God help us
Expectations and appearances matter in politics. That’s why the campaign teams of mediocre politicians try to lower expectations before any major upcoming event while exaggerating the strength and prospects of the opposition. This creates the illusion of forward momentum when their candidate triumphantly clears the very low bar set for them.
Perhaps the most extreme example of expectation-fiddling in recent history occurred in 2004 when George W. Bush’s strategist Michael Dowd tried to tamp down expectations for W’s performance in an upcoming presidential debate by declaring that his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, was “the best debater since Cicero“. Of course, anybody who had ever met John Kerry or heard him speak knew full well that the former Massachusetts senator is more Claudius than Cicero. The overblown comparison insulted people’s intelligence.
Well intentionally or not, Theresa May and the Conservative Party could hardly have set expectations for their own side any lower before they assembled in Manchester this week. The prime minister’s speech was deliberately trailed as a platform for her to tell her own restive cabinet members to stop undermining her and bickering with one another, hardly the sign of a confident, outward-looking party. Yet somehow the Tories still managed to underperform spectacularly. Claudius, not Cicero, turned up in Manchester.
In the end, George Osborne never got the chance to have Theresa May chopped up in bags in his freezer. The prime minister fell to bits – ideologically, physically and in terms of her dwindling authority – right on stage in front of everybody at the Manchester Central convention centre this afternoon.
One cannot be too uncharitable about a politician suffering a coughing fit, a set malfunction and a stage intruder (heads need to roll in the PM’s security detail), all in the same speech. But neither will a number of Conservatives be in any mood to make excuses for Theresa May after she declared war on the small government libertarian wing at last year’s conference, led the party to glorious failure in this year’s general election and then showed up in Manchester with a ragtag bag of Ed Miliband’s rejected policies as her master plan for fending off Jeremy Corbyn.
Some hopeful souls believe that the prime minister’s on-stage meltdown will somehow redound to the benefit of the Tories – either because Theresa May’s coughing fit conveniently masks the gaping lack of conservative vision and principle at the heart of the speech (her speechwriters actually plagiarised a line from The West Wing in a desperate attempt to add profundity), or because the British love of the plucky underdog will evoke feelings of pity. Because embarrassment and pity are just the emotions you want to send the party faithful away with and broadcast to the nation after conference.
James Kirkup takes this view:
What are the politics of the torment of Theresa May? There are two outcomes, very different, and this is why, for once, a conference speech really could be decisive.
One is that people will look at their Prime Minister struggling and spluttering and see a woman soldiering on in the face of adversity, in spite of her own limitations and in the face of numerous obstacles in her path. As I suggested a long time ago, back in June, there is a British fondness for the story of the frail and faulty hero who keeps fighting even when things are bleak.
The problem is that only the British have this strange affection for the plucky underdog, and Theresa May has to play the part of British prime minister to the whole world, not just to a pitying domestic audience. We may feel a pang of sympathy every time she literally falls to pieces in front of our eyes. Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel will not. They will eat her alive. And by extension our international rivals and enemies will eat all of us alive too, because a weak and nervous prime minister puts more than their own political career in jeopardy.
This is not – repeat, not – about a coughing fit, as some dutiful conservative commentators are now suggesting as they rush to the prime minister’s defence:
And to be fair to her, Theresa May dealt with what must have been a mortifying situation with quick wits, grace and humour. I would not wish that rolling series of calamities on anyone.
No, this is about every nervous television interview where Theresa May looks like a deer caught in the headlights. It’s about her cowardly failure to participate in a televised debate with Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders in this year’s general election. It’s about her abysmal judgment in calling a general election in which she frittered away the Tory majority. It’s about her lack of leadership following the Grenfell Tower fire and recent terror attacks.
But more than all of this, it is about the yawning void where a positive, ambitious and genuinely conservative vision for Britain should sit. Margaret Thatcher also once suffered a coughing fit during a speech, but it didn’t threaten to end her premiership because unlike the present incumbent, Thatcher was a good prime minister with abundant vision, courage and clearly defined principles. By contrast, the emptiness of Theresa May’s conference speech matched the aimlessness of her premiership, and the farce of its delivery painfully reflected her administration’s “limitless capacity” for self-inflicted political wounds.
So what was actually in the speech from hell? Well, first came the contrition:
But we did not get the victory we wanted because our national campaign fell short. It was too scripted. Too presidential. And it allowed the Labour Party to paint us as the voice of continuity, when the public wanted to hear a message of change. I hold my hands up for that. I take responsibility. I led the campaign. And I am sorry.
Job done. And then, like several failed politicians have also tried to do before her, Theresa May attempted to make the phrase “the British Dream” a thing:
A little over forty years ago in a small village in Oxfordshire, I signed up to be a member of the Conservative Party. I did it because it was the party that had the ideas to build a better Britain. It understood the hard work and discipline necessary to see them through.
And it had at its heart a simple promise that spoke to me, my values and my aspirations: that each new generation in our country should be able to build a better future. That each generation should live the British Dream. And that dream is what I believe in.
But what the General Election earlier this year showed is that, forty years later, for too many people in our country that dream feels distant, our party’s ability to deliver it is in question, and the British Dream that has inspired generations of Britons feels increasingly out of reach.
This doesn’t work. The American Dream is deeply routed in American culture and history, and it has a resonance which people living thousands of miles away understand. The British Dream sounds derivative, because it is. At best, it invites a second-class comparison with the United States and at worst it just sounds vague and woolly. The idea that each new generation should be more prosperous than the last is perfectly fine, but there is no need to coin an awkward phrase in order to capture something so self-evident.
Then the open boasts about stealing Labour policy begin:
And a National Living Wage – giving a pay rise to the lowest earners – introduced not by the Labour Party, but by us, the Conservative Party. So let us never allow the Left to pretend they have a monopoly on compassion. This is the good a Conservative Government can do – and we should never let anyone forget it.
The way to demonstrate that the Left does not have a monopoly on compassion is not to start stealing their policies. If anything, this only accentuates the link between leftism and compassion.
Soon it begins to veer toward the ridiculous:
Because at its core, it’s about sweeping away injustice – the barriers that mean for some the British Dream is increasingly out of reach. About saying what matters is not where you are from or who your parents are. The colour of your skin. Whether you’re a man or a woman, rich or poor. From the inner city or an affluent suburb. How far you go in life should depend on you and your hard work.
That is why I have always taken on vested interests when they are working against the interests of the people. Called out those who abuse their positions of power and given a voice to those who have been ignored or silenced for too long.
And when people ask me why I put myself through it – the long hours, the pressure, the criticism and insults that inevitably go with the job – I tell them this: I do it to root out injustice and to give everyone in our country a voice. That’s why when I reflect on my time in politics, the things that make me proud are not the positions I have held, the world leaders I have met, the great global gatherings to which I have been, but knowing that I made a difference. That I helped those who couldn’t be heard.
Does this position come with tights and a cape? Rooting out injustice is all well and good (though again, this is one of those areas where Theresa May talks a big talk but walks a very small walk in terms of policy, which only invites more criticism from the Left) but a Conservative prime minister should be talking about aspiration and opportunity for all, not flirting with identity politics.
Then there were the downright statist aspirations, as we saw when Theresa May’s disjointed speech veered into a section about organ donation:
But our ability to help people who need transplants is limited by the number of organ donors that come forward. That is why last year 500 people died because a suitable organ was not available. And there are 6,500 on the transplant list today. So to address this challenge that affects all communities in our country, we will change that system. Shifting the balance of presumption in favour of organ donation. Working on behalf of the most vulnerable.
I desperately want to see more people join the organ donor register, and would be in favour of a significant and costly campaign to raise awareness and make taking action as easy as humanly possible. But switching from opt-in to opt-out is a dangerous symbolic concession to leftist statism, effectively declaring (as it does) that our bodies are ultimately the property of the state, to be disposed of following our deaths as it sees fit. Being able to “opt out” of this is not a safeguard – by even acknowledging the legitimacy of such a scheme we concede the state’s power over us, a huge concession which no Conservative prime minister should be making.
Then there were those sections which totally missed the point, as when Theresa May spoke about Grenfell Tower:
It’s why after seeing the unimaginable tragedy unfold at Grenfell Tower, I was determined that we should get to the truth. Because Grenfell should never have happened – and should never be allowed to happen again. So we must learn the lessons: understanding not just what went wrong but why the voice of the people of Grenfell had been ignored over so many years. That’s what the public inquiry will do. And where any individual or organisation is found to have acted negligently, justice must be done. That’s what I’m in this for.
And because in this – as in other disasters before it – bereaved and grieving families do not get the support they need, we will introduce an independent public advocate for major disasters. An advocate to act on behalf of bereaved families to support them at public inquests and inquiries. The strong independent voice that victims need. That’s what I’m in this for.
A public advocate to aid with emotional catharsis is all well and good, but the real failures exposed by Grenfell were those of building safety and particularly those of disaster response, where a medium-sized disaster in Britain’s capital city saw chaos for several days as central government, local government, emergency services, charities and volunteers struggled to work together under any kind of unified command.
The disaster response to Grenfell Tower should worry anybody with responsibility for civil contingencies, particularly knowing the kind of attacks which Islamist extremists would love to inflict upon us given half an opportunity. This is what the prime minister should have focused on, and how she should have demonstrated strong leadership.
Then there was the contradictory. A long-overdue defence of free markets which nobody believed given Theresa May’s past pronouncements and actions:
That idea of free and open markets, operating under the right rules and regulations, is precious to us. It’s the means by which we generate our prosperity as a nation, and improve the living standards of all our people. It has helped to cement Britain’s influence as a force for good in the world.
It has underpinned the rules-based international system that helped rebuild post-war Europe and the world beyond. It has ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall; the end of communism, and the dark days of the Iron Curtain; securing the advance of freedom across Europe and across the world. It has inspired 70 years of prosperity, raising living standards for hundreds of millions of people right across the globe.
So don’t try and tell me that free markets are no longer fit for purpose. That somehow they’re holding people back. Don’t try and tell me that the innovations they have encouraged – the advances they have brought – the mobile phone, the internet, pioneering medical treatments, the ability to travel freely across the world – are worth nothing.
The free market – and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law that lie at its heart – remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created. So let us win this argument for a new generation and defend free and open markets with all our might. Because there has rarely been a time when the choice of futures for Britain is so stark. The difference between the parties so clear.
And indeed, a few paragraphs later Theresa May could be found eagerly plotting her next intervention in the energy market:
We will always take on monopolies and vested interests when they are holding people back. And one of the greatest examples in Britain today is the broken energy market.
Because the energy market punishes loyalty with higher prices. And the most loyal customers are often those with lower incomes: the elderly, people with lower qualifications and people who rent their homes. Those who for whatever reason, are unable to find the time to shop around. That’s why next week, this Government will publish a Draft Bill to put a price cap on energy bills. Meeting our manifesto promise. And bringing an end to rip-off energy prices once and for all.
The irony was not lost on everyone:
Fixing broken markets is absolutely the responsibility of a conservative government. For people to have faith in free markets they must operate fairly and transparently. But implementing Ed Miliband’s energy bill price cap is not fixing the market or coming up with an inventive solution to issues around monopolies and cartels, it is merely applying a leftist sticking plaster to a festering problem.
But what of education? A shallow and doomed attempt to pander to young voters by halting a planned rise in university tuition fees, and some vague waffle about vocational skills. After a bold declaration about re-tooling the British workforce for a more globalised, automated economy there were precisely two short, throwaway references to education in the entire speech (free schools and vocational training), neither of which deserve to be called policy ideas and neither of which were equal to the challenges we face. This is like promising to end world hunger and then failing to mention agriculture.
But the biggest letdown was on housing. Tory cowardice and lack of ambition on housing is killing conservatives with young voters who increasingly see little merit in capitalism when a deliberate policy of housing scarcity denies them the opportunity to build a stake in the system through the accumulation of their own capital.
If ever there was an area crying out for a bold new policy idea, it was housing. And as always, Theresa May did a fantastic job of describing the problem only to completely bottle it when it came to proposing a solution:
We’ve listened and we’ve learned. So this week, the Chancellor announced that we will help over 130,000 more families with the deposit they need to buy their own home by investing a further £10 billion in Help to Buy.
Oh goody, increasing demand even more while doing nothing concrete about supply. What could possibly go wrong?
And today, I can announce that we will invest an additional £2 billion in affordable housing – taking the Government’s total affordable housing budget to almost £9 billion.
We will encourage councils as well as housing associations to bid for this money and provide certainty over future rent levels. And in those parts of the country where the need is greatest, allow homes to be built for social rent, well below market level. Getting government back into the business of building houses. A new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market. So whether you’re trying to buy your own home, renting privately and looking for more security, or have been waiting for years on a council list, help is on the way.
So Theresa May wants to build thousands, millions more council houses. But what about the squeezed middle who don’t want or qualify for the state to be their landlord? What the hell good are new council houses for young people in nominally good professional jobs who find themselves priced out by relentless price increases and unreasonable deposit sums?
What about private housebuilding? What about actually relaxing planning regulations rather than just talking about it, and demanding that developers build upward not outward in our cities? In other words, what about doing something to address the supply of private housing stock rather than tinkering around the edges to further boost demand?
Theresa May’s motivation is very transparent here. The Tories clearly think that by focusing on building council and housing association properties there will be less negative impact on the older, homeowning Tory core vote. They calculated that so long as the availability of cheap homes for ownership does not dramatically increase – and they will ensure that it does not – they could avoid angering their base. But unfortunately, the net effect is to signal that this government only really cares about you if you are young and poor or old and rich. If you have the temerity to fall down the gap in the middle, Theresa May is effectively telling you to take a hike.
And more young people in this position are doing exactly that. My own social circle of young professional Londoners on decent salaries are now almost exclusively left-wing – not necessarily Corbynite, but certainly no friend of conservatism. Older acquaintances too. And who can be surprised? If you consistently screw people over throughout their formative years and early adulthood, you can’t expect them to suddenly start voting Tory when they get their first grey hair. This is the single biggest electoral issue facing the Tories, and they went into conference without a policy to match the scale of the challenge.
When Theresa May said in last year’s dubious conference speech that she wants to “set our party and our country on the path towards the new centre ground of British politics” we should have taken her at her word. Because thanks to being the only major party leader with any discernible principles, Jeremy Corbyn has successfully dragged the centre ground of British politics significantly to the left, and May is now eager to go scampering after him.
But if one takes the view that little else matters right now besides Brexit (a quite persuasive argument) then Pete North sums it up best:
So, Maybot’s speech. Would love to dive in like all the other political geeks but, seriously, none of it matters. Not a syllable. The only thing that matters is not screwing Brexit up. If she can’t get that right then everything folds – and however hard she may have tried to move closer to the centre, so long as Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Baker, Fox and chums are steering Brexit then the Tory party is defined by them; ignorant, crass, arrogant, jingoistic morons without a clue to share between them.
Ultimately, the speech was not the problem. The real problem is the leadership vacuum at the heart of 10 Downing Street, and a prime minister who either sees no reason to stand up to the Brexit Ultras in her own cabinet or is simply too weak to do so.
Theresa May’s off-brand, Lidl version of New Labour’s philosophy – her lame Ed Miliband tribute act – is ultimately survivable, and remains politically preferable to a Jeremy Corbyn government. But mess up Brexit and it wouldn’t much matter if Theresa May was an Ayn Rand-toting libertarian for all the good it would do when half the country is stockpiling food as global supply chains break down.
First, the Tories need to start getting Brexit right. Then they can formulate the kind of unapologetic conservative governing agenda which might actually make people want to vote Tory without holding their noses or keeping it a secret. And if there is time left after this, maybe then they can work on the old communication and leadership skills which are so lacking in this administration.
The rise of Jeremy Corbyn. The general election result. The haemorrhaging of the youth vote to Labour, with the middle-aged vote following close behind. The capture of the government by hard Brexit purists who would risk the entire endeavour in pursuit of their chimerical free trade fantasy. All of these things were preventable if only the Tories had shown some degree of backbone in government rather than apologising for their conservatism and making concession after concession to the Left.
In the words of Cicero, non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est – disgrace lies not in imperfect knowledge but in foolish and obstinate continuance in a state of imperfect knowledge.
Theresa May and the Tories had another brush with political death today. They have been shown repeatedly what happens when you stand before the electorate apologising for your principles, watering down your policies and letting the opposition dictate the political agenda. The Conservative peril has nothing to do with coughing fits or stage invaders, but rather with the rotten product they are trying to sell.
And if this latest calamity fails to shock the Tories out of their obstinate state of deliberately imperfect knowledge then I fear they will only learn their lesson via another long stint on the Opposition benches.
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