The slow decay of the Conservative Party
How the nasty party became the nothing party.
The polls putting Labour ahead by record-breaking margins tell their own story – this Tory government appears to be in its death throes.
Much of the blame is being heaped on hapless new prime minister Liz Truss and her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Trailed as a sign of the duo’s ‘radical’, tax-cutting intent, their ‘mini-budget’ has appealed to precisely no one. It has plunged the markets into turmoil, it has been feasted on by an already antagonistic media and it has further estranged the working-class, Brexit-supporting voters on which the Tories’ 2019 General Election success rested.
But the problems go beyond Truss and Kwarteng. For what we are witnessing right now is the decomposition of the Conservative Party itself. The stench is particularly strong at the moment, but it is a process that has been nearly two decades in the making.
It began under the leadership of David Cameron, who sought to align the Tory Party with the values and attitudes of the new elites, before Brexit ripped that alignment apart. And it has continued under Theresa May and Boris Johnson, who failed to realise the promise of Brexit and take these new elites on. The result is a party that increasingly represents no one at all. And now it has produced a leader and set of policies to match.
The meaning of ‘modernisation’
In the 2000s, a new establishment, having begun its ascent in the 1960s, had consolidated itself at the apex of British political and cultural life. Long gone was an elite sustained by openly class-bound privilege, and justified in terms of tradition. Instead, the new elite was ostensibly meritocratic, the homogenous product of an ever-expanding university system rather than Britain’s increasingly maligned public schools. Its politics, embodied by New Labour, was technocratic, therapeutic and globalist. These people spoke in the value-laden jargon of ‘openness’, ‘inclusion’, ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’. And they were concerned with global warming, identity politics and individual wellbeing.
In a political and cultural atmosphere dominated by this new establishment, the Conservative Party had never seemed so out of place. Its dwindling membership and parliamentary rump still cleaved to older notions of nationhood. Its individualism was of the entrepreneurial rather than the therapeutic, ‘be yourself’ variety. And Margaret Thatcher, a byword among the new establishment for political cruelty, hung like a millstone around its neck. In 2002, after two devastating General Election defeats, the new party chairman, one Theresa May, famously laid out the predicament the Tories were facing at their annual party conference: ‘Soldiering on to the next election without radical, fundamental change is simply not an option.’ Conservatives, she continued, have to stop looking to ‘some mythical place called Middle England’ and indulging in ‘glib moralising’ and ‘hypocritical finger-wagging’. And then came the killer line: ‘You know what some people call us – the nasty party.’
May’s speech was to prove a harbinger of the Tories’ political transformation under David Cameron, George Osborne, Steve Hilton and other graduates of the Conservative Research Department. They set about remaking the party in the image of the new elites – almost in spite of the attitudes and values of its membership, and indeed many of its MPs.
Historians of the party have since characterised this project of ‘modernisation’ as ‘an oddly empty revolution’, lacking ‘intellectual ballast’ and ‘a core doctrine’. Which is true, but misses the point. This project of ‘modernisation’ was never meant to provide a guiding idea or core doctrine. Rather, it was an attempt to bring the party’s values and worldview into line with the values and worldview of the new establishment. As Michael (now Lord) Ashcroft’s 2005 pamphlet, Smell the Coffee, put it, the Tories had to forge a new ‘election-winning coalition of professionals, women and aspirational voters’.
Signs of Cameron’s attempt to align the Tory Party with the worldview of the new establishment were everywhere. Green issues were foregrounded, with a tree even replacing the ‘torch of freedom’ as the party symbol. And references to Thatcher-era individualism were purposefully dropped, replaced by a clumsy emphasis on social justice. ‘When you see a child walking down the road, hoodie up, head down, moody, swaggering, dominating the pavement’, said Cameron in his much-mocked ‘hug a hoodie’ speech in 2006, ‘think what has brought that child to that moment’.
This was a deliberate, concerted strategy, largely conducted through the media. The aim was simple: to appeal to affluent, professional, metropolitan ‘AB voters’. And to curry favour with the new elites, who patronisingly fancied themselves as the saviours of poor people and minorities.
This project of ‘modernisation’ continued after the Tories’ partial success at the 2010 General Election. Most famously, prime minister Cameron pushed through the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013. The Guardian called it Cameron’s ‘detox symbol’ – a signal of the Tories’ embrace of the worldview of the new elites.
As it turned out, Tory modernisation was less about embracing genuine social liberalism than it was about embracing the regressive, identitarian values of the new establishment. Such was Cameron’s commitment to supposedly progressive causes that his government launched the Women and Equalities Committee in 2015. Under the auspices of its Tory chair, Maria Miller, it quickly set about revamping gender-recognition laws – beginning a process that would undermine women’s rights in the name of trans rights. An ominous sign of things to come.
The Brexit revolt
In a sense, ‘modernisation’ worked. Cameron’s Tories won a parliamentary majority in 2015 on 36.7 per cent of the vote. More significantly, they seemed to have metamorphosed into a party at ease with the new elites. Their approach to government was technocratic. Their ethos was therapeutic. They spoke of wellbeing and happiness, not profit and GDP. And their nudging paternalism was as soft and patronising as New Labour’s. Cameron was, for a time, successful in making the Conservative Party palatable to the electoral bedrock of the new establishment – the university-educated middle classes. In 2010 and 2015, the Tories won more votes in constituencies where there were more graduates.
Yet trying to turn the Conservative Party into just another vehicle for the new establishment came at a cost. It effectively stigmatised the values and attitudes of a large portion of Tory MPs and the party’s shrinking membership. This disoriented the party and hollowed it out. Social conservatism was cast to the wind. The party’s embrace of what we now call woke values would also draw the ire of the genuine liberals within Tory ranks. Meanwhile, Cameron was turning the party into just one more flavour of technocratic politics to sell to an increasingly apathetic electorate.
All this would have continued were it not for the vote for Brexit in 2016. This singular event utterly transformed British politics. Over 17million Leave voters, a large number of whom had either not voted before or had not done so in years, had finally been given the chance to speak. They voted for more democratic power. And they rejected the new establishment and its representatives in Westminster.
Brexit was a popular rejection of all parties insofar as they were largely in line with the new establishment. All the party leaders had supported Remain, as had most parties’ MPs. But there was still a sizeable number of Conservative MPs, many of whom predated the Cameron era, who were Eurosceptic. This meant that the conflict between Brexit and the new establishment played out within the Conservative Party – especially as the Labour tradition of Euroscepticism had by 2016 largely disappeared. All this meant that the Tories, as disoriented and deracinated as they were fast becoming, still had an opportunity to channel the Brexit revolt.
It was not straightforward. The redistributive demands of working-class Brexiteers, many of whom were long-term Labour supporters, often sat uneasily alongside the more free-market-championing Tory Brexiteers. But the opportunity for the Tory Party was there.
That this opportunity fell to Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, was unfortunate. A supporter of Remain, she assembled a post-Brexit cabinet stuffed full with supporters of the EU. She was also hamstrung by the Tories’ slender parliamentary majority. Her solution – to call a General Election in the summer of 2017 – catastrophically backfired. The Tories lost their parliamentary majority and were left at the mercy of a Remainer parliament.
But beneath the surface of the 2017 General Election results, something more significant was happening. The Conservatives may have increased their national vote share by 5.5 percentage points in 2017, but in Brexit-voting, ‘Red Wall’ Labour seats, their vote increased by over 10 per cent on average. It wouldn’t take many more votes, as Johnson would later show, for those seats to turn from red to blue.
Whether by accident or design, the Tories under May were changing from a cheerleader into an opponent of the new establishment. They still retained support from older, traditional Tory voters. But they were now also picking it up from Brexit-supporting, working-class constituencies – people whose values and ambitions were also thoroughly opposed to those of the new elites. In doing so, May’s government had effectively prepared the ground for Boris Johnson’s resounding 2019 General Election victory.
The populist opportunity missed
Johnson’s electoral triumph was a striking affirmation of the referendum result three years on. And it provided an ostensibly Brexit-supporting government with the chance to finally make good on the radical promise of 2016.
On 44 per cent of the vote, the Conservative Party achieved a majority of 80 seats. Most important of all, it captured 57 more seats than in 2017, and all but three were from Labour. These included Bishop Auckland, Bassetlaw, Wakefield, Leigh and Don Valley, which had all been Labour since before the Second World War. The Tories even took Bolsover, Dennis Skinner’s old seat, which Labour had never lost before. At the same time, many of the middle-class university graduates – the electoral bedrock of Cameron’s success – had been lost.
