James Harris writes the weekly ‘Stiff Upper Quip’ Substack
Articles debating Tory chances at the next election resemble a man trying to filibuster a firing squad: there’s an aspect of delaying the inevitable. For whatever reason the electorate blames the Tories for things both their fault and not – and if the Conservatives think that’s unfair, then you may recall Labour didn’t cause the financial crisis either.
Nonetheless the future remains open for the Conservative Party. I would suggest though that there is a long way and a short way back for the Tories from here. ‘Back’ here is understood as ‘getting back into power’.
First, the long way. I place it first because it seems likelier to me. The Conservative Party gets drubbed in 2024 – all likely scenarios start with that. Rather than interpreting this defeat as a verdict on the Tories having gone too far from the centre, the party interprets it as a mandate to go further right; to offer the electorate ‘Us, but more so’.
Rather than an honest accounting of the party’s recent record in government – can we really say the UK is better off in 2023 than in 2010? – the party leans into the culture war and elects a populist right-wing leader. The axis between the party and GB News is strengthened; increasingly, talking points derived from the US Republicans predominate its discourse, such as vaccine scepticism and opposition to ’15-minute cities’.
Crucially, the party does not moderate on Brexit. Even with polling in the late 2020s showing that 70 per cent of the population view Brexit as a mistake, and Rejoin commanding opinion poll majorities even in hypothetically ungenerous conditions, the Conservative line on life outside the EU remains that it has never been properly tried.
Most fatally, the party remains wedded to NIMBYism, talking the talk of supporting new housing while in practice opposing all actual development. Whatever Labour’s likely economic struggles, the Tories do not seem an attractive alternative, and they go down to a second, perhaps just as severe, defeat in 2029.
The short way back to power starts from what the 2029 Tories do after that second big defeat; nominate a centre-right leader and switch to a pragmatic conservatism. They stay out of culture wars, leaving them to the wider culture to sort out; indeed, the party explicitly says ‘ee don’t think it’s the job of Conservatives to pass unnecessary laws.’
Now, of course, some would say that the Conservatives shouldn’t concede on a specific cultural vision, but here’s why that’s a dead end – huge numbers of liberal voters already hate social justice politics because they’re illiberal, and they’re still not going to vote Conservative.
At the present time, 64 per cent of people rate the economy as the top issue facing the country, and cultural issues do not feature in the top ten. They don’t see it as the key role of the government to preserve free speech on campus. They do want to be able to afford a house.
So once out of power, our ‘short-way’ Tories advance a program focused on economic issues; housebuilding, green energy, and a focus on a bigger economy as the key to lifting more people out of taxation. Growth, growth, growth, and down with NIMBYism.
Before this sounds like a Liz Truss tribute act, the rhetoric is softer and aimed at taking people with it. It also recognizes that the current level of inequality is not conducive to a stable society: a fundamental conservative goal.
In such a conciliatory spirit, the Conservatives adopt a greater realism about Brexit. The party accepts that the UK is always going to be in the European neighbourhood and more trade with Europe is essential to any growth agenda.
Crucially, there’s a recognition that the cultural ties of younger generations with Brexit are much weaker, meaning that softening it is basically inevitable. Trying to resist this trend only increases the chances of the project being reversed completely.
This is why the long way back is more likely – the Tory Party is simply not ready to accept this level of compromise and is more likely to need another big thumping to concentrate minds.
It’s also worth saying that focusing on electability may not be what the Tory Party wants to do. It might prefer to spend a long time mourning cultural losses or fermenting a betrayal myth around Brexit.
In all scenarios, there’s no way forward for the Tories electorally without accepting a certain number of lost causes. The electorate isn’t going to get more hostile to the EU, it isn’t going to get more socially conservative in a traditional sense and it certainly isn’t going to get less environmentally conscious.
The question for the Conservatives now is whether they want to get ahead of the curve on these compromises or drag them out. How soon can they swallow their medicine?