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.
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.