18 October 2016

Theresa May is copying John Howard – and leaving Ukip stranded


Having been sent sprawling after an “altercation” with his Ukip colleagues, Steven Woolfe has landed a knockout blow of his own. The surprise departure of the runaway favourite to succeed Nigel Farage has tipped Ukip – already in a state of disarray after the Diane James fiasco – into full-blown crisis.

Woolfe attributes his departure to the toxic infighting that has left Ukip “ungovernable” by anyone save Nigel Farage. Yet this isn’t just about personalities, but positioning. If Woolfe is right that Ukip is in a “death spiral”, there is a strong argument that this is a case of murder, not suicide.

Some have argued that by achieving its existential aim – Britain’s independence from the European Union – Ukip has robbed itself of a purpose. Yet it was still possible to see the party acting as a hard Brexit ginger group – to keep the Tories honest – or cementing its position as an alternative to Labour for disenchanted working-class voters in the North.

That Woolfe is not just abandoning his candidacy for leader, but the party full stop, suggests that something has changed. Personal grievances aside, he would not be leaving Ukip if he felt the party had a future. And the fact that he feels it does not is down to one person above all: Theresa May.

For all their mutual hatred, David Cameron and Nigel Farage had a curious sort of co-dependency. In fact, the two of them defined themselves against each other.

True, much of Cameron’s agenda – on immigration and, most fatefully, on Europe – was driven by the need to appease Tory traditionalists who were increasingly tempted by Farage’s message. But much of it was also driven by the need to appeal to voters in the centre – the kind of people who heard Cameron dismiss the Kippers as fruitcakes, loonies and closest racists and nodded in agreement.

It is becoming rapidly apparent that the kind of Tory party Theresa May is building is very different.

To her critics, she has simply dragged the party away from the centre ground and on to Ukip’s terrain: May’s vision is hard Brexit, hard policies, hard right. For such commentators, the fact that Woolfe flirted not just with leaving Ukip, but jumping ship to the Conservatives, stands as Exhibit A.

But this isn’t actually accurate. In fact, May’s Tory party is no less of a big tent than Cameron’s. But it’s pitched in a very different place.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on CapX about the disappearance of the centre ground – or rather, the way that “left-wing” and “right-wing” failed to capture the electorate’s actual views in anything but the broadest sense.

New research from the Social Market Foundation argued that the public was divided not into wings but tribes: the two largest, roughly approximating traditional Tory and Ukip voters, were patriotic, anti-immigration, and socially conservative.

These were the non-liberal, non-London voters who delivered the victory for Leave in the Brexit referendum – and whom Theresa May was perfectly placed to champion. (It’s no coincidence that the Daily Mail, which sees itself as the tribune of these voters, has been emphatically, almost ecstatically, pro-May.)

The resulting narrative of nation vs elites, country vs capital has had many in the London media world spitting feathers. Yet it is also distinctly familiar. The more you look at May and Mayism, the more the role model is clear: John Howard’s government in Australia.

Howard was the “suburban solicitor” (shades of the “vicar’s daughter”) who won four elections and governed for more than a decade on a platform of calm, caution and competence.

Howardism has already, of course, influenced Britain: Cameron himself imported Howard’s no-nonsense campaign manager, Lynton Crosby, to salvage his electoral prospects during the Coalition’s darkest days. But May is importing the substance as well as the style.

Re-reading this essay by Daniel Hannan – a great admirer of Howard’s – it’s impossible to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Howard, he says, stood for “tax cuts, immigration controls, patriotism, law and order”: but he sold them not as conservative policies, but as common sense.

Howard and his heirs, he wrote, “have succeeded in constructing a non-elitist conservatism. They understand that, while socialists claim to speak for the little man, most Left-wing policies end up benefiting vested interests.”

If you were to summarise what Theresa May is trying to build, “non-elitist conservatism” (with a small “c” as well as a large) would be the best possible summary. A conservatism that pitches itself at small businesses not multinationals, at Privet Drive rather than Primrose Hill, at Steven Woolfe not Martin Wolff.

This, inevitably, has political consequences. The type of Toryism it implies is one with people like Steven Woolfe might actually be comfortable – even as it rubs up against the nerves of metropolitan commentators. That inevitably squeezes Ukip’s appeal.

But it also has policy implications too. This kind of conservatism cleaves to many Tory orthodoxies, but discards others. In particular, it is more interventionist and dirigiste.

Howard was a passionate advocate of the small state, but he did not hesitate to act to protect the traditional Australian families that were the bedrock of his support, both economically and socially, not least by taking tough action on immigration. (He also introduced a handgun ban that would horrify American Republicans.)

So far, May appears far happier than Cameron to use the state’s power to shape the economy – whether it is via the focus on industrial strategy (a concept that has long been anathema among the laissez-faire free-marketeers of the Treasury) or lecturing companies about foreign workers and labour representation on boards. And the SMF research shows that May’s tribes are perfectly happy about this kind of thing – they have no problem with government intervention, as long as it’s on their side.

This focus also, as I mentioned in my earlier piece, helps explain the Government’s strategy on Brexit. For affluent London – and in particular for the City – a “soft Brexit” is certainly the best option. But the SMF’s polling showed that those Mayan tribesmen care more about immigration than the economy, or at the very least believe that Brexit must mean a hard Brexit, otherwise what was the point?

All of which leaves British politics in a strange place. A few months ago, it was possible to see UKIP displacing Labour as the party of the disenchanted working classes; the Tories as the party of those who had prospered; and Labour as the party of those Islingtonians who had prospered so much that they can afford to vote for Jeremy Corbyn.

Now, strangely, it is the former rulers who find themselves – rhetorically, at least – excluded from the conversation. The new mob in Downing Street and around the Cabinet table (with a few Right Honourable exceptions) are grammar school, not private; self-made, not polished and groomed; suburban, not metropolitan. Their focus is not those who pay the higher rate of income tax, but those who aspire to.

In a couple of weeks’ time, at a ceremony in London, John Howard will receive the Edmund Burke Award from the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe. The prize recognises the politician, campaigner or thinker who is judged to have done most to advance conservative principles.

As Theresa May refashions the Conservative Party – and British politics – in Howard’s image, it is hard to argue.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX.