2 October 2017

Have the Conservatives become trapped by power?


Like pets and their owners, all political parties come to resemble their leaders. Or is it the other way round?

I first came to Conservative Party conference more than a decade ago. Then, as now, Boris Johnson was the centre of attention. The blond bombshell had dared to commit an act of news, attacking the sainted Jamie Oliver over his healthy school dinners campaign. I was promptly put on “Boriswatch” by my superiors on the Telegraph’s political team, charged with trailing him round the conference in case he dared open his mouth again.

The moment that will stick with me, however, is not the spectacle of a besieged Boris taking refuge in the Tory press office. It came in the Telegraph fringe meeting that I helped to organise. An elderly lady in the front few rows came over all faint. Gallantly, Boris leapt from his seat and bore her – chair and all – into the corridor so that she could be treated.

It was a wonderful moment, and one that summed up Boris’s persona. Impulsive, charismatic, noble, faintly ridiculous – and utterly irresistible.

Today, the conventional wisdom still has it that Boris is the biggest attraction at the fringe. But that’s not really true. The biggest draw is actually Matt Hancock. Or maybe David Gauke. Or Greg Clark. The kind of ministers who are doing things, building things. The kind that big business or lobby groups will pay a nice sum to sponsor a panel with, even if it’s on the kind of topic that will hardly set the party faithful’s hearts racing.

But then, where are the party faithful? There are actually – contrary to some reports – quite a few young people around. What’s changed since 2006 is the older people, the members of the Tory tribe, squeezed out by the move from Bournemouth to Manchester/Birmingham and the hiking of prices. The conference floor is a sea not of blue rinses but of dark suits. It’s a place to talk business, and do business.

Last week, Rafael Behr of the Guardian argued that the Tories are unable to counter Corbyn’s moon-eyed romanticism because they have, by endorsing Brexit, become moon-eyed romantics themselves. It’s a persuasive theory. But the contradiction doesn’t seem to have been internalised. Judging by their conference, the Tories still see themselves as the grown-up party for grown-up people.

The problem is that this positioning, this mood, shades all too easily into outright technocracy. In the face of a nation hungry for change, the Tories offer grey men (and women) with grey ideas.

Today, for example, the star turn at the conference was Philip Hammond. But the whole thing felt less like inspirational oratory than a quarterly statement to shareholders.

It wasn’t Hammond’s fault. Yes, he should fire his joke-writer – the opening gag about being in Manchester and never having been more united, which died a horrible death in the hall, actually turned out to be the comic highpoint. And yes, for a speech by a Chancellor it was remarkably policy- and announcement-free, focusing instead on the awfulness of Jeremy Corbyn.

But actually, there was some pretty good stuff there. Hammond’s early section on the reasons why nationalised industries had been privatised in the  first place was excellent. And there was a great story about visiting Cuba and seeing cows in the fields – but no milk in the shops.

The trouble is that while Hammond is absolutely right about the need to defend the free market (it’s the CapX mission statement, after all), he’s hardly the best salesman for the product. The same goes for promises to the next generation that the Conservatives will not let them down – certainly when backed up solely by a modest tuition fee overhaul and a housing plan which doubles down on the price-inflating “Help to Buy” scheme and ignores the need to build some damn houses.

The reason he makes a convincing Chancellor in the first place is that his is not a persona given to rhapsody. There are people who could read the phone book and make it sound interesting; Hammond could read the poetry of Catullus and make it sound dull.

More to the point, the Tories won’t win over young people just by telling them, like finger-wagging parents, that Jeremy Corbyn really is awful. They need – as so many of us have been saying, ad nauseam – to have ideas of their own.

Which brings us back to the nature of party conference. All the talk so far has been of splits and divisions. But these have all been taking place either in private, or via carefully coded media interventions: does Cabinet member Buggins agree with his colleague Gubbins about the nature of the transition period, or the eventual end-state?

What there is not, in this grown-up, buttoned-up party, is much space for the discussion of ideas (beyond the inevitable late-night confessionals in the conference bars). There are some interesting fringe meetings, yes, but perhaps fewer than there were, simply because the economics tend to mean you need a sponsor first and an audience second. And there are fewer people within the secure zone who are there out of passion rather than duty – who have paid their own way rather than charging it to expenses.

That first Conservative Party conference I came to still had something of the feel of a retirees’ away day. As the party slowly proved it was ready for power, under David Cameron, the mood became infused with a welcome crackle of authority: suddenly, serious people and serious companies were here, talking about serious things.

But if it’s hard to rejuvenate yourself in office, this year’s conference is Exhibit A for why that might be. That infusion of authority comes at a price. When you’re in government, you tend to promote people who are good at government. Sparky crowd-pleasers like Boris are very much the exception, rather than the rule.

The result is that at a time when the public are crying out for radicalism, you find that you can offer only reassurance. Managerialism, after all, only leaves room for the managers.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX