As the Tories gather in Manchester on 1 October for their party conference, they can brandish Deltapoll numbers showing them closing the polling gap on Labour by eight points, from 24 to 16. That’s still some gap. But they face a deeper conundrum: how do they persuade the public, “Look at us again. Think about us again. Imagine a good future with us”?
Right now, the Conservatives seem less a party than a hubbub. Five successive leaders have left behind ideological rubble, an incoherent sprawl of ideas, factions and personalities. After 13 years of zigzagging policies and U-turns, there is no coherent, easily explicable Conservative philosophy left standing. And without that, how can its politicians imagine our future?
The party managers who did the deals on the convention centre and hotels in Manchester must be banging their heads on a table. In the weeks before the conference there was a series of leaks about whether HS2 would ever, after all, make it to this great northern city. A hugely expensive new railway line connecting Birmingham with Old Oak Common in west London is about as eloquent a metaphor for long-term failure as it’s possible to imagine. As George Osborne and Michael Heseltine wrote in the Times, “The remaining stump, little more than a shuttle service from Birmingham to a London suburb, would become an international symbol of our decline.”
It’s easy to blame the huge cost overruns and “goldplating” on greedy, anonymous, incompetent managers. But who has been overseeing it all this time? The swirl of Tory factionalism and change has meant seven transport secretaries since 2010: Philip Hammond, Justine Greening, Patrick McLoughlin, Chris Grayling, Grant Shapps, Anne-Marie Trevelyan and now Mark Harper. Coherence? Long-termism?
For all its flash and thunder, the Boris Johnson government has left behind curiously little as its policy legacy – early support for Ukraine, rancour over the handling of the Covid pandemic, a Brexit deal nobody now likes… and, of course, “levelling up”.
Is the withering of the HS2 promise the end of this good Tory idea, pursued with vigour and optimism by Michael Gove? Heseltine and Osborne think so. The Bishop Auckland MP Dehenna Davison, one of the stars of the Johnson 2019 Red Wall victories, was forced to resign this month as levelling up minister because of excruciating migraines. She deserves sympathy, but quits a department in trouble.
The Levelling-up Bill passed through the Lords only after a series of defeats. The Institute for Government recently published a serious warning: “Repeated central government failures have thwarted efforts to reduce regional inequality, including frequent changes in ministers – since 1990 there have been 17 secretaries or ministers of state responsible for regional governance – policy direction and institutions; a lack of clarity on policy aims; and a failure to coordinate across departments and work well with devolved and local governments.”
Having made levelling up so central to their purpose – and under a slogan that now seems ill chosen, “Long-term decisions for a brighter future” – the Conservatives have a lot of explaining to do in Manchester. At least they can travel on publicly owned buses, thanks to Manchester’s Labour mayor, Andy Burnham.
One account of Tory incoherence comes in a new book by Ben Riley-Smith, the Daily Telegraph political journalist, now heading to Washington as its US editor. In The Right to Rule he describes the 13-year Conservative hegemony as, frankly, one damn thing after another. His interviewees tell him “that the Conservatives are not an ‘ideological party’ but a ‘power party’”.
Through austerity, Brexit, Covid and the Ukraine war, that fluidity over ideas has given them useful – perhaps essential – flexibility. However, says Riley-Smith, such shape-shifting wasn’t driven by these challenges, or public opinion, but by “egotism, jealousy, determination, skullduggery, vanity, vengeance and greed… At moments the rivalries of a handful of people, as much as their visions for Britain, played a defining role in the course of history.”
Well put. This legacy is what Rishi Sunak will have to grapple with in Manchester. We have lived through the socially liberal, globalist Toryism of Cameron and Osborne, wedded to austerity; then the social and civic conservatism of Theresa May – what you might call heartlands Toryism; then the pumped-up ego-populism of Johnson; the crack-Thatcherism of the Truss experiment; and now the tech-bro, balance-sheet idiosyncrasies of Sunak. Is it a surprise HS2 wasn’t tightly managed through that?
In this slalom of a political journey, trying to track the shifting attitudes to the state, to Brexit, to borrowing, to energy security and welfare has been exhausting. Imagine how tiring it must be trying to reframe “true conservatism” for yet another conference leader’s speech.
