The future of the Conservatives
The Conservative party has taken many twists and turns over its lifetime, particularly over the subject of free trade. If we date its start to Robert Peel in the 1830s, it had barely been created before it promptly split over the Corn Laws, coming out on the side of protectionism. It split again over free trade (under the name Imperial Preference) at the beginning of the 20th century, this time wrestling with the subject for nearly 30 years. That dispute only resolved itself fully after GATT was signed in 1947, outlawing systems of preferential tariffs.
In the wake of the Second World War, it moved to become the party of integration with Europe, in the form of what was then the EEC, and its protectionist tariff regime. Then, having secured EEC membership, it became increasingly disenchanted with its own success, leading to its capture by the supporters of Brexit and a return to free trade. Yet even some Brexiteers yearn for a return to Imperial Preference — they prefer to call it CANZUK, but it’s simply an update of Imperial Preference. The battle between the free traders and the protectionists in the Conservative party continues.
We might conclude that the Conservative party has changed so many times that one more protean shift would be both normal and expected. Yet throughout the Conservative party’s existence, some themes have endured. In Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto, usually taken to be the foundational document of the Conservative party, Peel wrote:
With respect to the Reform Bill itself, I will repeat now the declaration which I made when I entered the House of Commons as a member of the Reformed Parliament, that I consider the Reform Bill a final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question, a settlement which no friend to the peace and welfare of this country would attempt to disturb, either by direct or by insidious means. Then, as to the spirit of the Reform Bill, and the willingness to adopt and enforce it as a rule of government-if, by adopting the spirit of the Reform Bill, it be meant that we are to live in a perpetual vortex of agitation; that public men can only support themselves in public estimation by adopting every popular impression of the day, by promising the instant redress of anything which anybody may call an abuse, by abandoning altogether that great aid of Government, more powerful than either law or reason-the respect for ancient rights, and the deference to prescriptive authority; if this be the spirit of the Reform Bill, I will not undertake to adopt it. But if the spirit of the Reform Bill implies merely a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper, combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses, and the redress of real grievances, in that case, I can for myself and colleagues undertake to act in such a spirit and with such intentions.
For most of its existence, the Conservative party has opposed a perpetual vortex of agitation, seeking to establish itself as the party of the middle classes, defending law and order, sound economy, competent administration and respect for ancient rights. It has usually done so even in its most radical periods: for example, Margaret Thatcher stressed her admiration of Victorian values and stated that “Being democratic is not enough, a majority cannot turn what is wrong into right. In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law.”
As we survey the post-Brexit rubble in 2022, how much of this core is left in the Conservative party?
Law and order
The current government has shown little respect for law and order. It came to power and immediately sought to suspend Parliamentary democracy to ram through a policy for which it had no mandate. This was unanimously held to be unlawful by the Supreme Court. When the Prime Minister’s ethics advisor told him that the Home Secretary had been a bully, the Prime Minister dispensed with his ethics advisor rather than the Home Secretary. It acknowledged that its own Internal Markets Bill breached international law in a “specific and limited way”. The Prime Minister broke new ground, being fined for breaking the law he himself put forward. The litany continues, to the point where some unnamed Downing Street troll last week boasted about the government breaking the law five times a day.
The current Conservative party has voluntarily thrown away any claim to be a party of law and order.
The current incarnation of the Conservatives have been a little unlucky, having been hit by Covid-19 and the Ukraine war in swift succession. That said, that is equally true of every other major country, and Britain’s economic performance is near the bottom of the heap, with the auguries for the medium term only looking worse. The government’s coffers are empty and the calls on them are getting ever greater.
Not only that, the government’s messaging has been all over the place. Last year, when some wages were spiralling, it trumpeted the benefits of a high wage economy. This year, with inflation rampant, the government is railing against rail workers for wanting a less-than-inflation rise and urging wage restraint all round. It can’t even be consistent at the same time, never mind from one day to the next: on the day of the first rail strike, it reconfirmed that would be reinstating the triple lock, promising to fully inflation-proof pensions in line with CPI.
(Incidentally, rail fares get increased each year in line with the July RPI figure, which is likely to be well above even CPI. Is the government ready for the firestorm that’s going to produce? Has it thought about the inconsistency with both rail industry salary rises and pension increases? I doubt it.)
There is no great coherence either. The government cannot decide whether it wants to spend money on popular spending projects or keep some residual control of public finances. At present, it is doing neither. Margaret Thatcher would have been horrified at such lack of focus.
Right now the government is struggling to maintain what has always been one of the Conservatives’ greatest advantages: a reputation for economic competence.
Allied to this, the government is showing a fundamental lack of seriousness about the drudgery of government administration. Again using the rail strikes as an example, it prefers to use these as a stick to beat the Labour party with than to get involved in the resolution of technical differences between the employers and the union. The education system descended into farce during lockdown, with chaos over school reopening and exam gradings.
On immigration, it is touting the deportation of refugees to Rwanda, a scheme that the public can see is unserious whether or not they also think it cruel, rather than improve the speed of processing of immigration claims. Similarly, the criminal justice system is seized up, with cases taking far too long to reach courts.
This is a government that seeks destruction, creative or otherwise, rather than orderly administration.
This isn’t just the opinions of one bystander grinding an axe. The public have noticed this stuff. In YouGov’s most recent issues tracker, the government recorded epically awful ratings on how it was doing. Of particular note, it rates -62 on immigration, -54 on the economy and -51 on the NHS, but its performance almost across the board is dismal.
Now, individually each of these turns from traditional Conservatism have precursors in the Conservative party. Before World War One, the Conservatives came close to supporting insurrection in Ireland. In the early 1970s, the Conservatives experimented with administrative chaos. After Black Wednesday, the Conservatives took nearly two decades to recover a reputation for economic competence, and left the country in poor economic shape for their successors in both 1964 and 1974. But for all these traditional Conservative themes to be pulverised at once, that is new.
Right at the moment, the government’s main asset seems to be the opposition, which still fails to impress many. That is not, however, a prospectus for government, as opposed to retaining power. So what does the current Conservative party stand for?
As of 2022, the foundational belief of the current Conservative party is clear: Brexit. Every aspect of policy is subordinate to it, and Brexit for this purpose must be interpreted in its most adamantine form. Anything that sniffs of compromise with the EU is to be regarded with profound disfavour.
The public’s enthusiasm for this foundational belief is questionable. In the poll noted above, the government is rated at -33% on Brexit. But among Conservatives themselves, Brexit is now canon law.
A few aspects of old Conservativism remain. The Conservatives’ commitment to strong defence remains recognisably still in place. Its long-standing commitment to the union is still there, although the distinctly English nationalist tinge that began with Margaret Thatcher now dominates entirely.
What else is there? The Conservatives are almost by accident developing a theory of government that posits an untrammelled executive elected every five years. In the emerging orthodoxy, the Prime Minister cannot be dislodged between elections, his government is entitled to enact policy without supervision by judges and any control — ethical, legal or Parliamentary — that gets in the way of this is to be peeled away.
There can be no concept of misconduct in a public office or government corruption because by definition the government is doing the electorate’s will. So the government can allocate public money according to electoral advantage and boast about its policy. It isn’t a case of one rule for them and another rule for everyone else: the government is beyond rules. Once you decide that you embody the will of the people, you can do no wrong. To the pure Brexiteers, all things are pure.
The Conservatives are also flirting with culture war topics. The newspapers are full of stories about woke builders, transsexuals in toilets and academic freedom of speech. The Conservative party has been dabbling in such attacks too. This development is not yet fully established but a direction of travel has been set.
It should be apparent that this is a thin and dangerous prospectus. Much of it is wrapped up in the individual personality of the current Prime Minister. As and when he leaves office, his replacement will step into a legitimacy crisis. If, as may well happen, the Conservatives lose power at the next election, they will come to rue having established such loose controls over the systems of government. They will have no way of holding the Labour party to account, having ceded all right to do so by conventional means, having destroyed the conventional means.
The Conservatives will need to rethink and restate what it means to be a Conservative and fairly soon. Will they seek to restore some of their discarded themes and reconstruct themselves once again as a party of the middle classes? Will they instead seek to build on their turn to unserious populism and grasp the opportunities in a new voter base offered by two decades of economic dislocation? And how is Brexit going to fit in with either version?
It’s not an obvious decision and it is potentially momentous. It’s coming soon.