Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Dr Oliver Hartwich: The conservative void at the heart of British politics

The 2024 UK general election will go down in history as a seismic shift in British politics. But not for the reasons many commentators suggest.

While headlines trumpet Labour’s landslide victory, the real story is the spectacular implosion of the Conservative Party and the lessons it holds for centre-right parties worldwide.

I must apologise for the length of this column. However, the end of this nearly 20-year experiment with the redefinition of conservatism requires a proper analysis – or perhaps a solemn requiem.

The good news is that after this column, I may hopefully never again have to write about any of the people mentioned herein – or at least not the Conservatives among them.

Let us begin with a striking statistic: Labour secured its commanding majority with just 33.7% of the vote – the lowest share for any winning party in modern British history. Labour’s victory is not so much a ringing endorsement of Sir Keir Starmer’s vision as it is a damning indictment of the Conservatives’ failure.

This also becomes clear when looking at the Conservatives’ popular vote. Back in 2010, the Tories achieved a popular vote of 10.7 million. This has now fallen to a dismal 6.8 million.

How did the Tories arrive at this juncture? As someone who had a front-row seat to the Conservative Party’s transformation, I can attest that the roots of this disaster can be traced back to David Cameron’s leadership and his attempts to ‘modernise’ the party.

From 2005 to 2008, I worked as an economist at Policy Exchange, a think tank closely associated with Cameron and his efforts to reposition the Conservatives. I watched up close as the party embarked on a journey that would ultimately lead to its current crisis.

In 2005, Cameron inherited a Conservative Party that had suffered three consecutive election defeats to Tony Blair’s New Labour.

Cameron’s diagnosis was not incorrect: the party did indeed have an image problem. It was stuck in the past, having narrowed its thinking to lower taxes and criticising Brussels. Cameron was right to recognise that this approach was no longer resonating with the electorate.

However, in his zeal to modernise the party, Cameron went too far. He did not just update the party’s image; he threw overboard everything that might have reminded voters of the party once led by Margaret Thatcher. The old ‘torch of freedom’ logo was dumped for a stylised tree. Cameron spoke of the ‘Big Society’, ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ and climate change. He talked about dealing with the causes of crime rather than law and order.

Working at Policy Exchange, I could see the rationale behind this strategy. The party desperately needed to shed its “nasty party” image. However, even then, I was concerned by how marketing often trumped genuine substance. The problem was that Cameron mostly did not replace the old positioning with well thought through and deep policies (despite Westminster think tanks’ best efforts to deliver policy packages to the party leadership). Instead, Cameron relied on slogans, gimmicks and stunts.

This is where Cameron went wrong – and where he put the party on a slippery slope. Under Cameron, and continuing through the tumultuous years of May, Johnson, Truss, and Sunak, the Conservative Party morphed into a hollowed-out marketing exercise. Gone were the days of Thatcherite conviction politics (whether you liked Mrs T or not), replaced by focus-group-tested slogans and policies designed to offend the fewest rather than achieve the most.

The ideological drift left the party rudderless, particularly in economic policy. Once the party of fiscal responsibility and free markets, the Conservatives presided over ballooning public spending, increased regulation and the highest tax burden in decades. They talked a good game about unleashing Britain’s potential post-Brexit but delivered precious little.

I remember a conversation with a Tory advisor in 2008. He was looking for new economic policy ideas, and the most exciting thing he could come up with was new rules for public sector procurement. Seriously.

This intellectual hollowing out of the Conservatives, and their avoidance of taking stands on big issues, had consequences. One of them was Brexit.

Cameron had tried to avoid the Europe issue like the plague – until Nigel Farage’s UKIP capitalised on anti-EU (and anti-Government) sentiment so much Cameron pledged the in-or-out referendum.

Cameron did not want to leave the EU. All he wanted was to take the wind out of Farage’s sails. And he did not think he would actually have to deliver the referendum if he could blame a future coalition partner for not being able to hold it. Well, that did not work so well after Cameron won an absolute majority in 2015.

