7 May 2024

Single-sex loos alone won’t save the Tories


What to make of yesterday’s announcement that single-sex loos will become a compulsory requirement for all new restaurants, bars, offices, and shopping centres? The change to building regulations will come in later this year. Gender neutral lavatories have become increasingly common – not just ‘because of woke’, but because they are easier to provide than separate facilities.

Lee Rowley, the Housing Minister, says this is a victory for ‘common sense’ against pandering to activists. Many will agree. I carry no torch for mixed-sex lavatories. Many people of both sexes, but especially women, have safety and privacy concerns about their proliferation. But with that in mind, I can’t help but feel a very strong sense that this a textbook example of fiddling whilst Rome burns.

On the same day as Rowley made his announcement, The Financial Times wrote up a report from Savills suggesting that the average number of new homes being built in England could fall to almost half the Government’s 300,000 target in the next year. It would stay low until at least 2030. The blame is pinned on planning uncertainty, building cost inflation, and government disinterest in its own target.

Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn’t this be a higher priority for the Housing Minister than the politics of bathrooms? Never fear: this isn’t another piece on the misery of our housing crisis, the Tory disinterest in property-owning democracy, or why the Town and Country Planning Act should be destroyed. That genre is now so well-trodden I’m almost becoming sympathetic to the CPRE.

Instead, this is an attempt to discern political priorities. The government’s announcement forms part of a series of attempts by Number 10 to bolster its right flank. Tough talk on Rwanda, undeliverable defence spending pledges, a more parsimonious approach to welfare: all attempts to show the average disgruntled Tory backbencher that Rishi Sunak is capable of being a Conservative. Will it work?

We won’t know for sure until MPs have finished collectively commiserating last Thursday’s appalling local election results. But the immediate sign is that those who were hoping that a poor performance would prompt action against Sunak have been disappointed. The scale of the loss was so great that the rebels appear shell-shocked. An air of resignation hangs. Reality can no longer be fooled.

But even if announcements such as this have kept the wolves from the door (and the letters out of Graham Brady’s hands) for the foreseeable future, one must ask whether it is a useful strategy for government. We’ve long since become used to the post-New Labour norm of government by press release. But is prioritising Telegraph splashes to appease right-wingers the best use of Sunak’s remaining time as PM?

Andy Street might argue not. The former Mayor of the West Midlands was the most conspicuous casualty of the Tory drubbing. When asked by Sky News if he is ‘worried about the Conservative Party drifting to the right, over-emphasising the threat from Reform and ignoring other voters’ he replied that he would ‘definitely not advise that drift’. This analysis was not shared by Suella Braverman.

But it was approved of by Tobias Ellwood. Since the former Chair of the Defence Select Committee has previously spoken highly of the Taliban, this might not have been the support Street was looking for. Nonetheless, when Ellwood tweeted that a ‘move to the right conceded vital centre ground (necessary to win elections) to the Opposition’, he will have been speaking for many in the Tory centre.

It’s a common complaint of contemporary Conservatives by self-appointed keepers of the One Nation flame that a historically moderate and non-ideological party has been hijacked by enthusiasts and head-bangers. It’s a long-standing complaint – see how the grandees treated the Thatcherites and Eurosceptics – but it has been supercharged by Brexit. Why can’t they be more like the lovely Rory Stewart?

Alas, the problem with this analysis is the same as any exhortation to make the Conservative Party more ‘centrist’: that the centre for MPs is very different than for the general public. Tory MPs are far more socially and economically liberal than the average voter, who clings to the ‘fund the NHS, hang the paedos’ mentality of lore. They liked lockdown, dislike immigration, and loathe puppy kidnappings.

To the splenetic horror of many self-declared centrists, the real Centre Party of British politics in recent years was Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. In the grand tradition of Vote Leave, Johnson won his stonking majority in 2019 by promising to deliver Brexit, get tough on crime, and let the deficit look after itself. Is that the centre Ellwood wants to occupy? I don’t think rejoining the Single Market is the route there.

In counterposing that 2019 win with last Thursday’s shellacking, one starts to understand where the Tory problem has come from. It is not from a move away from the centre since that policy prospectus remains popular. Instead, it comes from a problem of competence. The Tories occupied the centre-ground but proved unable to deliver the change we offered five years ago. They have let their voters down.

This is partially due to factors beyond our control, such as Covid and Russia. But it was also due to the self-indulgence that has long characterised the Conservatives. Johnson proved unable to make the machinery of government work. Tory members replaced him with Liz Truss – a PM offering little of what voters wanted. Tory MPs then replaced her with a PM without the imagination to escape his predicament.

The problem is not a rhetorical move to the right. Voters do care about stopping the boats, about safe spaces for women, and our national security. But they are weary of successive Conservatives making grand promises and failing to deliver them. Tories of all varieties  – left and right, North and South, competent and clueless – lost out last Thursday due to a fundamental lack of trust from the electorate.

This is a challenge so profound that it cannot be shifted by any one policy initiative. There is no time, money, or bandwidth to deliver Johnson’s sunlit uplands before the election. Until the Conservatives have an honesty about their failures and inadequacies, hopes of deriving electoral benefits from announcements such as this most recent one can be safely flushed away – preferably in a single-sex loo.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.