Here’s a hard truth for Tories still wandering around in a state of shock after the most blunder-filled speech in recent political history: Theresa May isn’t the problem. You are.
Let’s pretend for a second that a prankster hadn’t handed May a P45, that the Prime Minister hadn’t had a sore throat and that the sign behind her hadn’t fallen apart. As others have pointed out, if May’s speech had gone to plan, the most striking thing about it would have been the yawning chasm between Theresa May’s rhetoric and her policies. The Prime Minister is good at describing the iniquities and injustices that need fixing. But that is invariably followed by a proposed tweak here and there.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the section of her speech on housing. Having said she would dedicate her premiership – or what is left of it – to “fixing our broken housing market”, the Prime Minister announced a house-building project that amounts to a measly 5,000 homes a year.
No one in this government can possibly think that will come close to fixing the crisis they acknowledge exists. Much like the catastrophic immigration target, the Conservatives have taken another opportunity to say to the country: look at this big problem we cannot solve. Is it any wonder that as unlikely a figure as Jeremy Corbyn is so close to power?
At first sight, the mismatch between diagnosis and cure on housing might seem to be a product of the fact that May’s instincts are managerial; she is not predisposed to the bold solutions that are needed.
When it comes to housing, the radical option would be to tear up the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act (and its successors). Or at least large chunks of them. Any sort of relaxation of our highly restrictive planning system would at least be a step in the right direction.
You can argue that some things – preserving the countryside, for example – are more important than the cost of housing. But you cannot dispute the economics of what strict planning rules do to the price of property. So why is a planning shake-up not on May’s agenda? The answer has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the views and economic interests of the party’s grassroots.
Measures that are far from drastic – allowing at least some building on the green belt, or new towns in the South East – would mean a full-scale revolt in Conservative heartlands.
Activists nodded along to speeches at the Conservative Party conference this week about just how disastrous a Jeremy Corbyn-led government would be. And they may despair when they see just how unpopular capitalism is across the entire electorate, and younger voters in particular.
They are right to be worried. But are they willing to do what it takes to defeat Corbyn? And not with half-baked sops to Corbynism but with answers of their own to the problems Corbyn is capitalising on.
Historically, the Conservative Party has been so successful because of its ruthless focus on winning. Politically, that has meant dispensing with leaders efficiently (by leaving the plotting to someone more competent than Grant Shapps). In policy terms, that has meant a prioritisation, above all else, of what works. Unlike the Left, the Right has always been good at asking itself difficult questions and not getting bogged down in its own dogma.
But, if this year’s conference is anything to go by, delivering the necessary policies is hardly at the top of Tory activists’ minds. Just look at two of the stars of the show: Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. If the polling is right they are the grassroots’ favourites to replace May. Before disgracing himself with insensitive comments about dead Libyans, the Foreign Secretary used a conference speech that was an opportunity to demonstrate bold, optimistic thinking to offer no substantive ideas whatsoever.
As for Jacob Rees-Mogg, the excitement in the crush outside one fringe event felt eerily familiar. The mood was the same as the early days of Corbynmania. Just as Jeremy Corbyn could be the product of a committee of Conservatives asked to design the easiest imaginable Labour politician to defeat, Rees-Mogg is exactly the sort of Tory Labour MPs would relish as the opposing party’s leader.
It would be forgivable if support for Jacob Rees-Mogg constituted a support for a particular agenda. But, however sincere and deeply-held Rees-Mogg’s views, Moggmania is little more than an exercise in reverse virtue signalling: we’re posh, we’re reactionary and we don’t care who knows it. That the man himself has expressed no interest whatsoever in the top job only confirms that this is the nature of his support. Faced with the very real threat of Prime Minister Corbyn, activists chose to pack themselves into a stuffy room to hear a backbencher reel off British military victories.
In my lifetime, the Conservative Party has won two small majorities, by 21 seats in 1992 and 12 in 2015. The latter victory was in spite of – not thanks to – the Conservative grassroots. Much of the modernisation programme which dragged the Conservatives back towards electability was done against the wishes of the party base. Tories may pat themselves on the back about same-sex marriage now, but when the legislation was going through the Commons in 2013, how many were lending their support to David Cameron? In a free vote, a majority of Conservative MPs did not support the change. Not least because of a deluge of letters from angry association members. And the tax cut that would have really energised the rank and file would have been to inheritance tax, not the raising of the allowance that was arguably George Osborne’s most popular policy.
Theresa May, at least, realises the importance of the project started by Cameron and Osborne. She may interpret modernisation differently. But at least appreciates just how low an opinion of the party so many people have. Ditch May and the Tories risk replacing her with a candidate who thinks that the Conservative party’s problem is that they just aren’t conservative enough. Put that theory into practice and the result is Prime Minister Corbyn.