13 December 2017

Modernise or die


Every political moment is a reaction to its predecessor. In the hours and days after the transmission of the final episode of David Attenborough’s magisterial “Blue Planet 2” Tory MPs took to Twitter and Facebook to demonstrate their green credentials.

John Lamont, the MP for Berwickshire Roxburgh and Selkirk, was one of many Tory MPs to tweet “I’m very pleased to be supporting the #BackTheBlueBelt campaign. Our seas and oceans need our protection.” Two days later he welcomed Michael Gove’s statement that “Animals are sentient beings who feel pain and suffering, so we are writing that principle into law and ensuring that we protect their welfare”. Hours later he boasted that he “Was able to raise the need to promote animal welfare protection to a higher level after we leave the EU. This was a really important debate secured by my colleague @ZacGoldsmith in @HouseofCommons”. Lamont was hardly alone; suddenly you couldn’t move on Twitter without encountering another Tory MP stressing his or her commitment to higher standards of animal welfare.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Tory party must have been stung on this issue in the recent past. And, of course, you would be correct. In response to a year of disagreeable setbacks the Tory party is relearning some old lessons it thought were in the past. Chief among these is that modern Britain seems to exist and so, however deplorably, do young Britons.

One of the features of Fall Out, Tim Shipman’s newly-published and masterful account of the last 18 months of political turmoil, is the contempt in which Theresa May and her closest advisors held David Cameron. Team May was determined to bury any and every trace of Cameron. If Dave liked apples, Theresa would insist on oranges; if he said this, she would say that. Sometimes this disdain was taken to absurd lengths. Cameron’s Conservatives had a keen appreciation of the importance of social media; May’s team thought it irrelevant. This change had consequences.

The Tory manifesto would be a deeply – and vaingloriously – serious document; designed, again, to be contrasted with the smooth but shallow glibness of the Cameron years. Cameron once said he thought he might as well be prime minister because he thought he might be good at it; May would be a prime minister of necessity, only doing the job because someone had to and because when duty calls Theresa knows to answer.

For all her Anglican churchiness, there was a puritan boastfulness at the heart of Project May. We were asked to gaze upon and admire her political piety. Nick Timothy wasn’t just a brain, he was a brain with a higher calling. The games played by Cameron and Osborne were essentially childish; now it was time for the adults to be in charge. Team May weren’t just Cameron’s successors; they were better people too, forever parading their seriousness and demanding we admire it.

Vanity is a terrible political sin, however. The Tory manifesto was built upon the premise the party could not possibly lose. That being so it was about something more than a mere election; it was written with an eye on the history books. At last, a government prepared to tackle the Big Questions! Only the bravest of the brave would have the courage to train the manifesto’s guns on the Conservative party’s core vote: the over-60s. Only a serious manifesto written by serious people could be serious enough to offer almost no retail policies to the under-50s. But then Team May didn’t care if you liked them or not. They just wanted to be admired. They might as well have asked hubris to be a third joint chief of staff.

Politics, it turns out, still matters. There are still things a party needs to do if it wants to have a coherent message. Sometimes you need to pay attention to the small things too. In an election campaign the details matter.

I suppose Theresa May’s promise to allow a vote on relegalising fox hunting must have seemed a trivial, let’s keep the troops happy kind of vow at the time it was made. Who, after all, could really be upset by such a thing? Plenty of people as it turned out. The fox-hunting promise became the election’s social media sensation. Millions of people knew very little about the deeply serious Tory manifesto but they knew the party seemed to want to make the killing of foxes by hounds legal once again. Couple this with the (somewhat unfair) suggestion the Tories wanted to kickstart the ivory trade and you had the makings of a public relations disaster for the Conservative party; one made worse by the fact the party didn’t even realise it was happening.

May’s reboot was, as far as many voters were concerned, taking the Tories back to the bad old days. It’s a mighty leap from hugging huskies to shooting elephants but it proved a jump many voters were happy to make. The Tories gave them ample opportunity to assume the worst about the party and its motivations and, given this invitation, millions of voters were happy to accept it.

There you go again, you see, same old Tories. This was a message that millions of younger voters – now redefined as anyone under the age of 45 – were happy to hear. Some of the blame for this might be laid at Cameron’s door and specifically for his failure to follow through on the logic of his modernisation project once he found himself in power. The sense it was just a ploy, though unfair, was less unfair than it should have been.

And my, how easily the project was ditched. The Tory party’s obsession with Ukip voters made sense if viewed from one angle; it was disastrous when viewed from the perspective of those younger voters who abhorred Nigel Farage’s policies and, even more so, the tone in which he argued for them. It sent a very clear message: when push comes to shove (and in politics it always does) the Tory party was more interested in older Kippers than they were in younger liberally-minded urban voters.

Nevertheless, Cameron was right once upon a time. The Tories need to show they understand that the world has changed and reach some accommodation with the under-45s. It hardly seemed coincidental that the party’s share of the ethnic minority vote fell sharply this year just as it fell amongst the young. This is not just a question of policy, but one of attitude too. The Tories made themselves the party of slaughtering foxes and a sepia-tinged Brexit and then wondered why things fell apart.

Hence this latest correction. “Vote Blue, Go Green” is back in vogue. It cannot be long until the Conservatives promise a puppy for every family. Like many corrections there is a chance this one goes too far, risking the possibility of making the Tories seem suspiciously inauthentic. But attitudes cannot be changed overnight and a Tory party prepared to listen to – and learn from – the environmental and social concerns of the young and early middle-aged is a better Tory party than one that thinks this stuff is flotsam and jetsam.

And, however much he may be the forgotten man, confined to his shepherd’s hut in disgrace, there lurks one sentiment above all: David Cameron was right. Modernise or die. And that, when you think about it, is a pretty serious proposition.

Alex Massie is a political commentator