The future of the Conservatives

Can anyone unify the Tories and set Britain on a different course?

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Theresa May’s ill-fated premiership will be over soon. She has said that she will stand down and any number of her colleagues in the parliamentary party are jostling to succeed her. Even if there is a general election in the months ahead, Mrs May will surely not lead the Conservative campaign.

It matters desperately to us all – left, right, centre, nationalist – who the next leader of the Conservative Party is because he or she will also be our next prime minister during this period of profound upheaval. The Conservative Party is riven and divided. Collective responsibility has collapsed. The Brexit negotiations have been shambolic. Once renowned for its diplomacy and pragmatism, the United Kingdom has been humbled, as the events at the recent European Council summit in Brussels demonstrated. The behaviour of a group of implacable anti-EU ideologues in the European Research Group, whom Mrs May repeatedly appeased, has deepened division within the party and the country.

We live in an age of outrage and our political discourse is bitterly polarised. Can anyone unify the Tories and set Britain on a different course? This week, we profile Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary and leadership contender. He and Jason Cowley, the New Statesman editor, have had a series of conversations over a three-month period from which Mr Hunt – who has served in the cabinet continuously since 2010 – emerges as a thoughtful and moderate liberal Conservative.

He was close to the Cameroons – he is a former culture secretary and, for nearly six years, was health secretary, the longest any politician has held the position – but survived the resignation of David Cameron and the defenestration of George Osborne when Mrs May became prime minister in July 2016. 

Mr Hunt – who speaks Japanese, has a Chinese wife and a deep interest in East Asian affairs – concedes that he made mistakes as health secretary, not least in his handling of the contractual dispute that led to a series of junior doctors’ strikes in 2016. But he defends austerity, which this magazine always considered to be not a necessity but a political and ideological choice.

As foreign secretary, Mr Hunt’s immediate task was to raise the morale of the Foreign Office after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor, Boris Johnson. Mr Hunt was a Remainer who, at one point, even called for a second referendum, but now accepts the necessity of Brexit. This has led some former close colleagues to dismiss him as a “chameleon”: a politician without firm principle. He naturally rejects the charge.

“The political classes allowed themselves to become totally disconnected from many of the people who give them their jobs,” he said in one conversation. “For me, the central lesson is: we have to reconnect. We don’t have a system in which the vast majority of people believe that if the economy prospers they will prosper.”

So, the fundamental transformative challenge of our times (as John McDonnell also recognises) is economic. “There is no future for the Conservative Party unless we can demonstrate that our vision is one that will lead to well-funded public services with the highest standards and to opportunities for people.” On this, at least, we can all agree.

Machines and us

The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed,” claimed the science fiction writer William Gibson. In the case of artificial intelligence, that is undoubtedly true. Yes, the lifelike robots imagined by Ian McEwan – interviewed on page 36 – in his new novel Machines Like Me are still decades away. But the march of AI has begun to affect all our lives in ways that threaten to exacerbate existing inequalities.

Algorithms determine our creditworthiness, match us to potential partners on dating apps, show us the most relevant search results and the most “newsworthy” stories in our Facebook feed. Soon they might decide whether a self-driving car kills its occupant or a pedestrian.

Most algorithms are owned by private companies and their workings are kept secret for commercial reasons. They constrain our behaviour by defining our options, invisibly shaping our world. We might not yet have to deal with Mr McEwan’s lifelike robots, but AI is already changing humanity.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special