18 January 2018

The Tories are the nasty party again – and May can’t remove the stain


The Conservative Party does not want to help ordinary people get on in life. Its heart is not in the right place. It does not stand for fairness. Nor does it stand for opportunity for all. It does not represent the whole country. It is not on the side of people like me. It does not share my values. It isn’t even united and it can’t even do what it says. It is unclear what it stands for and it is not even competent and capable.

These are not my views, rather they are the findings of Lord Ashcroft’s characteristically mischievous polls. What’s more, the Conservative Party’s ratings on almost all of these matters are getting worse, not better. The only consolation is they are not declining as rapidly as the Labour Party’s numbers. That may be explained by a growing appreciation that Labour’s position on Brexit is one of obstructive ambiguity and, more generally, by the fact that while the Conservatives are still stained by their record, the warm — or warmish — feelings Labour generated during the general election are now cooling.

In only one area does the Tory Party enjoy a clear supremacy: it, not Labour, is believed to be “willing to take tough decisions for the long term”. If you wished to be gloomy about this, you might conclude it means people believe the Tory party is prepared to beat you now for your own future good.

Now this is not altogether new. More than 20 years ago George Lakoff, an American cognitive linguist, suggested political allegiances could be “framed” as a choice between two models of family. In one, the ethos would be that of a “nurturant parent” while the other would be governed by a “strict father”. These instincts — which should be understood, in reality, as the moral underpinnings of the parties’ respective worldviews — were eternal. But successful politicians would play against type just enough to earn some respect, or at least a hearing, from their opponents while not playing so much against type that they abandoned their core constituency.

As in the United States, so here. the Republicans and the Tories are the “daddy” parties, leaving Labour and the Democrats as the “mummy” parties. Like all good generalisations, there was just enough evident truth in Lakoff’s analysis to give it legs. George W Bush’s “compassionate Conservatism” was, at least for a while, a conspicuously successful attempt to play against stereotype, just as Tony Blair (and Gordon Brown’s) commitment to honour Tory spending pledges was a means of demonstrating that Labour, like any responsible father, could be trusted with the family finances.

Admittedly, Theresa May offers a variation on this theme. Part of her appeal to Tory activists, at least initially, was that she seemed to be the kind of governess needed to knock squabbling heads together inside the Tory nursery. A woman, yes, but a bloody difficult one who, whatever her stylistic shortcomings, could be trusted to be left alone and get on with the job. No frills — but then frills would be suspect wouldn’t they? And, in any case, you don’t expect new ideas or fresh thinking from your governess.

Which, of course, made it a sweet irony that the Tory manifesto presented to an ungrateful people last year was full of ideas. Nick Timothy’s big brain had thought long and deep about the challenges facing the United Kingdom and produced what was an impressively serious manifesto even if it was also — awkwardly — a politically-obtuse one.

Still, the talk of “just about managing” families and the emphasis on easing inter-generational tensions and making life a little easier for those seeking to get on, whether at school, at work, or in terms of gaining a foothold on the property ladder, was all designed to send a message: we are on your side. The Conservative Party is the party of work and of opportunity. We get it and you can trust us. After all, if you prick us do we not bleed too?

All of that now stands with Nineveh and Tyre, which is to say it does not stand at all. The election calamity has ruined May’s government before it even had a chance to do very much of anything at all.  Moreover, the necessary defenestration of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill has robbed it of any purpose it might have had. They have not been replaced in any meaningful policy sense. Vanishingly few people know what this government wants to achieve save its survival. It is becalmed and, worse than that, lost.

Granted, Conservatism has only rarely been confused with sunshine but in the absence of light there must be competence. This, alas, is not perceived to be this government’s long suit. But why would it be when even well-intentioned measures, such as extending Help to Buy, have wholly predictable and counter-productive consequences in the form of a) benefiting existing homeowners and b) increasing prices for those the measure is supposed to help. It would be better just to build houses, you know. Similarly, suggestions that university tuition fees should be lowered is both a hapless admission of past mistakes (the owning up to which will earn the government precisely zero credit) and, worse, a bung to those who can most afford those fees. In other words, it reinforces precisely the problem it is designed to alleviate.

A railcard for 30-year-olds doesn’t quite make up for this, and fixing it will not be easy. Though if you were minded to mend these breaches of faith and confidence, you might not appoint a vice-chairman for “youth outreach” who’d previously endorsed vasectomies for benefit claimants or waxed enthusiastic about police brutality. Sometimes there is only so much mileage to be gained from reinforcing stereotypes.

In any case, a government consumed by a flagship policy half the country hates — Brexit, in case you weren’t paying attention — is ill-placed to earn a hearing on anything else. This is especially so when much of the other half of the country, including a hefty and noisy chunk of the Conservative Parliamentary Party, brays on and on about its fear of Brexit being betrayed. The rest of the electorate tires of this, thinking, with reason, that the Brexiteers won and should now get over themselves.

Once upon a time there was a Tory politician who appreciated some of this. She deplored the manner in which many people — fairly or not — thought of the Conservative party as “the nasty party”. Sometimes one is left to wonder what happened to that politician.

Lord Ashcroft’s polling confirms that this stain, however much Tories might complain their innocence, is back and punishing the party all over again. If it weren’t for the fact the public thinks that Labour, for all its heart might be in the right place, is both soft-headed and no more competent than the Conservatives then the government might be in real trouble.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.