Identity can be a complex beast. No personal identity crisis, however, can come even close to the kind of unfettered intellectual fragmentation currently gripping the Conservative Party.
Urban legend suggests that some parts of the electorate would vote for a donkey if it wore a blue rosette. From 2010-2022 we have seen a vast experiment in whether Conservative MPs would serve under such a beast.
Over those 12 years and four elections, the party has undergone several cringing self-reinventions. There was the husky-hugging, partially-detoxified, faux-environmentalism of David Cameron, followed by Theresa May’s obstinate sense of duty to the Brexit vote. Boris Johnson tried boosterish attempts to buy the electorate’s love, promising investment to the ‘Red Wall’. Now he’s given way to Liz Truss’s catastrophically inept attempts to grow the economy by giving looters a bigger bag.
The 2019 intake of Tory MPs was elected with a clear brief to drag funding from London and the South East and into the North. That same intake now wants to saddle these same Northern areas with biblical levels of debt, purely to fund a tax cut to the mega-rich. “Levelling up” at least remains an aspiration, although the polarity has been completely reversed since Truss’s arrival. If we are to understand the Conservative Party, from this evidence, as a group of politicians broadly united on a set of core ideological beliefs, then that party no longer exists.
Levelling up or trickling down?
“Levelling up” was the key plank of the 2019 Tory pitch. When the Red Wall crumbled, it did so not due to a latter-day conversion to small state Conservatism, but because it was promised a new, post-Brexit settlement in which investment would gush into their neglected regions. Yes, changing demographics are also a factor – the Red Wall is increasingly filled with grey hair – but no serious commentator would suggest that Bolsover or Workington voters secretly hoped for a mid-term volte face in which bankers bonuses were unchained.
But what do we see? As Truss was being elected, Public First Director James Frayne wrote a piece on conservativehome.com, about the importance of working class votes to the Tories’ current electoral coalition. Less than three weeks later, Truss’s Chancellor had announced a package of measures that, from a working class perspective, were a raised middle finger so colossal, even the IMF was offended.
Setting aside their economic incompetence, Truss’s measures are almost tailor-made to repel voters in regions considered totemic by the Conservative Party as recently as July 2022. Tax cuts disproportionately benefiting the already wealthy, who predominantly live in London and the South East, have been prioritised over everything else, especially the priorities of working class voters, whether it be seeing a GP in less than a fortnight, the protection of a well-funded police force, the improvement of transport links to their area, or even a decent pay settlement.
A heckler in Newcastle once bitterly admonished KCL Professor Anand Menon with the words “that’s your bloody GDP, not ours.” Johnson heard that frustrated cry from the nation’s heartlands, and won popularity by at least talking about addressing the systemic inequalities that prompted it.
Truss’s measures, by contrast, inject those same inequalities with steroids, despite plenty of anecdotal evidence that many wealthy people neither want this nor approve of it. It is difficult to believe these two approaches came from the same party, much less that they are being enacted under the same electoral mandate.
Broad church, or bunch of heretics?
Under First Past the Post, political parties are broad churches. The parliamentary Labour Party, for example, plays home to right-wing lefties like Barry Sheerman, and left-wing lefties like Zarah Sultana. Nevertheless, this broad range of opinion is at least united in seeing that the state has an active role to play in the life of the nation.
The parliamentary Conservative Party, by contrast, now increasingly resembles a grab-bag of individuals selected at random from a Question Time audience. Aside from tie colour, nothing unites a hard-right libertarian like John Redwood, a former trade-unionist turned braying yob like Jonathan Gullis, and a diligent, independently-minded Remainer like Caroline Nokes. One preaches a cultish gospel of free market fundamentalism, one demands more state investment in his area, and the latter at least creates the appearance of passionate feminism.
There are enormous difficulties associated with building a functioning government from such an ideological patchwork quilt. For now, Truss has dealt with this Gordian knot by simply tossing any dissenting voices out of her cabinet, ensuring her senior leadership team consists entirely of Tufton Street zealots.
This spares the prime minister the unpleasantness of having to hear any opinions she doesn’t already agree with, but also creates a large, disparate bunch of backbenchers with no personal or ideological loyalty. This is not conducive to teamwork in the national interest; ti’s an odd-couple sitcom given its own cinematic universe.
If you don’t stand for something…
All political parties need fringes. Fresh ideas must come from somewhere, debates must be held, and established orthodoxies must be challenged in order to see if they remain relevant in a changing world.
The Conservative Party of 2022, however, is now all fringe and no head. One Nation Conservatives are a breed hunted almost to extinction. Red Wall Conservatives will be voted to extinction under Truss’s own economic plans. Brexiteer Conservatives champion a fringe ideology which has done for trade what termites do for structural integrity. This is a rag-tag band of disparate individuals, united only by their rosette. Even the manifesto this party was elected under is treated with the same reverence that the former PM approached his marriage vows.
Now, as the British economy charges towards the kind of basket-case territory that David Cameron used to invoke to justify austerity, the Conservative Party has no democratic legitimacy.
The contract it offered to the British people three years ago lies in tatters, having been written by one Tory personality and torn up by another. Voters can accept that leaders may change mid-term, but they are entitled to expect a level of ideological continuity as power passes from the elected to the unelected. Instead, voters have found themselves clambering into bed with a boosterish Henry Jekyll and waking up with a psychopathic Mr Hyde.
Cast them into opposition
Much like a romantic relationship that must be ended until one partner can ‘work on their issues,’ the Tory party must be cast onto the opposition benches until it works out what it wants. Does it want high streets in Redcar or Hartlepool to be regenerated, or does it want Audis in Beaconsfield to be upgraded to Maseratis? Except in the recently and thoroughly discredited mind of the Tufton Street think tank, it can’t have both.
Above all, the Conservative Party must learn to once again stand for something intrinsic to its own values. After 12 years of doomed self-reinventions, the party of Disraeli and Macmillan has now completely outsourced its critical faculties to opaque, wonkish chancers behind a different Westminster door. Think tanks now provide the intellectual self-confidence that the Tory party used to be able to supply from within. As the cataclysm happening in our financial markets can confirm, it is a self-confidence that’s utterly misplaced.
Until the Tory party can think, communicate and conduct itself like a party of government, for the good of the country and its citizens, it should be removed from office.