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Party conference season is upon us, and the prime minister has made a slew of disconnected announcements — from reconsidering the HS2 railway to replacing A-levels with a baccalaureate — in a bid to look dynamic. The Conservative slogan this year is “Long-term decisions for a brighter future”. Nothing wrong with that — unless you’ve been in power for 13 years.
In his first year in office, Rishi Sunak has calmed market jitters, looked impressive among world leaders and broken the Brexit impasse on Northern Ireland. But he is struggling to present a coherent narrative, because it’s no longer clear what the Conservatives are for. The old notion that the Tories were a small state, low-tax party evaporated under the “cakeist” Boris Johnson. The idea that they are competent has crumbled under the accumulating weight of failing public services. And the principle that they were pragmatic, not ideological, vanished with Brexit.
One reason the party has dominated British politics for two centuries is that it has been trusted on the economy. The Brexit ultras, and then Liz Truss, demolished that view. Even now, seven years after the referendum, few Conservative MPs will risk publicly acknowledging that Brexit has been a disaster. So they are doomed to scour the books for savings, rather than pursuing the obvious path to economic growth: getting closer to our biggest, nearest market.
The party famed for its historic capacity to reinvent itself has become an inflexible cult. You can’t be truly pro-growth if you continue to insist on a Brexit dividend. How can you expect to lead the world in artificial intelligence if your market is only 67mn people? How can you wax lyrical about electric vehicle production if EU rules of origin will put UK manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage?
Since 2016, delivering a hard Brexit has felt like the Conservatives’ only raison d’être. A party that used to accuse the left of Stalinism went into full purge mode. Rather than make any overtures to Brussels, Theresa May squandered the goodwill she could have used to get a better deal. Then Johnson excised some of the most talented MPs from the parliamentary party, for defying him over Brexit.
The Brexit referendum crystallised a realignment of British politics which reflects similar changes in the US and Europe. Votes are cast less depending on class as on whether voters are socially liberal and internationalist — what the pollster Stephan Shakespeare described in 2005 as “drawbridge down” — or culturally conservative and protectionist, “drawbridge up”. (Tony Blair later reframed this as the more pejorative “open / closed”.) People who suffered the downsides of globalisation, who felt ignored, helped sweep Johnson to power in 2019, combining the so-called “red wall” along with traditional blue shires.
This electoral coalition may not be sustainable. It is not enough just to claim to side with the “people” against the “elite” — although the current government does this over immigration. There is an unbridgeable tension between voters in insecure jobs who want big government to protect their livelihoods and better-off voters who resent high taxes. Hence Johnson’s disingenuous promises to “level up” the country, and build 40 new hospitals, with little sign of how that would be paid for.
Sunak will be acutely aware of all of this when he stands up to speak on Wednesday. These occasions set the tone for a leadership. Working in Downing Street in the run-up to a party conference involves a desperate triangulation between the desire to make headlines without looking mad, and securing applause from the faithful.
In the past two weeks, Sunak has made two important interventions, on net zero and HS2, which have sought to be honest about trade-offs. I am less cynical about these than many. I find it perfectly possible to believe that the prime minister, a spreadsheet nerd, is unhappy about Johnson’s target for electric vehicles and about the wastefulness of a grotesquely inflated rail plan. I can also see exactly how political spinners want to use net zero to draw a dividing line with Labour — a deeply depressing response to climate change.
It is risky for Sunak to unpick his predecessor’s policies. Moving the goalposts on infrastructure projects can spook investors. On the other hand, there is undoubtedly a need for some grown-up conversations. One would be with Tory members about just how much Brexit has heaped regulation and costs upon British businesses.
That is unlikely. Instead, expect a blizzard of announcements, conveniently postdated. Flirting with inheritance tax cuts smacks of desperation. When George Osborne did it in 2007, he scared Gordon Brown away from calling an election. But even Osborne never went through with it.
Can the Conservatives find a new raison d’être? A new collection of essays edited by the former cabinet minister David Gauke argues persuasively that the party should return to the centre right with sensible policies like tax reform and contributory welfare. The fact that five of the authors were kicked out by Johnson, and another resigned from his cabinet, shows how hard it will be.
A few months ago, I found myself speaking at an event with the influential Brexiter Lord David Frost. He railed against “the establishment”. I asked him who he thought the establishment was, given that he had occupied highly influential positions in government across the previous four years. But I was left in no doubt of the zeal felt by the proponents of a perpetual revolution. If that’s what the Conservatives stand for, then they should already have gone.