A spectre is haunting the Conservatives: the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn. After losing their majority to Labour in June, the Tories now fear they are losing the battle of ideas. A man whom they long regarded as unelectable is within reach of Downing Street.
Philip Hammond’s Conservative conference speech was so devoted to Corbyn that it felt like that of an opposition politician. At the opening of his address, the Chancellor quipped: “I can almost hear the warning bells going off in Conference Control Centre: ‘Don’t talk about the 70s!'” But Hammond then proceeded to do just that. “I think we owe it to the next generation to show how Corbyn’s Marxist policies will inevitably lead us back to where Britain was in the late 1970s.”
The top rate of income tax, he reminded his audience, stood at 83 per cent (98 per cent on interest and dividends), corporation tax was 52 per cent and much of industry was nationalised. There is little comparison, however, between such measures and Labour’s social democratic 2017 manifesto (which proposed a top income tax rate of 50 per cent and corporation tax of 26 per cent). Corbyn’s “Marxist policies”, such as renationalisation, are supported by around 80 per cent of the public (a fact which strengthens Labour’s claim to be “the new mainstream”).
But Hammond wasn’t done. “For those who don’t like history lessons, I could equally appeal to geography,” he remarked, invoking Cuba, Zimbabwe and Venezuela (hyperbole reminiscent of Churchill’s 1945 warning that Labour government would lead to “a Gestapo”). Such was the length and ferocity of Hammond’s attack on Labour that it was easy to forget that he was running the Treasury. “Last week at Brighton the dinosaurs had broken out of their glass cases, their political DNA apparently uncontaminated by any contact with the reality of 30 years of global economic development … a sort of political version of Jurassic Park.”
Such attacks, ironically, made the Tories sound like the party of the past (an impression not aided by Hammond’s ad-libbed quip: “An ageing population … that’s us!”) Though party delegates will likely have agreed with every word, the unconverted will have been left cold. “I wouldn’t trust him with a Monopoly set!” Hammond declared of John McDonnell. “Not even to give him the boot.” But the Chancellor’s speech dwelt too little on the reasons why an increasing number wish to evict the Conservatives.
The housing crisis is at the root of the Tories’ woes; it’s hard to sell capitalism to those without capital. But beyond promising an extra £10bn in funding for Help to Buy (which merely inflates demand, rather than increasing supply), Hammond’s speech offered no solutions to the problem. The Chancellor spoke of “the pressure on living standards caused by slow wage growth and a spike in inflation”. Yet after the longest fall in real wages since the Napoleonic Wars, he was notably short of answers.
The spectre haunting the economy is that of Brexit. But until its close, Hammond’s speech entirely evaded the subject. The Chancellor repeated his words of last year: “They [the electorate] didn’t vote to get poorer or to reduce trade with our closest neighbours and biggest trading partners.” Yet though Theresa May has proposed a two year transition, the UK is set to leave the EU single market and the customs union (neither mentioned in Hammond speech). As the Chancellor well knows, no British government in recent history has enacted such an act of economic self-harm. It’s hard to defend capitalism when the UK is simultaneously leaving the world’s largest single market.
As long as the Tories stand accused of such economic recklessness, and choose to insult Corbyn, rather than scrutinise him, they will struggle to regain their stride.