As it stands, the next election is shaping up to be another 1992. At stake is not the genesis of some transformational programme, but whether or not the gains of an existing revolution can be bedded in and made part of the new normal of British political life.
New Labour unleashed an abysmal revolution when they finally took office, for sure. But they did so only after internalising broad swathes of the Thatcherite settlement in a way that Neil Kinnock’s Labour never had. Had he won five years before, the future direction of the United Kingdom would be quite different.
Today’s Conservatives do not have a record of domestic reform to rival Margaret Thatcher’s, of course. The boldest parts of their agenda, such as schools, have been abandoned as the party’s attention gradually became consumed by Brexit; others, such as planning reform, were all but stillborn after Boris Johnson balked from using his majority to drive forward necessary but unpopular change.
But there is still a world of difference between losing office in 2024, and losing in 2028 or 2029. Baffling as it might sometimes seem that this exhausted government might yet rule until nearly the end of the decade, it is still an eminently realistic proposition.
At the cusp of the 2030s, Labour will most likely be led by a new generation, one less interested than Sir Keir Starmer in relitigating the battles over Brexit (or outsourcing their thinking on devolution to Gordon Brown). The Government will have had more time to cement a new order of school freedom, set the terms of our relationship with Europe, and much else.
Not so long ago, re-election looked more likely than not. After conference season – and before the self-inflicted string of scandals that started with the Owen Paterson fiasco, or the dizzying economic repercussions of the Russo-Ukrainian War – the Prime Minister looked as secure as he had ever been.
How things have changed. But the events above aren’t solely to blame. Even before then, there was mounting concern amongst Conservative MPs that the Government simply wasn’t doing enough to prove itself to the millions of people who first backed it in 2019. Getting Brexit done was all very well, but they needed things to put on their leaflets and were coming up short.
Johnson started with five years to fix that problem; his successor will have just two. As a result, meeting it is going to require a great deal of discipline – anything which doesn’t deliver a concrete result by the summer of 2024 should probably be a next-term issue.
This exigency also, awfully, means the party has less scope than it did in 2019 to take on the powerful vested interests – many Conservative-voting – which oppose the reforms Britain needs. A two-year timeline probably means that most housing reforms, for example, would have plenty of time to alienate comfortable homeowners but not enough to actually deliver a significant number of new homes.
Then there is the question of how best to use relatively limited headroom for spending or tax cuts. Whilst in the long run it is imperative that the Tories set the nation on the path towards growth, in the short term they also need to be vigilant to combat the mounting sense that significant parts of the state simply aren’t functioning.
A country where half of police forces haven’t prosecuted a single burglary isn’t likely to return a Conservative government; a party that responds to rail strikes by getting loyal MPs to tweet ‘thanks Keir’ does not look like it’s in command of events. (Just imagine Thatcher bleating that the miners’ strike was ‘a terrifying preview of Neil Kinnock’s Britain’ rather than, you know, beating it.)
I’m a long-standing Conservative Party member and I have my ideological preferences. But I will be giving my vote to whichever candidate best convinces me that they have a practical plan for getting the nation through what promise to be two extremely difficult years, because all the urgent ideological debate in the world is academic if you’re not in office.
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