The Conservative Party is no longer conservative

The flight of Tory pragmatists shows a broad church degenerating into a dogmatic sect. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In its 185-year history, the Conservative Party has had many incarnations. Depending on circumstance, it has been Europhile and Europhobic, protectionist and liberal, isolationist and interventionist. 

But throughout such periods it has traditionally been a coalition of diverse interests and political tendencies. Liberals, libertarians, radicals and reactionaries have all sat on the party’s benches. They have, unsurprisingly, been joined by conservatives. Such figures believe, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, that “to be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

But Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has cast aside such lessons — and those who would echo Oakeshott’s words are fleeing the party or being forced out. The roll call of departures now includes Michael Heseltine, Dominic Grieve, Rory Stewart, Ken Clarke, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston, Amber Rudd, Sam Gyimah, Justine Greening and Philip Hammond. Last night, Nicky Morgan, another Tory pragmatist, announced that she would not stand for re-election. It is ironic indeed that while the focus has been on potential Labour deselections, it is the Conservative Party that is being remade. 

Every resignation or defection is unique, a fusion of the personal and the political. But the trend is unmistakable: a party that was once a broad church is metamorphosing into a sect. 

Back in June, before Johnson’s election the following month, the New Statesman launched a series on “the closing of the conservative mind”. In an accompanying leader, we warned that the “majestic pragmatism” that once defined conservatism had been supplanted by a dogmatic commitment to Brexit “at any cost”. Subsequent events have only vindicated this judgement. 

The party that Johnson leads is increasingly Conservative in name only. The supposed “party of the economy” is pursuing a Brexit deal that the government’s own forecasts suggest will reduce growth by around 6.7 per cent of GDP (£130bn) between now and 2034, leaving the average person £2,250 a year poorer. The supposed “party of the Union” is establishing a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, gifting the SNP a renewed chance to make the case for Scottish independence. And the “party of government” has subordinated elected representatives to the “will of the people”. 

It was Edmund Burke, the founding father of conservatism, who observed in his 1774 speech to the Electors of Bristol that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” But when 21 Conservative MPs exercised their judgement by thwarting a no-deal Brexit they were rewarded with the withdrawal of the whip. 

The remade party of Johnson and Dominic Cummings (who is alleged to have never been a Conservative member) is best described not as conservative but as populist. For decades, Eurosceptics revered the UK’s unwritten constitution: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its neutral civil service. But an alternative centre of power — the people — has now been established. Rather than their loyalty to the constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted to Remain). 

The social liberalism and fiscal conservatism of the Cameron era has been discarded in favour of authoritarianism and fiscal expansion. Government borrowing, which the Conservatives long vowed to eliminate, has increased by 22 per cent or £7.4bn in the current financial year.

Johnson’s populism reflects a (Groucho) Marxist approach to politics: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them ... well I have others.” But a libertarian streak also occasionally surfaces. At the first Conservative leadership hustings, he made the Ayn Rand-esque boast: “Can you think of anybody who stuck up for the bankers as much as I did? I defended them day in, day out, from those who frankly wanted to hang them from the nearest lamppost.”

His cabinet features four of the five co-authors of Britannia Unchained, a paean to deregulation, tax cuts and privatisation. Two of them, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, now hold two of the great offices of state (the Home Office and the Foreign Office). A further two, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss and business minister Kwasi Kwarteng, are also cabinet members.

Such figures aspire to use Brexit as a vehicle to pursue Thatcherism 2.0, unshackling the UK from “social Europe” and aligning it with the global “Anglosphere”. Significantly, Johnson’s Brexit deal, which would allow Britain to diverge from the EU on workers’ rights and environmental protections, has kept alive this dream. 

Yet conservatism was never historically inextricable from free-market economics. In 1947, Oakeshott dismissed Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom as part of the “tyranny of rationalism”. Its main significance, he wrote, was “not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine”. However one may describe the authors of Britannia Unchained, they are not conservatives in the sense that Oakeshott would recognise. 

Johnson may yet triumph at the election: he is a far superior campaigner to Theresa May and has broken with austerity to a degree that she never did. He faces a fractured and divided opposition. And he has decisively ended the momentum that the Brexit Party enjoyed after its victory at the European elections. Yet in doing so he is perhaps irrevocably changing his party’s character. Any government that Johnson forms will be Conservative in name — but not in nature. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.