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5 February 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:01am

In an era of crisis, Conservative MPs are embracing the state

Boris Johnson’s government is pursuing what one could call conservative social democracy.

By Harry Lambert

The state of the world at any one time is dependent on the mental horizon of the moment. In British politics, as with much else, that mental horizon has changed materially in the past year, and in one area especially: attitudes towards the role of the state.

In the Conservative Party, multiple MPs told me, the state is no longer the nemesis it once was. The era heralded by Ronald Reagan’s inauguration speech in 1981 – “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” – has definitively passed, having been waning for decades. That shift has been crystallised by the pandemic and other increasingly evident realities, from the limits of the market-dominated West to the continued outperformance of China and its strategic state. 

Those shifts are reshaping classic Tory notions of the market. “There is a rapidly growing acceptance,” a Conservative MP and plausible future minister tells me, “that the old Thatcherite certainties just don’t exist any more.”

No thinking Conservative, they suggest, is now likely to say the state “needs to get out the way, the role of the government is to roll back the frontiers of the state – you’re just not going to get that”.

While there are still Tories who believe in fiscal conservatism, and will want public spending to be restrained when normal politics resumes, practically no one in the party, I am told, wants a return to austerity. It is too out of place with the present mental horizon. “This government,” the MP suggests, “is effectively running a New Labour economic policy, but with higher debt. That’s why Keir [Starmer] and Anneliese Dodds are having such a tough time on the economy.” (For more on that, see Stephen’s recent column.) 

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Another MP, a select committee chair, also thinks the party’s ideological lodestar has shifted. Traditionally, they say, there has been an argument “between big government and small government. Now it’s around good government. We accept it has to be big in wartime – and we’re in wartime.”

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When peacetime returns, the MP suggests, the Conservatives will no longer automatically presume that private companies need to displace the public sector. “It is a question of what works,” they say. Covid-19 has shown the power of strong and unified state services, nowhere more so than in the rapid NHS-led roll-out of the vaccine.

“I think you’re going to see a more practical conservatism on the whole,” says the MP, a member of the party’s more compassionately-minded wing, which is unconvinced by the purifying powers of the market but also committed to the fiscal conservatism that has traditionally unified all Tories.

“I think most of the public are actually practical small-c conservatives,” the MP claims. “They want to make sure they’re not going to get mugged on the way home from the station and grandpa will get his hip operation and they have a good school nearby – but they also want money to spend on their family.” What they desire, says the MP, is a “conservative social-democratic state”.

[see also: Why long-term Covid could mean long-term Conservative rule]

Whether one sees similarities with New Labour or calls it conservative social democracy, Johnson’s government is charting a middle way on the state. That approach is not satisfying all of the parliamentary party, but the young rising MP I spoke with believes that only a small percentage of the party determine its ideology at any one time. 

“Never overestimate how much” – by which they mean how little – “most politicians think,” they tell me. The MP believes only 10 per cent of the party (a few dozen MPs) are actively engaged in these questions, from a “few cabinet ministers to a few ambitious backbenchers to a few old-timers” such as John Redwood or John Penrose. Everyone else, they say, “just follows”.

The party also has a different membership today. Both of the MPs mentioned above would have been unusual Tories 20 or 30 years ago: its ranks, while still predominantly white and male, have been diversified. One of the MPs remembers turning up to a candidates selection meeting and encountering only “pinstripe suits and sports cars. That is unthinkable today.”

A third MP, a thoughtful policy thinker whose presence in the cabinet is likely imminent, agrees that the party is very different to that of 15 or 20 years ago. The Red Wall seats are not represented by a monolithic bloc of MPs but they are, as a group, poorer seats: poorer on average than those held by Labour. Their presence in the party has helped to reform thinking within it, coupled with the stark revelations of Covid and the shifting world order.

“The idea of a small but strong state is not a new one in conservative thought,” says the policy-minded MP. But having an industrial policy, they say, which was anathema to many Tories in the 1980s, is no longer considered untenable.

The Washington consensus of the 1990s, marked by the collapse of communism and characterised by free-market economies outpacing sluggish statist Europe, has been upended by a series of crises: from the 2008-09 recession to the pandemic. The geopolitical success stories of recent decades, at least economically, have come from the state-led Eastern sphere, whether China, South Korea or Singapore.

What this new intellectual climate means for policy and the role of the British state after Covid-19 is still to be worked out. The government’s long-held and under-explained aim to “level-up Britain” is, I am told, now being developed behind closed doors. National funding pools – whether for schools, housing, transport or innovation – are being redistributed away from London. Besides central funding, there will also be a focus on innovative tax schemes and creating regional hubs for major employers, as in recent decades through Nissan’s move to Sunderland or the BBC’s alternative home for British media in Salford. 

“It’s not a revolution in Conservative thinking,” says the MP, but “we are not where we were in the Eighties or Nineties.” Covid has revealed the hollowness of the free-market model, with the MP summarising the crisis in simple terms: “When shit gets real, it’s every country for themselves.” As in many past national crises, the state has intervened. Even when Covid wanes, its enhanced role in political life is unlikely to do the same overnight.