The best way to visualise this year’s Conservative Party Conference is by imagining the stereotypical long-distance car journey between a cartoon family. They are lost, but at least one of the parents has too much pride to admit it, while the kids pull funny faces and throw petty insults at each other. The parent is Theresa May, the most annoying kid is Boris Johnson, the seemingly endless car journey is Brexit. You get the picture.
Brexit unsurprisingly dominated conference. Wannabe future leaders and assorted professional troublemakers tussled for their moment in the limelight, to show that their vision of Brexit is the fairest of them all.
But Brexit wasn’t the only show in town. An interesting sub-plot simmered during the various fringes and cocktail parties (that’s what they do at Tory conference, right?). It related to an existential question: what sort of economic vision the party should pitch to the electorate next time round. Should they fight for the free market, or acknowledge that the system needs fixing?
Like Brexit, this debate is the accident child of the Cameron-Osborne era. The former Chancellor pursued a ruthless economic agenda that brought initial political success but has come back to bite the Conservative Party firmly on the arse.
Indeed, after a decade of punishing austerity, voters are now beginning to question the logic of Osbornism – leaving the Tories scrambling for a new strategy.
Some believe that the party needs to renew its vows to the ideal of free-market capitalism. Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and cheese obsessive, is a chief protagonist of this view – arguing that young voters value the flexibility of the gig economy and the services it provides. Boris Johnson aped this view in his fringe speech, saying that:
‘We must on no account follow Corbyn and start to treat capitalism as a kind of boo word. We can’t lose our faith in competition and choice and markets.’
And The Spectator, a magazine Johnson once edited, copied his notes. Their latest editorial reads:
‘Years of failing to make the case for basic liberty and the free enterprise system; years of stealing Labour policies in pursuit of electoral advantage have left the Conservatives unable to explain why Corbyn’s wrong.’
Yet for a party that has just spent the last week preaching pragmatism over quasi-commie ideological purity, this free market fundamentalism strikes of hypocrisy.
Support is discernibly growing for an end to austerity: the 2017 British social attitudes survey showed that 48% of people want higher tax and more spending (up from 32% in 2010). Meanwhile, the collapse of Carillion, a faltering rail system, and the disintegration of local services has provided a compelling story for those who want to ramp up spending and shackle the free market. It would be an act of ignorance and of self-sabotage for the Tories to ignore this change in public sentiment.
What’s more, the Tories would not be treading on toes by advocating pragmatic public investment. While many left-leaning journalists (desperate to repair their reputation with the Labour leader’s office) claim that Corbyn’s agenda represents ‘the new centre’, it is difficult to believe that the electorate – fiscally cautious and sceptical of politicians – is breaking out in wild glee at Corbyn’s vast spending pledges. The Tories could easily accept some left-leaning ideas – satisfying the anti-austerity mood of the nation – while still being firmly to the right of a Corbyn Labour Party.
This is the position that Theresa May adopted during her conference speech. After again showing off her Mr Bean dance moves, May reiterated her support for giving workers “a stronger voice in the boardroom”, an inquiry into the rail system and an end to the cap on the amount that councils can borrow to build new homes. The Prime Minister said people ultimately want to support a party that is “decent, moderate and patriotic.” Reminding voters about the 2008 crash, she promised better days ahead, and questioned whether it was worth risking economic security by voting for Corbyn.
The Spectator asks why voters would pick the Conservatives when offered the choice between Corbyn and Corbyn-lite. The reason is this: voters want sensible, progressive policies to increase spending and deal with crony capitalism. They don’t want fully automated communism, but they’re willing to vote for it if the Conservatives choose to die with the free market.
But while May elaborated a compelling vision for left-leaning conservatism, she failed to address her Achilles heel (other than dancing): policy and implementation. The Prime Minister made a similar, widely-acclaimed speech in July 2016 – pledging to stand up for the ‘just about managing’ in society. This was the overarching idea on which she based her 2017 general election campaign. And it was initially successful: helping her to a 20-point lead over Labour. But, when she was called upon to substantiate her rhetoric, the vision unravelled. Her social care policy was an unmitigated disaster, a proposal for worker representation on boards was scrapped, and corporate greed has been left unchallenged.
Everything in Westminster is transitory, and since the general election Mayism has been largely forgotten. Trying to find a way through the unfathomable maze of Brexit, May has likewise shelved her domestic agenda.
Yet, even despite this neglect, the Tories might soon realise that the way to win the next election is to reboot Mayism – but to do it properly this time.
A Backbench report