What is now the point of the Tories?
Published by The i paper (3rd October, 2022)
he Tories gather for their annual conference in dismal state of disarray. Election of a new leader, their fourth in six years, has backfired in unprecedented style with open warfare among senior figures, a crashing pound and stunning collapse in the polls. After 12 years in power with dramatic shifts in direction under a quartet of very different politicians, the party looks increasingly dysfunctional as public services deteriorate and war rages in Europe. Already there is talk of ousting Liz Truss, replacing her with someone more competent who might save them from electoral doom.
Yet the troops meeting for their conference in Birmingham need to confront a far more fundamental question: what on earth is the point of the modern Conservative Party? This issue was touched on by Michael Gove on Sunday morning when the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg asked the former Cabinet minister if he backed last month’s disastrous mini-budget. “The sheer risk of using borrowed money to fund tax cuts – that’s not conservative,” he responded, before going on to criticise tax cuts for rich people while slashing benefits for citizens on low incomes as displaying “the wrong values”.
He is correct on both counts. Yet he might reflect on his own role in fanning the flames that now burn with such ferocity in his party.
The Tories face a self-inflicted crisis after shredding their credibility in that bungled mini-budget. But this disaster has been brewing for years with corrosion of their brand amid a populist takeover, driven by ideologues obsessed with Europe and shrinking the state who saw Boris Johnson as their useful idiot. Such is the despair that one prominent Tory MP texted me to complain “we are infected with hubris and peopled by fools”. Then this veteran and very decent Tory – a Brexiteer, incidentally – sent me a second furious message to say that the Conservatives were no longer his party, condemning it as a “populist protection racket that isn’t even popular”.
Ironically, the tumble came under a leader who declared she was prepared to be unpopular – although I suspect not to the extent of the electoral wipeout facing her forces on current polling. Truss and her libertarian allies claim the big issue was poor communication rather than bad policy, while pinning blame for almost everything on Vladimir Putin and waffling about growth. Yet the problems really arose from the arrogance of ideologues in power who were contemptuous towards others with differing views – whether espousing Treasury “orthodoxies” over debt-funded borrowing or expressing concerns over the political wisdom of cutting taxes for the rich when most citizens are alarmed over rising prices and mortgages.
Truss has some decent ideas – although as former chief whip Julian Smith tweeted: “We cannot clap for carers one month and cut tax for millionaires months later.” Yet this new prime minister has blown her political capital like a drunken gambler on a desperate binge in Las Vegas – and she has done it by following the approach of those other Tories who display an arrogant, cavalier and fundamentally unconservative approach to their colleagues, the economy and society.
These are the insouciant types who pushed Brexit and then, having won the debate, refused to compromise or accept the slightest responsibility for any consequences. They drove those disagreeing out of their party, badmouthed experts who challenged their stance, abused institutions standing in their way, demeaned business, sneered at consensus, lied to the public, brushed aside checks and balances, promoted cronyism and pushed “wedge” issues to divide us to ensure continuation of their rule.
Bear in mind Truss leads a party that can claim to have been the most formidable electoral force in Western democracy since the days of Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli. Its enduring success lay in the lack of ideology that allowed it to modernise and mutate with changing times, a pragmatic malleability that united conservatives of differing creeds while remaining true to its roots even under radical leaders such as Margaret Thatcher.
The party was based on a sense of Burkean community and continuity, suspicious of revolutionary fervour, largely respectful of institutions while seeking to focus on stability so businesses and citizens could grow. “Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband,” claimed David Cameron infamously before the 2015 election.
Now ask yourself what are the values of today’s Conservative Party after 12 years in power that have achieved so little beyond the Brexit debacle and keeping Labour out of power? This is, admittedly, hard to discern, given constant changes of course over the past six years taking us from Cameron’s focus on debt and talk of Big Society through to Boris Johnson’s supposed levelling up and now back to another looming bout of austerity – certainly for those on benefits – while Truss aids the rich.
Despite Johnson’s departure, ministers continue to abuse the truth: witness Home Secretary Suella Braverman telling The Sun at the weekend that foreign students are “not contributing to growing our economy” although studies indicate they deliver net economic benefit of £26bn a year.
But the brutal truth as party loyalists meet in Birmingham is that they are in a mess of their own making. The Conservative Party has dominated British politics for more than a century, producing leaders who steered our nation through turbulent seas. Yet, addicted to populism, it jettisoned its values and hacked away wilfully at its bedrock of support.
Suddenly it looks a spent force, hollowed by the ideologues and opportunists who drove out moderates, undermined businesses, destroyed economic credibility and – while wrapping themselves in the flag – wrecked our nation’s standing as a bastion of good sense and democratic solidity. Perhaps they can save themselves, starting in Birmingham – but first they would do well to ponder the point of their party.