3 October 2018

The Conservatives have a choice: a bright future or permanent decline

By Nick Denys

If you ever wanted to know what an existential crisis looks like in a suit, Conservative Party Conference would have been the place for you. One of the first things that struck me when I arrived at the ICC in Birmingham was the sea of suits. 90% of the cuts were a dark shade of blue. The other 10% were a even darker shade of blue.

The contrast with citizen Brummies who, outside the fortified festival of opportunity, were getting on with normal Sunday afternoon activities was striking. One of the clothes shops on my route to conference had a poster in the window stating that: “You are what you wear”.

If that is true what is the Conservative Party? For a political creed that holds up the individual to be sovereign, pushes the concept of freedom and strives for there to be as much choice as is possible it seems strange that all of its proponents adhere to a singular stuffy fashion trend.

This year’s Conservative gathering had the characteristics of a duck. While at the top Cabinet ministers smoothly delivered continuity speeches underneath the water, in the fringes, activists were frantically debating what the party offers 21st century Britain. The discussions and the ICC layout both mirrored Escher’s painting “Never Ending Staircase.”

While getting lost on the way to Hall 7 you would hear the same pattern of conversation emanating from all corners. We are losing the argument. We need new ideas to appeal to people. Capitalism is great but we are losing the argument. Repeat.

While Symphony Hall, where Cabinet ministers performed, remained sparsely attended members joined long queues to get into fringe debates on the future of Conservatism, the future of Capitalism and discussions on what young people/women/BME voters/low income families are looking for.

At the Labour Party Conference delegates vote with their hands in the air on motions. At the Conservative event members vote with their feet, by choosing what discussions are the most important ones to have.

“The great thing about democracy is debate, It is really hard to see how it works as it’s chaotic, but it does. I’m about to disagree with everyone, but that’s a good start.” Tim Martin, the founder of Wetherspoon’s told a pack Centre for Social Justice event on how
to solve the conundrum of low pay.

This Conservative version of democracy was positive to see. The battle over the future of the Party is going to be fought by two camps, and it will not have anything to do with Brexit. The home team are the continuation neo-liberals. They believe that the Party should press the accelerator pedal down to the floor and continue in the same direction, but at a much faster speed.

They argue that the Government should stimulate by offering more tax cuts, further deregulation and a more impassioned case for ultra-Capitalism. The leading proponents of this Freer-Market philosophy are Liz Truss, Lee Rowley, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The away team are calling for renewal. They want politics and Whitehall to be dramatically reformed, to use the new technological tools at our disposal to open up Government and enable people to control the delivery of their public services. Penny Mordaunt, Robert Halfon, Justine Greening and George Freeman are the leading Renewers.

The key difference between the two teams is that the home team wants to continue rolling-back the state while the away team’s priority is to refashion it. (Declaration of interest: I favour the Renewers but am also interested in the arguments of the Freer-Marketers.)

If you watched the television coverage or read the newspaper reports of Conference the search for ideas would have passed you by. This is partly because the news is even more obsessed with Brexit than Conservative Party members. It is also because Conservatives, being the polite people that we are, do not want to be disrespectful to Theresa May in what is almost certainly her last Conference as Prime Minister.

No-one believes that she will be giving the leader’s speech next year. After Brexit has been signed, sealed and delivered the Party needs to have the battle between the Freer-Marketers and Renewers in public, so the Conservatives become clear again about what we are for.

The only way to do this is through a leadership contest.

The battle also needs to move outside the fortress of suits and have contact with real-life Britain. The only time Austerity was mentioned during my three days in Birmingham was by a taxi driver. He lamented how the police were unable to keep him safe and how the roads were getting progressively worse.

When Austerity was first proposed it was sold to us as being a five-year hardship, from which we could then advance again. If the Conservative Party now believes it should continue indefinitely it must be up-front and make the case for doing so.

The heroes of the Conference were the metro mayors, who were able to talk about how power is used becomes more accountable through devolution. The mayors do not speak with a single voice – for example, Andy Street and Ben Houchen have different views on austerity – but their real-life experience should form a key part of the battle over the direction of the Party.

The Conservative Party is at an important crossroads. If, in six months time, it takes the opportunity to decide what it is for then the Party could play a crucial role in governing Britain for the rest of the 21st century. If the Party does not have the battle of ideas, and sticks with the current unsure approach, then it has every chance of withering away within two elections.

Conference has given me hope that the former will happen, let’s all make sure it does. And at next year’s gathering let’s have a “No Suits Sunday”.

Nick Denys is Head of Policy for Tory Workers, and a local councillor in the London Borough of Hillingdon.