Ever since Theresa May’s disastrous election earlier this summer, much has been done to pinpoint the blame on certain individuals or policies, so as to shift the focus away from the dysfunctional Conservative Party itself.
First to come under fire were May’s closest advisors and campaign managers, slated for their simplistic and unimaginative slogans. The manifesto was also skewered; Tory MP Nigel Evans labelled it as ‘rotten to the core’, claiming it ‘turned on our core support’. The Prime Minister herself was soon engulfed in speculation regarding her resignation. Tory Remainer MP Anna Soubry made a heartfelt lamentation on election night that many honourable colleagues of hers, ‘proper, sound, moderate, One Nation conservatives’, had lost their seats unnecessarily, and all but hinted at it being May’s fault.
The underlying objective behind all these claims is to separate the current, shambolic Tory government from the idea of ‘true conservatism’ - as if May’s campaign had somehow betrayed the conservative values at the heart of her party’s success in recent years.
But let there be no mistake: this campaign, far from being an exception, shed a brighter light on the ever-growing threat the Conservatives pose to this country.
Despite Soubry and Co.'s nostalgic image of the Tory Party before June 23rd last year, Brexit has not radically changed the Party, it has merely given it more freedom.
David Cameron had to tread cautiously around issues like immigration, human rights and European integration, all of which May can now ramble about with no hindrance. The former Prime Minister was under pressure to please both camps, frequently regarded as a stubborn nationalist in Brussels, yet a weak, unpatriotic Europeanist by his party in Westminster. May, on the other hand, is under pressure to be the opposite: fiercely isolationist and tough on immigration.
But the Conservative Party has not changed. It is merely bearing with pride slogans and tendencies which it used to wear with subtlety. Immigration pledges already existed under Cameron, when May herself was Home Secretary. The difference now is that such topics are now central to the Party's rhetoric. May can shout through a megaphone what Cameron could merely whisper.
So what went wrong for May and the tories? The short answer is Labour, Tory complacency, and the PM’s lack of charisma.
Blaming May’s policies or manifesto for the election result fails to acknowledge Labour’s achievement. Of course no Tory, regardless of their disillusionment, will admit it, but Corbyn quite simply put forward a message which resonated more strongly than expected with Britain’s disenfranchised, working class voters, many of who voted Leave last year. Which brings us to the complacency. The major mistake in calling this election in the first place, and subsequently running a rather lacklustre campaign with amazingly little genuine media appearance from the Prime Minister, was the continuous assumption that the Brexit vote had automatically made the Conservatives the new party of the unhappy working class, which for so long had voted Labour.
Finally, the difference in charisma and image between Cameron and May is staggering. A politician’s reaction to questions they either don’t want to answer or can’t answer is very telling, and May’s refusal to openly debate her opponent during a general election campaign even more so. May was shaky in almost every one of the few media and general public appearances she made. Like it or not, charisma is an important tool for a politician, and Cameron was quite simply better at it. His soundbites were less obvious, he was wittier and an all-round better, less hesitant speaker.
But none of these variables should be understood as some kind of a transformation in the party. Labour’s success was external to the Tories, the party’s complacency was merely a mistaken gamble in response to an unprecedented political climate, and May’s lack of personality meant she was worse at spinning what was for the most part an unsurprising conservative manifesto. Yes, the point on May’s charisma does point fingers at her, but I struggle to think of any other Tory leader who would somehow have been less complacent with this election.
May went into the election confident, bolstered by the predictions her party and the press gave her. Laying the blame for the result on her ignores the agency of the Party that put her where she is.
One may ask why all this matters, and what the use is of blaming the Conservatives, rather than May herself, for the outcome of the election. The answer is simple: when the electorate realises where the country is headed under the Conservatives, and, more importantly, the persistence with which any Tory government, regardless of its leader, will take us there, the Conservatives will lose their credibility.
Little has changed in the Conservatives over the last few years. Like a chained dog about to be let loose on a chunk of meat, the Party is salivating at the prospect of using Brexit as a blank cheque to further the transformation of the UK into a deregulated neoliberal heaven of privatisation and inequality. A Tory Brexit will bring unprecedented levels of inequality to the country. It is essential that we understand this as a Conservative threat which has already begun and is unlikely to stop, regardless of whether May is Prime Minister or not. Any attempt at laying the blame for our apparently ‘weaker position’ solely on May is an unnecessary distraction.