Last month we left the UK’s Tory Party hanging from a cliff edge by its finger nails. Beneath it circled a large shark with a strange quiff looking like dear old Keir, pursued as always by that unpleasant stingray, the Corbyn fish; whilst on the cliff-top approached the hobnailed boots of numerous blonds, led by Boris, Michael, and Liz, stamping as they came. Now read on…
Well, alright, we did not quite put things like that, but what we did draw attention to was two major factors that are doing the Conservative Party no good at all. Firstly, and perhaps in most voter’s minds, principally, the party has trashed its reputation for competence and for being efficient operators of government and of the economy, even if too rich, too arrogant, too public school, and possibly corrupt. They certainly don’t look efficient or competent at the moment, and cannot even convincingly offer their usual excuse: that however bad they are, they are bound to be better than the other lot.
Keir Starmer’s newly re-polished Labour Party indeed looks a sight more convincing as a party of government than these Tories. Sir Keir may be boring, but boring is perhaps what we need in these troubled times. No excitement please, no gimmicks or wildness, just level-headed, middle-aged people, quietly dressed, who know how to say things in a calm and reassuring way. Notice how even Angela Rayner (Starmer’s deputy) is playing it cool (despite Starmer organising the deselection of her leftie boyfriend Sam Tarry from his east London parliamentary seat). Rayner has been warned that any frightening of the voter horses, any more shouts of “scum” will move her a long way back on the House of Commons benches. The fear that has no name – well, it has, it’s called Jeremy Corbyn, and it is Keir’s greatest weapon - is now deployed whenever he needs to remind the electorate what a safe pair of hands he has, how nice the refreshed Starmer Labour Party is, and how like the good old Blair days it all could be.
That battle the Tories have probably already lost. The electorate, in saying that if there were an election tomorrow they would give Labour an outright majority, remembers early Blair and would like some more, please. Starmer is not Blair of course; he lacks the originality, the smoothness, the clever cabinet that Blair put together. But the electorate won’t know that until a couple of years into the new Starmer administration, and he may even be quietly competent anyway.
But perhaps what the Tories fear much more than a Starmer victory in 2024 or 2025 is that they will never hold office again; that they have no relevance in 21st century Britain, nothing to say, an expiring group of no-talents that has no point to it. Some Conservatives, rightly, point out that Conservative collapses are usually accompanied by Liberal, or LibDem, revivals and this has not happened at all this time. The LibDems are the traditional home of protesting Tory voters, giving them a few seats in the West Country, west London, western Scotland**, only for all those protest votes to go back to the Conservatives, usually in a Tory landslide victory, at the next election. But not this time; if Rishi decided to give up next week and call an election, Labour might score 400 or more seats (out of 650).
So, if that should come to pass, whenever the next election might be, would the Tories survive as a political grouping? We suggested last time that the Conservative Party is fundamentally a coalition between old-fashioned conservatives, those who don’t want much change or at least want it to happen slowly, and old-fashioned liberals, creatures of a very different hue, who believe that the highest form of political civilisation was reached with the Liberal governments of the 19th century under Mr Gladstone. Allowing for the modern world, Mrs Thatcher brought things back to that satisfactory place is their view (further allowing that Mrs Thatcher was inclined to a socially conservative approach herself), and Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman remain the keepers of the eternal liberal truth. The unlikely personage of Liz Truss is its current apostle, crying, more than somewhat, in the wilderness.
If we compare the Conservative Party with right of centre political groupings in the USA – the Republican Party, and the various groups in European democracies, we find that there is nothing similar. Elsewhere the conservative element of the Conservatives is not usually a mainstream grouping, it is a purer cult and rarely finds itself within reach of the levers of power. What modern mainstream right-of-centre parties usually are is liberal, to a greater or lesser degree; they want small or smaller government, low taxes, and are socially moderate, pro-business, pro self-reliance, and so on. We are talking here, when it comes to the USA, of the pre-Trump Republican Party; it is a bit hard to work out what Mr Trump’s beliefs are, and as to where the Republican Party currently stands, but we suspect it will revert over the next few years to its traditional stance – Reaganism, one might call it.
From this very brief gallop round other democratic systems one can see a hint as to what the Conservative Party will have to evolve into. If it is compete with the Blair-fashioned Labour Party that Keir Starmer is restoring after the excitements of Corbynism, the Conservatives must find a position which is different to a modern, mildly left-wing party, with a philosophy easily understood by and appealing to the electorate, but not frighteningly radical (or rich or Old Etonian). That will look like elements of the Republican Party (as it was and will be) and European right of centre parties: low tax, small government, not too interventionist, but socially aware, prepared to be socially liberal, to assist the disadvantaged, and force through change where society seems to demand it. Not necessarily conservative, though always nervous of over-rapid change and resistant to it.
We are ignoring here one great political schism of our times, which is, of course, Brexit. Both main political parties were split on this, and seemingly still are. But we would venture that liberal conservatives tend to be pro-Brexit – because they want less government, not more; and conservative Conservatives tend to be anti-Brexit because they don’t want change and see the EU as a bulwark against socialism.
So what may happen is that the Conservative Party will evolve into a liberalish party, and the conservative Conservatives will tend to wither away, or even join the LibDems. You may well scoff at this unlikelihood. There is a strong social base to the Tory Party, and it is conservative; it also tends to be rich and vociferou,s and currently controls the party machine. The liberal noises come from the non-traditional parts of the party, and indeed to an extent sit outside the party – in UKIP and Reform and other protest parties.
But the party is changing. Look at the present cabinet; not many toffs there, and led by the Hindu son of an immigrant chemist, a technocrat but a Thatcherite technocrat. There are more graduates in the Labour Party than there are among the Tories. David Cameron and his gang of old Etonians look like the last wave of the traditional Tory leadership type (remember Boris was an Eton scholarship boy, no traditional toff he, though he apes the style).
The Tory Party has been written off many times before; as incapable of coming back from major defeats or too stuck in its ways to change. Remember, there are many in the Conservative Party who deep down, as we said last month, believe in only one thing: that the Conservative Party is born to rule. The key point, if it is failing in that mission, is that those types are quite happy to change their approach to their political thinking. “Whatever it takes” is their motto. Mrs Thatcher knew that and got the top job by convincing the party mainstream that the old belief system was broken. At some point soon a new aspirant leader will perform the same trick. And the party will once again arise and become the electoral winner it knew it was always meant to be.
*This postcard was sent in 1935 to the last train on the Lynton and Barnstaple Railway and is famous among railway enthusiasts. The L&B is now slowly reopening.
**There is some natural affinity between voting Liberal and the western horizon; could it be the setting sun?