The Global Financial Crisis further exposed the shortcomings of Cameron’s approach. When he became Prime Minister in 2010, he found himself woefully unprepared for the economic challenges he faced. His previous promises to stick to Labour’s spending plans and to “share the proceeds of growth” now rang hollow in the face of a severe recession. There was no growth and there were no proceeds to share.

More critically, there was no coherent Conservative economic policy to deal with the crisis and stimulate an economic recovery. This was a direct consequence of Cameron’s hollowing out of Tory party thinking, leaving the party intellectually adrift at a time when clear, principled economic leadership was desperately needed.

The trajectory of Michael Gove through this period is particularly illustrative of the party’s ideological drift and the soap opera-like quality of Conservative politics. As Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, Gove demonstrated the potential for meaningful conservative reform. His overhaul of the education system, including a new curriculum and the expansion of charter schools, was the most significant policy achievement of the Conservatives’ time in office over the past 14 years.

However, Cameron’s discomfort with Gove’s confrontational approach to reform led to his removal from the education brief, signalling the party’s preference for avoiding conflict over pursuing principled change.

Gove’s later career then further exemplified the party’s ideological confusion and personal rivalries. He fell out with Cameron when he decided to support Brexit, a move that put him at odds with his long-time political ally and friend. Their two families, who were once so close they holidayed together, fell out.

Then, in a twist worthy of a Shakesperean drama, Gove betrayed Boris Johnson in the 2016 leadership contest, derailing Johnson’s prime ministerial ambitions (temporarily, as it turned out). Never mind the two had campaigned together for Brexit.

Yet, in a testament to the fluid nature of Conservative Party allegiances, Gove managed to return to the cabinet under Johnson’s premiership. Johnson later sacked him, probably because Gove was one of the first cabinet ministers to indicate he was unhappy with Johnson remaining as Prime Minister.

Eventually, Gove found himself once again sitting at the cabinet table with Cameron when the latter re-entered active politics under Rishi Sunak. Who needs to watch Eastenders when you have the Tory party?

The Tories’ ideological drift under David Cameron set the stage for the tumultuous years that followed his resignation as a result of the Brexit referendum. Theresa May, despite her previous competence as Home Secretary, found herself unable to navigate the complex political landscape created by the Brexit referendum. Her wooden leadership style did not help to unite the warring factions within the party.

May’s shortcomings were starkly exposed during the 2017 general election campaign. Starting from a position that suggested a potential landslide victory, May’s campaign was so poorly planned and executed that she very nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Her robotic performances, the disastrous “dementia tax” policy, and her refusal to engage in televised debates all contributed to a catastrophic erosion of her lead in the polls.

In the end, May was saved only by the fact that she faced Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Against any other more appealing challenger, she might well have lost the election outright. Not much later, she then lost the leadership anyway – but that was to an internal rival.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson. His ascent to the premiership represented the final triumph of personality politics over substantive policy. Johnson’s famous flexibility on issues – exemplified by his preparation of pro and anti-Brexit articles before declaring his position – was the natural continuation of Cameron’s “modernisation” strategy where anything goes (and the opposite). Johnson’s shift from self-proclaimed libertarian to big-spending Prime Minister during the COVID-19 pandemic further underscored the ideological vacuum at the heart of the party.

Yet, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that both Cameron and Johnson also demonstrated moments of moral clarity and leadership, particularly in their response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. In the face of Putin’s invasion, both stood firmly with Ukraine, advocating for strong sanctions against Russia and robust military aid to Kyiv.

This principled stance stood in stark contrast to the equivocation of some other political figures, notably Nigel Farage who has always been much more sympathetic to Putin’s position. Meanwhile, Cameron’s and Johnson’s strong support for Ukraine is a reminder that sometimes decisive moral leadership can emerge when the stakes are high enough.

However, Johnson’s general lack of moral behaviour during Covid (‘Partygate’) led to his forced resignation from office – and to the equally disastrous and short premiership of Liz Truss. Truss’ less than two months in office were a misguided attempt to recapture the spirit of Thatcherism without understanding its substance.

Where Thatcher began her tenure with fiscal tightening to combat inflation, Truss launched an ill-conceived “Growth Plan” that amounted to a massive unfunded tax cut. This uber-Keynesian stimulus stood in stark contrast to Thatcher’s more measured approach. Thatcher’s 1981 budget, far from slashing taxes, actually raised them by about 2% of GDP to bring public finances under control. Truss, on the other hand, proposed tax cuts of a similar magnitude at a time when Britain was already facing high inflation and rising interest rates. You could not make it up.

In their blind eagerness to recapture the spirit of Thatcherism, Truss and her Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, showed a reckless disregard for economic realities and market sentiment. The result was a near-collapse of Britain’s financial system, requiring emergency intervention from the Bank of England – and yet another Prime Minister to take over the mess left behind by Truss.

Rishi Sunak’s premiership, while restoring some fiscal sanity, failed to address the fundamental ideological crisis within the party. Sunak, who only became an MP in 2015, found himself thrust into the role of Prime Minister with little political experience.

To be fair, Sunak inherited a poor hand. The party was deeply divided, the economy struggling, and public trust in the Conservatives had been severely eroded by the scandals of the Johnson era and the financial chaos of the Truss interregnum.

However, even accounting for these challenges, Sunak’s campaign performance was dismal. From making the election announcement in the rain (a visual metaphor too perfect to ignore), to touring the Titanic quarter in Belfast (talk about rearranging the deck chairs), to asking Welsh voters whether they were looking forward to the Euro football championships (if only Wales had qualified!), Sunak’s campaign seemed designed to rival Theresa May’s 2017 effort for the title of worst Conservative election campaign in living memory.

In a fitting coda to this period of Conservative governance, Cameron’s brief return as Foreign Secretary under Sunak symbolised the party’s inability to move beyond the approach that led to its current crisis.

Labour, for its part, ran a campaign of studied blandness. Starmer’s strategy was to present Labour as a safe, inoffensive option – the party of ‘not being the Conservatives’. It worked wonders, but it leaves the new government with no clear mandate for change and no coherent plan to address Britain’s myriad challenges.

Starmer now faces the unenviable task of managing a massive parliamentary majority with only tepid public enthusiasm for his agenda. Well, as much as he has an agenda.

As the dust settles on the election, the Conservative Party faces an existential crisis. The debate within the party will likely centre on whether to double down on the Cameronite, centrist approach of the past 19 years – or to rediscover a more distinct conservative identity.

The broader question this raises is about the role and nature of centre-right parties in modern democracies. In an era of rapid social change and economic uncertainty, what does it mean to be ‘conservative’ or ‘centre-right’? How can parties balance the desire to win elections with standing for clear principles? These are questions that centre-right parties worldwide will need to grapple with in the coming years.

Indeed, the challenges faced by the British Conservatives are not unique. In Germany, for instance, Angela Merkel’s ‘modernisation’ of the CDU left a vacuum on the right now filled by the AfD. Just as Cameron pushed the Conservatives to the left, creating space for UKIP and later Reform, Merkel’s centrist approach saw her party outflanked on the right and haemorrhaging core support.

In both cases, established centre-right parties abandoned their principles in pursuit of centrist votes, only to find themselves facing a resurgent, and sometimes nasty, right-wing populism.

In the end, the 2024 UK election may be remembered not so much for who won, but for who lost, and how. It is a reminder that the price of abandoning one’s principles can be higher than any short-term gain this may secure.

The question now is: who, if anyone, will pick up the mantle of conservatism in Britain? The stage is set, but many actors seem to have forgotten their lines.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative think tank. This article was first published HERE.


DeeM said...

I strongly suspect that after 5 years under an ideologically driven Labour government, filled with incompetents and woke sycophants (remind you of another Labour Party?), it won't really matter who is leading the Conservatives.

Which would be a real shame because what I'd like to see, during Labour's tenure, is a rise of a new centre-Right party which replaces the lost Tories and offers something meaningful to Britain.

Perchance to dream!

Ross said...

A lot of your comments on the recent history of the Conservative Party and it's issues could equally apply to the National Party in NZ.

TJS said...

Great article about the lost conservative party until you get to the part about Johnston and the Tory support for Ukraine.
They should have been in support of ending the war not supporting a blood bath. Disgusting.
Try being like Narendra Modi
"Russian President Vladimir Putin has thanked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his continued attempts to find a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis."