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11 August 2022

A Tory party that’s out of ideas will soon find itself out of power

Conservatives must believe there are conservative answers to the problems Britain faces. Why aren’t we hearing them?

By John Oxley

The Conservative Party frames itself as the party of opportunity. It’s a phrase you will have heard many times if you’ve been mad enough to tune into any of the leadership hustings and debates. It’s a useful avatar for the small-state, self-sufficient, drag-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ethos that has dominated the party since Margaret Thatcher, and which handily has no real meaning. Yet for all its talk of opportunity, the Conservatives seem intent on throwing their own away.

When Boris Johnson won the 2019 general election, the Tories were given a rare mid-government second innings. They returned to Westminster with the largest majority they’d had in decades and a large mandate for change, having run an insurgent campaign against their own record. Brexit, whether you supported it or loathed it, meant a once-in-a-generation reshaping of the state, while the new electoral coalition gave the Johnson government policy options that no previous Tory would have been able to touch.

Nearly three years later, it is hard to see what the Conservatives have done with that opportunity. Brexit trade deals see them caught on two horns: they don’t know whether to champion protectionism or free trade. As it has been since the Corn Laws in the 19th century, the party cannot decide whether it wants cheaper food or richer farmers (while the old Thatcherite John Redwood regularly tweets in support of autarky, as though food self-sufficiency were even possible let alone desirable).

The government’s levelling-up policy has been a similar damp squib. The mandate was meant to revive neglected towns but they have not been executed. The government scheme lacked clear goals, duplicated the aims of previous initiatives, and fundamentally was not granted the funding to make significant differences. It has mostly become about shuffling a few hundred civil service roles around on a map and pork-barrel commitments for Tory seats.

Such issues betray the intellectual and moral failings of the current incarnation of the Conservative Party. The political right has run out of ideas. It generates few serious policies and seems not to understand how to implement them. Even when it does see something innovative and essential, such as Michael Gove’s planning reforms, it cans them, having used up all political capital on the scandal of the day.

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Beyond this, the party acts largely on daily whims. Under Boris Johnson, party positions would crumple at the first sign of danger. It was not unusual to see a policy briefed in the afternoon, a hapless minister sent out to defend it on the morning rounds, only for it to be retracted by lunchtime.

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Other policies were announced with great fanfare, only for details to never fully materialise. The Homes for Ukraine scheme, for example, allowed the government to champion both supporting refugees and personal responsibility (or, cynically, to open the doors without placing much of the burden on the state). Yet a few months on, it has been beset by chaos: refugees are missing, there have been allegations of exploitation, and as the six-month initial commitment comes to an end, a homelessness crisis looms. This is symptomatic of the Johnson approach to government. Indeed, his whole premiership has felt like a man who wanted to have been PM (with the memoirs, speaking tour and photo on the staircase) more than he wanted to be PM.

[See also: The strangeness of Liz Truss attacking the media]

The only endeavours that did seem to linger are those, such as military support for Ukraine, that rely on the personal animus of a dedicated minister or that remain generally popular. It’s striking that the other great success of the government, the vaccine roll-out, came from giving autonomy (and money) to a bunch of experts outside of the normal strictures.

The Conservatives have lost sight of the outcomes in politics. Like a mad old king, walled up in the attic, they issue edicts and proclamations with no real interest if they come true or not. Even the things it purports to care about – home ownership, cutting crime, alleviating the cost-of-living crisis – it finds itself unable to do anything about. There is a lack of seriousness in the approach to all of these, yet there are instead flashes of announcements with little understanding of underlying causes or the road ahead.

Come 5 September, there will be a new leader, but a fresh start seems unlikely. Though the prime minister will inherit a healthy majority, the ousting of Johnson has failed to expunge the divisions he caused. Parliamentary management will be a serious issue. But even if Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak can marshal the backbenchers, it’s hard to believe that either of them has the vision or policy to make it count. With two years left of parliamentary time, coming to No 10 is a great opportunity. The party can set things in law (on, say, criminal justice or immigration) and kick-start policies that would be expensive to cancel, and that would make a meaningful contribution to the levelling-up project. They could, despite the current deficit in the polls, push the Tories back towards maintaining a majority.

The leadership debates have shown no sign of an imminent change. The space for bold ideas that could reinvigorate the party – and the country – has been filled instead with daily doses of ill thought-out and unplanned policies, many of which get rolled back in the same news cycle. Neither candidate seems to grasp the scale of the impending costs crisis, nor what it means that the UK currently has an NHS that can’t see patients, and a police force that can’t charge criminals.

If you are a Conservative, you must believe that there are conservative answers to these problems. If you are standing to be leader, you should at least have some of them. Instead, it seems like there will be another 24 months of policy-making on the hoof, poorly considered interventions and predictable U-turns. The party of opportunity looks set to waste another.

[See also: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the “deep state”]

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