The Conservatives once appeared destined for a new era of political dominance. By embracing the Brexit project, they won dozens of seats in Labour’s “Red Wall” heartland at the 2019 general election and achieved their largest parliamentary majority since 1987. But this victory has proved more fragile than first thought. Having promised economic prosperity and “levelling up”, the Tories are now presiding over the biggest squeeze in household incomes since records began in 1956-57. Indeed, far from relieving the crisis, they have exacerbated it through tax rises and welfare cuts.
Meanwhile, a succession of scandals has made the “sleaze” of the mid-1990s appear modest by comparison. In April alone, David Warburton lost the whip pending an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and cocaine use, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak received police fines for breaking lockdown laws and Neil Parish stood down after admitting to watching pornography in the House of Commons chamber.
Rather than entrenching their advantage, the Conservatives are now struggling to repel a resurgent opposition. On 30 April the party chairman, Oliver Dowden, published an open letter to Keir Starmer, warning that an informal pact between Labour and the Liberal Democrats would “deny the voters a proper democratic choice”. Mr Dowden’s outrage was absurd. In 2019 the Brexit Party put up no candidates in 317 Tory-held seats in order to give Boris Johnson a free run against Labour. Having profited from this agreement, the Conservatives can hardly complain when their opponents seek to compensate.
But more importantly, Mr Dowden’s letter betrays his party’s unease at the emerging anti-Tory alliance. After the fraught coalition years, the Liberal Democrats have been the natural protest party in seats such as Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire (which they won from the Conservatives in by-elections last year). It is inevitable that Labour will concentrate its resources in other constituencies where it has a chance of winning.
Although Labour and the Lib Dems are routinely cast as rivals, their fortunes are often aligned. From 1997 on, tactical voting ensured the Tories failed to win more than 200 seats at three consecutive general elections and delivered a hung parliament in 2010. Electoral geography dictated that Labour was favoured in urban areas while the Lib Dems were in rural ones, especially in the south-west.
This so-called progressive alliance was shattered by the Lib Dems’ embrace of austerity in the Cameron era, but it may now be revived. As well as Labour and Lib Dem supporters, the emerging anti-Johnson coalition includes disillusioned Red Wall voters, Greens and former Conservative ministers such as Rory Stewart and David Gauke (an NS online columnist). In many areas, tactical voting could play a bigger role than at any election since 1997 (the Lib Dems are in second place in 78 Tory seats). The situation is complicated in Scotland by the SNP’s hegemony.
In the years that followed the 2008 financial crisis, there were few European countries to which progressives could look for inspiration as social democrats were routed across the continent. But much has changed since then: Germany, Portugal, Spain and all five Nordic states are now governed by centre-left administrations. There is nothing inevitable about perpetual Conservative rule in Britain.
Progressives and liberals should nevertheless remain cautious – midterm Conservative defeats are nothing new and, as the Tories have shown again and again, few parties are better at reinventing themselves. Labour, meanwhile, still lacks the political and intellectual vitality of a government-in-waiting. It could be too that there is no progressive majority. The unfilled space in UK politics, as we have long argued, is not liberal centrism but left conservatism. Many voters favour a more economically interventionist state and improved public services as well as policies that encourage social cohesion and a sense of national belonging.
The Tories had an opportunity to claim this territory as their own after their victory in 2019 but they have failed to do so. Under Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak, they have resorted to reheated Thatcherite economics, while successive scandals have undermined the social solidarity that fleetingly emerged during the pandemic. As the Conservatives vacate the common ground (and abandon the politics of the common good) the question facing their opponents is whether any of them are ready to fill it.
[See also: Leader: The rise of the know-nothing right]
This article appears in the 04 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Dictating the Future