Johnson’s Tories therefore had a completely different mandate to that which they had under Cameron. To ‘get Brexit done’, certainly. But it was more than that. Just four years prior, they had been a party aspiring to be part of the new establishment. Now they were the party representing the populist revolt against the new establishment.
It was an incredible opportunity. As awkward a re-alignment as it was, with the Tories now representing the interests of large swathes of working-class England, it was a chance to make a lasting political difference. A chance to further democratise national life. To aid the rejuvenation of those parts of the UK long looked down on by the metropolitan centres. And a chance to resist and roll back the seemingly relentless, illiberal assault on those who hold different values to those of the new elites. It was all there for the taking – a chance to fight back in what had for too long been a one-sided culture war.
It was never going to be easy. Despite Brexit, the new establishment remains potent. Its values and worldview pervade public institutions, culture and business. Even the state itself, from the civil service to the police, is shot through with this new-establishment outlook. So the Tories may have been in office, but they weren’t necessarily in power.
And it has proved difficult for the Tories since 2019. Establishment resistance has seeped out of every pore of Britain’s ruling institutions. The civil service has spent much of the past three years working from home, obstructing government policy and staging high-profile resignations. And sections of the media, most of academia and other cultural institutions have waged a nigh-on incessant campaign against Brexit and the Tories.
Moreover, prominent expressions of new-establishment ideology, from the racial identity politics of Black Lives Matter to the climate-change alarmism of Extinction Rebellion, have erupted into the public sphere. And they have been cheered on and endorsed by the new establishment.
Yet, as difficult as it has been for the Tory government, it still had one overwhelming factor in its favour. It had democratic authority on its side. It therefore had the chance to make good on Brexit, to use the power granted to it by the people to pursue a genuinely populist programme against the new establishment. This meant it could have done more to ‘Level Up’ – in reality rather than in mere rhetoric. It could have stood up to an increasingly poisonous identity politics, pushing reactionary ideas under the guise of progress. It could have challenged the woke dogma that prevails in schools and universities, and feeds into the unthinking illiberalism of so much of our public life.
The opportunity was there. But the Tory Party completely blew it. A chance to make Britain anew democratically, economically and culturally has been squandered.
For every blow struck for free speech, there has been an Online Safety Bill reining it in. For every challenge to climate-change alarmism, there has been a renewed commitment to Net Zero. Even on trans ideology, which is doing so much harm to women’s rights and children’s welfare, the Tories have often seemed unable to hold the line.
There are mitigating circumstances for the Tory Party’s failure. The pandemic stymied Johnson’s premiership almost from the moment it began. And though some reckon it was a filip for Johnson politically, the war in Ukraine has exacerbated the energy and cost-of-living crisis.
But the Tory Party’s failure is also of its own making. Its leading figures, Johnson included, have lacked the political will and wherewithal to seize the Brexit day. This is not just a personal failing. It also touches on a deeper intellectual and political incoherence. A party that has spent much of the past 20 years fighting to become part of the new establishment found itself unable to fully reorient itself in opposition to the new establishment. MPs from one era have frequently found themselves at loggerheads with those from another. Here is a party that has ceased to be one thing, but has failed to become another. It is neither establishment nor populist.
Johnson himself embodies this incoherence. A prominent Leave campaigner with a long-established penchant for speaking his mind, he is also thoroughly immersed in the cultural and political milieu of the new elites. It meant he was never quite able to assert his government’s ideological independence from, let alone opposition to, the institutions and worldview of the establishment. And all too often he simply caved in.
This failure is now coming home to roost. The Tories’ squandering of the immense opportunity of Brexit has demoralised and estranged many of those who lent Johnson their vote three years ago. The polling numbers, not to mention recent by-election losses, are proof of that. But, as Tom Slater has rightly pointed out, the populist revolt will live on. Whether the same optimism can be extended to the Tories’ electoral prospects is less clear. Brexit stopped the Conservative Party from turning into yet another variation on New Labour. But the project of ‘modernisation’ has exacted its revenge, by inhibiting the Conservative Party’s ability to become the party of the populist revolt. It seems the embrace of the new establishment is not so easily shaken off.
The result is a party that no longer stands for anyone. The tragicomic duo of PM Liz Truss and her chancellor sidekick, Kwasi Kwarteng, embody this political rootlessness. They are too associated with populism to be supported by the elites. And yet they are too estranged from the substance of the populist revolt to be supported by voters.
This is no longer the nasty party. This is the nothing party.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
Picture by: Getty.
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