With Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party consumed by infighting and discredited with the public, David Cameron’s Conservative government could do almost anything it desires. So why is it treading water?
What does the Conservative Party stand for in the era of Jeremy Corbyn?
What do the Tories stand for when they are barely opposed in Parliament, and consequently have virtual carte blanche to do anything they please?
The answer, apparently, is not much of anything. And it’s good to see that more people on the Right are finally starting to get impatient with the lack of conservative conviction flowing from Number 10 Downing Street.
Janet Daley gets straight to the point in her latest Telegraph column, asking what is the point of the Tories if they refuse to radically shrink the size of the state:
It is fairly clear what use the Tories have decided to make of the current lack of opposition. They will become not just the accepted party of government but the only political party that anybody would ever need. Instead of putting forward a specific, identifiable view of what government should be and how it should relate to the people, which they can offer up for debate, they will occupy all the ground, cover all the bases, be everywhere on the political spectrum at once. They will incorporate centre-Left and centre-Right, and make economic intervention live alongside the free market. They will even, as Mr Osborne did in his Autumn Statement, filch the language of enforced equality (“social justice”).
In short, if Labour is not fit to carry on a debate, then the Tories will scrap the idea of debate altogether. They will be all things to all men: the all-purpose, all-embracing, totally inclusive permanent party of government. This new single-party monopoly will incorporate every popular measure, however inconsistent or contradictory, into its amorphous programme. By the time Labour is ready to engage in election-winning argument, there will be nothing to argue about.
Instead of being emboldened by the lack of serious opposition and seeing it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do necessary radical things, the Tories have decided to play it for short-term political advantage. The real problems will not be addressed. They will just be fudged – and bought off with fistfuls of money.
The depressing truth is that the Tories in government have made a decision to solidify their grip on power by effectively ceasing to be a small-C conservative party at all, instead rebranding themselves as the only sane choice when the alternative is the Corbyn/McDonnell socialist double act.
This worrying lack of ideological commitment has been reinforced over and over, whether it’s the Autumn Statement that sounded more like a Gordon Brown-style moneybomb than a fiscally conservative blueprint for government, or David Cameron’s triumphal party conference speech – which even the Independent thought was shockingly centrist.
But not everybody sees it like this. Iain Martin, writing in CapX, sees opportunity in the fact that the Conservatives now essentially govern unopposed:
Corbyn’s leadership does gift the British Conservatives an historic opportunity. Not one of those “they might they win the next general election” opportunities, but the chance to capitalise on Labour’s existential crisis and create a broad-based coalition of interests that dominates the coming decades and turns the UK into an even more dynamic, market-based, technologically advanced, prosperous society.
No. The government can either lead Britain kicking and screaming towards a more dynamic, free and market-based future, or it can create a broad-based coalition of special interests, each with their own collection of whiny, selfish demands and veto rights over national policy. But it cannot do both.
Radical policies of the kind needed to cure Britain’s productivity gap and vastly improve our competitiveness are not borne out of consensual, hand-holding workshops where all of the public service unions and taxpayer funded charities lounge around together brainstorming new ways to extort taxpayer money. Nor are bold policies borne out of the ingratiating desire to please everybody all the time, and never come face to face with a critical newspaper headline.
The radical conservative/libertarian policies that this country needs in order to roll back the state – and empower the people to shape their own destiny rather than remaining vassals of the state or passive consumers of public services – will not be divined by drawing a line half way between the David Cameron and Ed Miliband election manifestos of 2015 and splitting the difference.
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 she knew that there could be no appeasement with the dismal establishment belief that the best Britain could then hope for was a smoother, more orderly century of national decline than we witnessed during the Winter of Discontent. She knew that Britain needed harsh medicine if things were to be turned around and the patient saved. That didn’t mean that Thatcher rode to battle against every pillar of the post-war consensus simultaneously – nationalised companies and the NHS remained even after her premiership – but it did mean that she was not terrified of being seen as an ideological, even polarising figure. She stood for something.
What do David Cameron and George Osborne stand for, besides keeping the Conservative Party in power and (hopefully) executing a smooth transition from Dave to George by 2020? What kind of Britain do they want to preserve, protect or change? It is almost impossible to tell, because the key decisions – as with the Autumn Statement – are always so depressingly tactical and reactive, not strategic. I was not yet born when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, but I could describe in some detail her evolving political philosophy and accomplishments in government. By contrast, David Cameron came to power when my political engagement was very high indeed, and yet I would struggle to fill two paragraphs outlining Cameron’s ideology or aims for this country.
Even the few hints of a long-term strategy from the Conservatives – making us more secure, or paying down the national debt – only serve to highlight how far the government is falling short of these goals. The surveillance state continues to expand while the root causes of the extremist Islamist threat are barely discussed, much less tackled; the Chancellor burbles on about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, and yet the deficit is far from eliminated and the national debt continues to increase every single day.
But it does not have to be this way. The Conservative Party leadership may be depressingly void of ambition and tainted with the first blush of scandal, but there are green shoots of a future conservative renaissance visible within the party.
Last week I attended a Westminster lobby event held by Conservatives for Liberty, the right-libertarian campaign group for whom I am proud to write. During the course of the evening, we were addressed by five Conservative MPs, each of whom was able to make a far more convincing case for individual liberty in ten minutes than David Cameron has made for the entirety of his premiership.
Chris Philp described himself as a “proud Thatcherite” and dared to make reference to both “The Road To Serfdom” by Hayek and “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill.
Lucy Allan, the antithesis of a career politician, said “my view is that a real conservative is definitely a libertarian”, and proceeded to speak out against mass surveillance and the rise of authoritarianism in the name of national security.
The irrepressible James Cleverly warned against paternalistic government and the excesses of the public health lobby, saying “I don’t want to live in a world where personal choice is codified. We have a word for that, and that word is fascism”.
John Redwood made a point that the Treasury sorely needs to hear, lamenting that too many MPs “forget they are there to represent taxpayers as well as beneficiaries of state largesse” and describing the state’s overbearing presence in all aspects of life as “a wooden public monopoly that guarantees maximum inconvenience and maximum cost”.
And David Nuttal vowed that he would continue to work tirelessly “to stop the relentless march of the nanny state” and the “massive industry” which supports it.
Of these excellent speakers, Chris Philp, James Cleverly and Lucy Allan (if she stays in politics beyond 2020) are all potential leadership material for the future, particularly in a world where the official opposition is virtually non-existent and the country is crying out for a new, clear sense of direction. Any one of these rising stars have the inspiration and charisma to one day lead the party in a new, more transformational direction.
With the Parliamentary Labour Party seemingly intent on self-administering a near mortal wound with their relentless sniping and bitter briefing against Jeremy Corbyn, a bold new Conservative leader committed to the principles of liberty and a small state (the antithesis of George Osborne, who doesn’t even pay lip service to these ideals) could re-shape the Right and promote a better, more inspiring form of conservatism than the current “Blairism when there’s no money left” status quo.
The fact that David Cameron and George Osborne are watching the slow implosion of the Labour Party and conjuring up plans to woo Ed Miliband voters – rather than capitalise on this once-in-a-century opportunity to execute a real conservative agenda unopposed – reveals their worrying lack of confidence in core conservative principles and values. If the Prime Minister and Chancellor really believed in reducing the tax burden, reforming welfare, building up our armed forces, shrinking the state, promoting localism and devolving decision-making to the lowest level possible (with the individual as the default option), they could do so. They could be building a new, conservative Britain right here, right now. Virtually unopposed.
But Cameron and Osborne are doing no such thing. They simper and equivocate, and talk about fixing the roof and paying down the debt while doing no such thing, and still they attract endless negative headlines for inflicting an austerity which exists primarily in the minds of permanently outraged Guardian readers.
If Britain is not a transformed country in 2020 – with a smaller state, more dynamic private sector and greater presence on the world stage – there will be absolutely nobody to blame other than the party holding the keys to government. The party with the word “conservative” in their name. The Tories will have been in power for ten years and have nearly nothing to show for it, save some weak protestations about having fixed Labour’s prior mismanagement of the economy.
That’s not the kind of party I want to be associated with. That’s not the party I campaigned to elect in 2010, back when it seemed possible that a new Conservative administration might aspire to being something more than a moderate improvement on Gordon Brown.
The Conservatives have a choice. Presented with the golden opportunity of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, the Tories can seize the chance to transform themselves into the party of Allan, Philp or Cleverly. Or they can continue to be the equivocating, triangulating party of Cameron and Osborne.
Yes, of course there’s no point having bold new conservative ideas unless you can stay in power to make those ideas a reality, as the Cameron/Osborne apologists would no doubt respond. But neither is there any point winning and holding power unless you actually have ideas worth implementing.
The Conservatives have the power. And thanks to the Labour Party, they are under no immediate threat of losing that power, no matter what they do in office. So where are the big ideas?
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