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  1. The Staggers
19 May 2023

The Tories aren’t even pretending to sell us aspiration

Conservatives are telling us swimming in sewage is fine and to go without cheese sandwiches. Gone are the days of “more sugar, less tax”.

By John Oxley

The Tory Party is becoming increasingly miserable. This isn’t a judgement of its internal position as it flounders in the polls, but more its outlook and view for the voters. Rather than the politics of hope or the push to sunlit uplands, many in the party seem intent on selling the public nothing more than parsimony. It seems unlikely to do them any electoral favours.

On the cost-of-living crisis, multiple commentators on the right have suggested the response to rising prices is simply more and more simple living. In a fiery exchange on the BBC’s Politics Live, Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister turned Reform UK spokesperson, said that if families can’t afford even a cheese sandwich, they should have to go without.

Elsewhere, Brendan Clarke-Smith, the Conservative MP for Bassetlaw, told LBC that people struggling could subsist on supermarket budget lines, before tweeting out a picture of the cheapest beans he could find. Damian Green, the former first secretary of state, appeared on Peston on ITV to defend the government’s record on water cleanliness, arguing that the pollution was simply more acceptable in the past. He reminisced, almost fondly, about his own youth swimming in sewage in South Wales. Taken together, these statements make the party look like it has given up on solving problems and wants the public to put up with them instead.

This was not always the case. Tory posters of the 1950s were replete with joyous imagery as the party led the country out of rationing. “Cheaper shopping, more sugar, less tax” one boasted of their “Housewife’s budget”, while another promised “fair wages, fair prices – and a house to live in”. Thatcher’s campaigns struck a similar note, attacking Labour for doubling prices and tempting voters “Don’t just hope for a better life, vote for one”.

Indeed, the party’s success was usually tied to aspiration. Under Harold Macmillan the Tories benefited not only from a booming economy and a building boom, but from a sense that voting for them was a sign you had made it into the growing middle-class. Boris Johnson put it more crudely to the FHM generation in his early reported campaigning remark that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3”. Even austerity was communicated with the idea that short-term pain would put the country in a better position for the future. Now the party just urges voters to accept swimming in filth and eating gruel.

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It smacks of an approach that is both incompetent and uncaring. The Conservatives have been in power for thirteen years and are struggling to answer the problems they have presided over. So instead they play them down. Rather than combating rising prices and stalling wages, they treat aspiration to even the basics as an unreasonable expectation. No longer do they seem to be a party who wants to make people richer or better off.

In part this may appeal to their main supporters. The party is increasingly the preserve of the comfortably retired, enriched by rising house prices and generous pensions. They are protected from many of these issues, and can dismiss attempts to solve them by relying, like Green, on some half-remembered privation of youth. Rather than making the world better, they seem content to pass on suffering.

Elsewhere, these messages will be mocked by the electorate and compound the Tories’ problems. People look to government for both sympathy and solutions to their problems. Telling them to suck it up offers neither, making the party look ambivalent to how few ideas it seems to have. Winning campaigns tend to offer people hope – “Learn to live with it” is unlikely to be a galvanising slogan. Yet with time ticking down to an election, and few answers to be found, it is hard to see what else the Tories can say.

[See also: The National Conservatives are a glimpse of the Tories’ grim future]

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