Conservative government could have implemented it. There is a suspicion among MPs that the scheme’s success taught policymakers a new way of thinking about economics. Certainly, it is true that the pandemic response has shifted many politicians’ understanding of where the limits of state power lie.

We, the public, were also changed by the pandemic. The government’s response to Covid changed our conception of what the state can reasonably do. We all learned quite how far the state can go when it wants to, and it seems that many of us quite liked what we saw. Now, MPs say their inboxes are filled with emails from people asking for solutions to problems that they would have been unlikely to bring to a politician in the past. This has shifted politicians’ understanding of their roles too, as they seek to cling on to unstable majorities.

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In the early days of the pandemic, I remember a naturally right-leaning MP telling me that he was comfortable with the vast quantities of state spending that were occurring, on the grounds that we were in a moment akin to wartime. His enthusiastic insistence was that the whole point of the state is to kick in during times of crisis. This instinct persists among many natural right-wingers in government, as they still consider the country to be in that wartime state. They are likely correct – eventually. While the pandemic no longer consumes our every waking moment, its impact on the economy and public services remains dramatic. “Things are so much worse than anyone realises” when it comes to schools and the NHS, one official told me this week. Ministers, confronted each day by this fact in their departments, feel this acutely.

Nonetheless, to attribute the ideological shift that has taken place within the Conservative Party entirely to the pandemic misses the fact that this change has been years in the making. Theresa May went to great lengths to distance herself from David Cameron’s legacy. Her government’s philosophy – in as much as it had the time and energy to have one – showed the first stirrings of this new type of conservatism. The sugar tax sticks particularly in the minds of MPs as a totemic example of this.

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In large part, we are also witnessing a backlash against austerity. Already under May, the Tory Party was seeking to disassociate itself from the economic project that defined the Cameron years. Then the pandemic threw a particularly harsh light on the areas of the state that had begun to decay in the face of underinvestment. Increasing numbers of Conservatives now look back on austerity with regret. For a long time, Boris Johnson refused to use the term at all, referring instead to “the A word”. Why has your party moved towards supporting a bigger state, I asked one MP this week. His answer was simple: “Because austerity showed a little one didn’t work as well.”

As ever in British politics, if you speak to enough politicians about any given topic, somebody will eventually blame Tony Blair. “We are just following Blair’s playbook,” one MP told me this week. “Long Blair” has become one of the recurring themes of the conversation in Westminster about the Conservative Party’s ideological trajectory. Blair’s ideology has shaped every government since his. Given his electoral success, it is easy to see why – particularly when we are talking about a party as obsessed with winning as the Conservatives.

And yet, unsurprisingly when it comes to the Tory party’s internal politics, a backlash is brewing. Whether to continue on the path of big-state conservatism will be “the single most important question in the run-up to the next election” one MP told me this week, pointing to a recent debate in parliament concerning steel tariffs, during which several backbenchers seemed to yearn for a return to free-market conservatism. If and when a leadership contest comes, expect this to be a central question. Already, potential candidates are talking up their free-market credentials in private meetings with MPs.

The story of the Conservative Party in government has been one of constant reinvention. Perhaps the biggest reason for the party’s electoral success has been its ability to provide its own opposition: each new leader tearing up the legacy of the last. The primary question of politics over the next two years will be whether they can do that again – and if they do, the secondary question will be whether the rest of us have the appetite for it.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer bold enough to succeed?]