None of this might matter much if the past was the past. But it isn’t. As Rachel Cunliffe reported in these pages two weeks ago, the Trussites have unsportingly declined to die from embarrassment. Johnson bequeaths the country a regiment of disaffected Red Wall Tories with no social connections to the Sunak inheritance, and who neither like nor understand its style of politics. Already and rather glaringly, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch are fighting for the crown. Osborne looks on aghast. So, from another direction, does his old enemy May.
One Nation Tories haven’t retired, either. In Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, they have a standard-bearer quietly trying to do sensible things in a tense economic situation: enticing investment from the US and minimising room for exaggeration in promises of pre-election tax cuts. One centrist in parliament told me he was fed up with politics but was going to stand at the next election because “people like me have to fight for the soul of this party. Because you know who gets it if we lose…”
We do. The divisions remain live. The notion that yet another general election victory would produce a consistent Toryism for the mid-2020s seems absurd.
Look at the party’s most obvious inheritance: Brexit. Tories can unite in deriding Keir Starmer’s plans for a better relationship with the EU. They can say his secret agenda is to rejoin; wild speculation about it will be a big theme of the conference.
But when you ask about their post-Brexit strategy, silence falls. Is there public appetite for further trade shrinkage and deregulatory divergence? Sunak has, with the Windsor framework, attempted to repair some of the damage, but where does he intend to go next? To somehow force the EU to give him a new deal on migrants with no quid pro quo? His notion of a new relationship with Europe is worryingly close to “friends without benefits”.
If you reject the Labour plan to align with many EU standards in return for frictionless trade and are uninterested in the Macron plan for a group of associate members, you are committed, presumably, to further divergence. On defence, there have been some useful initiatives. But where are the big trade deals that make up for the European market? So far, it all is optimistic sky-drawing.
To cope with the roiling incoherence inside modern Toryism, Sunak is attempting, not unreasonably, to stand above the factions and speak in a fresh voice. I find him a decent and intelligent man. But so far, his has been an idiosyncratic wish-list about everything from inheritance tax (“Let’s cut the tax that almost nobody pays”), to making the kids do arithmetic, to banning smoking for the young. (A filthy habit – but really, a national priority in the Age of Vape?) It feels a bit, “Now, if I was prime minister” – breezy personal priorities rather than a battleplan for an election year.
As for “long-term decisions”: tell it to Mancunians waiting for their fast train. Tell it to the electric vehicle manufacturers. Tell it to the exporters struggling to work out what the next batch of regulations will mean.
The need for long-term rebuilding has been a constant Labour theme for two years. Sunak’s U-turn speech on green targets also promised urgent work to speed up the connection of the National Grid to alternative energy sources. This is something Keir Starmer has talked about relentlessly and in detail.
We know what most voters think matters most: growth and the standard of living. The biggest hope for the Tories now is a surprisingly strong economic upturn as confidence, that mysterious elixir, returns. Andrew Bailey, governor of the Bank of England, told me inflation will come down markedly this year: he expects October and November to be crucial months, but Hunt also told me he thinks tax cuts are almost impossible. Beyond the economy, the chance of a Tory “win”, albeit a short-term one, on the migrant crisis is more than possible.
Still, it’s hard to see how the Conservatives can attract public attention and trust without addressing the great existential questions confronting Britain. If they have nothing new to say about Brexit and our trading future, or about how they’re going to deal with the climate crisis beyond trying to delay its more uncomfortable consequences, just what do “long-term decisions” mean?
Labour should be looking at the tightening polls without any sense of panic. It was bound to happen. The party needs to stay relentlessly focused.
Given enough time, and a united party with a coherent philosophy, Rishi Sunak is the kind of leader who could get a grip on past humiliations such as HS2. But he doesn’t have that time, and he doesn’t lead that kind of party. Manchester won’t be the wild, chaotic circus that the Birmingham conference was under Liz Truss. But it doesn’t look like a springboard either.
[See also: What’s behind Labour’s new Brexit position?]
This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List