Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
26 October 2017

The Tories still can’t decide whether to mimic Jeremy Corbyn or to confront him

Theresa May's partial break with austerity has left the Conservatives in a political no-man's land. 

By George Eaton

At the recent Conservative conference, the Tories resembled a party under siege. After unexpectedly losing their parliamentary majority, they were struggling to come to terms with the electoral enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. “We thought there was a political consensus,” Theresa May admitted. “Jeremy Corbyn has changed that.”

Confronted by Labour’s 13 million voters, and its enduring poll lead, the Tories offered scraps from the table: a freeze in tuition fees at £9,250, a higher student loan repayment threshold and 25,000 more council houses. But while chasing Corbyn’s tail, the Tories simultaneously denounced him as a “Marxist” and a 1970s retrograde. They couldn’t decide whether they wanted to mimic Corbyn or to destory him. 

In the weeks since their funereal gathering, matters have not improved. Universal Credit has become a car crash (as was predictable and predicted), Corbyn has continued to set the terms of debate (having won consistently at PMQs) and the cabinet has remained openly divided. 

Under pressure from Labour, the Tories have granted limited concessions: the exemption of social housing tenants from the housing benefit cap, and the scrapping of the 55p-a-minute Universal Credit phoneline. But their refusal to make a wider break with austerity has left them in a political no man’s land. To Labour supporters, they appear simultaneously weak and cruel. 

Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, has shown more ambition, proposing a £50bn housing investment fund (an echo of Labour’s approach). Dramatically increasing housebuilding is crucial to the Tories’ recovery: you can’t sell capitalism to those with no capital. But the opposition of Chancellor Philip Hammond, a committed fiscal conservative, to Javid’s proposal means it is unlikely to feature in next month’s Budget. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Owing to their political weakness, and the all-encompassing task of Brexit, the Tories are struggling to regain momentum. They are identifying problems – falling living standards, unaffordable housing, dismal productivity – without offering adequate solutions. If the Tories are unable to renew themselves in office, the voters will conclude they no longer deserve it. 

Content from our partners
Railways must adapt to how we live now
“I learn something new on every trip"
How data can help revive our high streets in the age of online shopping