10 June 2024

Today’s Tory Party has lost its fighting spirit


Has there ever been a general election campaign like this? People with longer memories than I might be able to think of one, but I can’t. Even a couple of weeks ago, warnings that the Conservative campaign might collapse altogether felt like hyperbole; such a prospect is now entirely plausible.

Britain has seen parties decisively ejected from office after long periods before. There was the Conservative victory in 1979, albeit that was truly cemented in 1983; New Labour’s then-historic rout of the Tories in 1997. Even David Cameron in 2010, while falling short of a majority, picked up almost a hundred seats.

What those elections had in common, however, is that the government went down fighting. Jim Callaghan’s government had been run ragged by long, brutal months of a minority in the Commons, but held together; ditto the Conservatives in 1997 and New Labour in 2010.

While the former example feels closer to today, the latter two are a more honest comparison. For all the churn precipitated by Brexit, and for having fielded no fewer than five prime ministers, the Conservatives have been in power for 14 years.

Thus, it is surely fairer to compare them to New Labour (13), or the Tories under the New Right (18), than with Callaghan’s unhappy five.

Do that, and the difference is obvious. Both New Labour and the Conservatives under Thatcher and Major had pursued, and delivered, relatively coherent projects during their period in office. They had a record to defend, a story to tell themselves, even when the end was nigh.

Today’s Tory Party does not have that. No matter which wing of it you happen to be on, the past 14 years offer little to boast about. Not nothing – the transformation of schools is a substantive and hopefully enduring policy win – but little. 

Cameroons are angry that we left the EU, Brexiteers that we did so little with leaving. Taxes are at historic highs, police chiefs are being advised to pause so-called non-priority arrests for want of prison places, and net immigration has tripled. The soaring cost of housing and childcare are pricing voters out of the very things that used to turn them into Conservatives.

There seems to be a growing tendency for Conservatives to talk more loudly and more radically, while struggling to deliver much in the way of actual right-wing policy, and this has carried forward into the campaign.

Perhaps no policy better illustrates this than the Prime Minister’s proposal for ‘national service’. It certainly sounds right-wing, and duly alienates those voters who don’t like the idea of forcing 18-year-olds into uniform. But the reality is a mandatory (but unenforceable) volunteering requirement, with room for 4% of each intake to work in military administrative roles – thus not satisfying those voters who might actually support a more old-fashioned model of national service.

This handicaps ministers’ ability to make plausible promises. Jeremy Hunt can talk all he likes about abolishing inheritance tax, but he’s had years in which to do so – so why didn’t he, if it really is anathema to Tory values?

Likewise, the Prime Minister can tweet that: ‘If you’re a criminal, the law should show you no mercy.’ But what does that mean? The Conservatives have failed to build new prisons, while allowing ministers such as Ken Clarke to shut perfectly good ones.

No law-and-order push – and that includes Labour’s – will amount to a hill of beans if it doesn’t back up more policing with more jail capacity. The Government’s previous wheeze, extending the minimum threshold for early release to two-thirds of a sentence – led to ministers quietly setting up a scheme to let people out early to make room. 

Britain is not an especially liberal country. There may well be serious electoral dividends to be won from a genuine, properly-resourced push on policing and prisons. It is much less obvious that there is much to be gained from sounding a bit fash while overseeing what is de facto an ever less-carceral regime. 

Coverage so far has tended to focus, understandably, on media disasters such as Sunak leaving D-Day early or Richard Holden’s adviser interrupting his Sky interview. But fun as that is for the hacks, those things are symptoms of the deeper problem: that this Government doesn’t seem entirely clear on why it should be re-elected.

That the Prime Minister thinks he should be re-elected is clear enough. But ministers can’t put together a clear argument for why. Immigration is sky-high, and so are taxes. Per-capita growth (the only kind that really matters) is flat, as are real wages. We’re two weeks into the campaign and the Tories haven’t said a thing about housing. 

This fits with the Prime Minister’s conduct in office. The three big announcements he selected to headline his speech to Conservative Party Conference – reforming A Levels, scrapping HS2, and a half-baked plan to stamp out smoking – were relatively trivial, tinkering interventions. 

They spoke of a leader who either can’t or won’t accept that there is anything fundamentally wrong with Britain’s political economy; it is thus very hard for him to suddenly pretend to any appetite for radicalism on the campaign trail.

Those policies also had something else in common: they were cooked up inside Downing Street, without consultation, and thus were poorly-designed and totally failed to enthuse the Party. That, too, has carried over into the election.

Little wonder that centre-right and right-wing voters alike are unenthused about turning out for the Tories on election day. To some, the rhetoric is off-putting, to others the lack of substance behind the rhetoric is a deal-breaker. Since 2010 they have four times returned a Conservative government; in return they have received five very different flavours of Toryism on the surface, and a steady diet of stagnant growth, increased immigration, and rising taxes beneath it.

This has created the ideal conditions for Nigel Farage, who will never get the opportunity to break his unworldly promises in government. But the rise of Reform UK is not ushering in a new era of proper conservatism, however defined – it is shaping up to be the midwife for an historic left-wing supermajority in Parliament.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.