Michael Gove traipsed around Conservative Party conference last year fomenting trouble for Liz Truss. He castigated her debt-funded tax cuts as “not Conservative”. He lampooned her plans to scrap the 45p tax rate. He accused her government of displaying the “wrong values”. Gove’s mischief might have been attributed to his exile to the backbenches but he was also making an ideological point. He was warning his party not to embrace liberalism at the expense of conservatism.
In a dimly-lit church in Westminster today, Gove spoke at the launch of the Future of Conservatism, a project from the think tank Onward. The Levelling Up Secretary argued for creating high-paying jobs outside the south-east, building a national community and greater devolution. This was a classic Gove speech, delivered with a meticulous eloquence.
The perilous position of the government in the polls gave the address and the launch of the project an added relevance. One attendee noted ahead of the event that it was futile, because the Conservatives were 20 points behind. But that misses the point. If the Tories lose by a landslide at the next election, Rishi Sunak will probably leave his post and a battle for the party’s soul will begin. Even now, Sunak’s retreat to the bare minimum of government leaves a vacuum for the more ideologically inclined in his party to fill.
The only reason Gove’s speech happened is that Boris Johnson’s downfall provided the conditions for the party to move in a different direction: away from a more statist approach, towards a liberal one. “What everyone involved in this project believes is that the bet the Tory party made in 2019 was correct,” said Sebastian Payne, the director of Onward and a former Financial Times journalist. On this reading, the era of Truss and Sunak is a strange reversion back to a politics killed in 2019. Truss’s pursuit of free-market ideals looks like the rearguard action of a dying consensus, with Sunak brought in to manage the transition. Whether that’s the case, as one MP pointed out to me, will depend on what comes next – and which MPs keep their seats.
Gove struck far more dividing lines with those in his party than the opposition. At times it felt as if his speech could have been written by Keir Starmer’s office. He kept reeling off Labour priorities: anti-social behaviour, devolution with an economic bent, less reliance on cheap foreign labour, affordable childcare, respect for institutions. The ideologies undergirding those policies might be different – childcare for reasons of family not personal freedom, for instance – but Gove and Starmer have alighted on a communitarian agenda that Truss submerged.
This convergence might be attributable to a growing consensus over the problems facing the country. A politics focused on belonging and place, that deplores regional inequality and invests in public services, would always survive the scandals of Johnson and his successors. The spasm of Truss’s time in office tarnished the free-market policies she sought to extol, though she and her acolytes are still conspiring to rehabilitate the reputation of those ideas. The question, then, is whether the convergence between Gove and Starmer becomes a consensus between the Conservative Party and Labour.