Today’s poll in the Daily Telegraph, suggesting the Conservatives are heading for a 1997-style rout at the next election, is simultaneously remarkable and entirely unsurprising. Unsurprising in light of the party’s stubbornly woeful polling over the past year; remarkable in light of the landslide Boris Johnson delivered in 2019.
That historic victory was supposed to have transformed the map of British politics: Brexit, combined with Johnson’s offer of a more spendthrift and interventionist conservatism, smashed Labour in the so-called ‘red wall’ and delivered the Tories a clutch of seats they hadn’t won since the start of the universal franchise.
Now it seems that, at a stroke, all that work will be undone. The North of England and North Wales will return en masse to the Labour fold; both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will make big advances in the South West; the Tories will be pried out of even more of their remaining redoubts in London.
The different factions will all have their take on this result. The right, which commissioned it, is arguing that Rishi Sunak needs to focus on core Conservative policies around tax and immigration. They point to the danger posed by Reform UK, and the unhappy historic precedent when the Tories let a challenger get established on their right.
In response, those on the left of the party will argue that it is absurd to focus on the damage being done by a minor party when the government is haemorrhaging votes to its left; both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are actually in a position to pick up seats – a lot of seats, if this poll is right. It was the right, in the form of Liz Truss, which nuked the party’s polling in the first place.
It would be unwise to simply ignore the danger posed by Reform UK. Not just because even in their present form they could deny the Tories a clutch of close-fought seats, but because Nigel Farage is flirting with a comeback. As I’ve said before, that’s the condition that could unlock a proper, Canada ’93-style extinction event.
But it’s also true that the Conservatives are losing far more voters to their left than their right. As their polling worsens, the pool of voters who qualify as ‘persuadable’ will naturally get more right-wing – but that doesn’t mean the path to a majority runs through them. (Again, despite the amnesia of his die-hard supporters, Johnson was emphatically not a particularly right-wing prime minister.)
This row does matter, not only because it will steer the government’s decision-making from now until the election, but because it will shape the battle inside the party to explain the disaster afterwards – and thus, the future direction of the party.
Moreover, research by David Jeffrey and Tim Bale suggests that the direct impact of the coming election on the ideological balance in the parliamentary party may be much less significant than we might expect, meaning that no faction will automatically receive a decisive advantage in the Commons which might settle this argument before it starts.
Focusing too much on the events of the past few years, however, misses the bigger picture. I think the real explanation is best captured by this line from Lenin: ‘There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.’
What we’re seeing in the polls is not just the result of the Conservatives’ many missteps over the past few years, but an accelerated reckoning with much deeper problems with the political economy it has actually delivered since 2010.
The end of zero interest rates means that long-running problems such as the housing crisis and stagnant real wage growth can no longer be disguised by cheap credit. The decision to take the tactically-easier path of salami-slicing austerity instead of actually designing a smaller state means government is big as ever, but nothing works.
Time and again, the Conservatives have delivered short-term Treasury thinking rather than anything their philosophers or voters might have wanted or expected. Childcare has become a luxury good geared towards getting parents back into work; legal immigration is at record highs because importing labour is easier than a showdown with universities or business; taxes are at historic highs, rendering efforts to scaremonger about Labour’s plans futile.
So remorseless is this logic that now even retirees, the very demographic the party has been looking after, are flashing red on the dashboard, rebadged as the ‘economically inactive’.
All this would be problematic enough if it were deliberate. But nobody in the party is really making the case for this model of governance (and how could they?). Instead, the rhetoric has slalomed all over the place, even as the actual policy mix (high immigration, no strategic cuts, no infrastructure or housing, pensions) has remained, in the long view, pretty stable. Thus, as I put it previously:
‘The recent Tory past is a political graveyard long on bodies, but short on ghosts; the party’s plight best summed up by Agnes Flanders: ‘We’ve tried nothing, and we’re all out of ideas.”
An honest accounting with all of this – with why the Conservatives managed to govern for 14 years without moving the country much in their direction at all – would involve asking some really hard questions about how the party thinks this country works and how it ought to work; about what the structural causes of the current malaise are and why it declined to confront them for so long.
It won’t be found in easy scapegoats, be they individuals such as Johnson, Truss, or Sunak, or single issues such as Brexit or the mini-budget.
For what it’s worth, I think the re-alignment heralded by the 2019 election is real. Yes, the Tories are set to lose the ‘red wall’ this time – but you lose a lot of places when you’re 20 points down. The more important tell is the so-called ‘blue wall’, once-safe Conservative seats which are down trending away from the party. Places such as Theresa Villiers’ seat of Chipping Barnet, where she won by barely 1,200 votes in 2019 despite a national landslide.
I suspect that the Conservatives will recapture parts of the ‘red wall’ long before they win back many of the seats it looks like they’re set to lose in London and the Home Counties. There’s no future in any backward-looking vision that doesn’t reckon with that, whether it’s yet another tilt at a misremembered Thatcherism or nostalgia for Cameron’s ‘liberal centre-right’ and the comfortable world of pre-2016.
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