Conservative Renewal: A Glimmer Of Light In The Darkness At CPS

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Faint signs of optimism for the future of British conservatism, and an opportunity to pitch Stepping Stones 2022

The other day, after hitting “publish” on another one of my increasingly repetitive blog posts pressing the case for positive renewal within the British conservative movement, a friend had this to say about me:

Billions of years from now, when the last proton decays and the wailing of AC Grayling can no longer be heard, the final sound in the Universe will be Sam saying he can still save the Tories.

A fair point, amusingly made. Quite possibly through sheer ignorance of political machinations combined with my lonely position on the outer, outer, outer periphery of Westminster life, I am imbued with a natural optimism which tells me that however far the Conservative Party may stray from the path of visionary, principled government, there is always a way back.

An annoying voice in the back of my head keeps insisting that just as with the “twitch upon the thread” in Brideshead Revisited, the Conservative Party can wander to the edge of the world under the non-leadership of Theresa May and yet still eventually be brought back to the faith – though I’m not delusional, and also accept the possibility that eventual outcome may be rather less optimistic:


Others in my circle have understandably given up hope and effectively adopted a “let it burn” stance with regard to the entire British political system, but to me this seems like an indulgence. I am about as idealistic as they come, but still I acknowledge that politicians must to a large extent operate within the ballpark of existing public opinion, even when that public opinion is the reason for our current strategic impasse on nearly every important decision.

I have attended a number of events on the subject of conservative renewal over the past couple of years, and read and written countless words on the subject, but nearly every event thus far has left me rather underwhelmed. Either the basic optics were all wrong (like inviting Home Secretary Amber Rudd of all people to talk about encouraging visionary new policies) or the words were right but lacked any sense of plausibility.

And perhaps it is precisely because the most recent event I attended – Wednesday evening’s Centre for Policy Studies conversation with Chris Skidmore MP on the topic of Conservative renewal in government – did not promise the moon on a stick or suggest easy answers that I ended up coming away feeling more buoyed and encouraged by what I witnessed than has been the case in over six years.

Part of the reason was undoubtedly due to having attended the event with Chloe Schendel-Wilson, an optimistic young voice within British conservatism, something of a rising star and about as welcomely different from the stereotypical Young Conservative activist as one can imagine. Prior to the CPS event we had the opportunity to talk about what it might actually take to bring about meaningful conservative outreach to younger voters who have no time for Corbynism but currently see nothing positive in the Conservative Party, which has given me much food for thought.

But Chris Skidmore himself, in his role as vice chairman for policy, also talked a lot of sense, beginning with his acknowledgement that “there is a battle for the soul of the country, not only the size and shape of the state but also the future of markets”. Skidmore spoke about a return to “an age of extremes”, but to my mind there is presently just one extreme in British politics – that offered by Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour Party captured more than ever by the toxic Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. In the face of this danger, the Tories by contrast are not merely not extreme but positively wishy-washy, scampering to the Left on everything from market regulation, big government paternalism and disregard for the national defence. Would that the Tories actually offered a meaningful counterweight to Corbynism rather than the thirteen shades of beige painted by Theresa May.

Not everything that was discussed was on point. Much time was given by Chris Skidmore to talking about the need to create and promote “vertical narratives”, the kind of jargon I thought I had escaped when I left management consulting, which apparently involve telling marvellous and compelling tales about how children born in 2010 have flourished growing up under Conservative rule. I and several audience members thought that this was a bit of a stretch, that making the story about What Government Has/Can Do For Us will only draw us into an unwinnable war of promises with Labour, but perhaps there is something we’re missing.

Other points were much more welcome to hear, particularly when Chris Skidmore chastised the party for having failed to make any mention of the deficit in the 2017 manifesto, a striking feat of amnesia given the previous emphasis by David Cameron and George Osborne  (in rhetoric if not in deed). But best of all was Skidmore’s mention of the need for a timetable – a clear set of goals and ambitions for what the Conservative Party wants to achieve in government in 1, 5 and 10 years, something more tangible than clinging to power and surviving the daily news cycle.

Throughout the evening a lot of the right things were said – from the need for a strategic direction flowing down to granular policy goals on the one hand, to the need for “signpost moments” on the other – legislative or public relations events such as Iain Duncan Smith’s speech at the Easterhouse housing estate in Glasgow. This blog has always maintained that an “all of the above” solution to the current Tory malaise is required, that there is no single policy or personnel change which alone can staunch the bleeding (though of course signpost moments are pointless until there is a clear direction for them to point towards).

But as always, the proof is in the pudding – deeds, not words. And despite more of the right things being said at this CPS event than at previous gatherings on the future of conservatism, the same niggling doubts remained. My misgivings about the Centre for Policy Studies’ New Generation project is that it is so MP-centric.

The CPS’s greatest victories, particularly looking back to the 1980s, occurred because the think tank sought ideas from outside the Westminster political bubble and fed them into Downing Street rather than relying on those within the bubble and inevitably wedded to certain ways of doing things to then come up with disruptively innovative new policies. Yet at one point Chris Skidmore said, with specific reference to the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs “we’re here now, we have something to say”. Fantastic. Are the rest of us allowed to make some suggestions at any point, or is this to be an entirely Westminster-centric talking shop? And if the latter, why would we expect the results to be any less dismal than the last few years of Tory policymaking?

And so when it came time for Q&As, I seized the floor to repeat my pitch for a new Stepping Stones report to identify and analyse the challenges and opportunities facing Britain as we approach the 2020s, understand how those issues are interlinked, chart a path for national recovery and then generate a coherent suite of mutually-supporting, politically feasible policies to deliver on that strategy. I emphasised the point that attempting to individually tackle the various “crises” afflicting Britain without understanding how they are linked together and solving them together rather than in silos.

I further emphasised that generating policy to tackle symptoms rather than root causes is time and effort thrown away, that Britain has entered an unstable new period of political discontinuity not seen since the late 1970s when the prevailing political consensus and its associated policy solutions no longer work nor command majority public support, and warned that the future belongs to the political party which acknowledges this fact and comes to the electorate with an entirely different pitch.

As should be evident to anyone with a brain and a pulse, Labour is currently streets ahead of the Tories in this regard, with the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn itself evidence that the Labour Party has rejected the previous centrist consensus in favour of something different (much as a bulk of the parliamentary party may grumble about it). Fortunately their new offering is not particularly compelling, and indeed is actively repulsive to many swing voters – but at least the faction currently leading the Labour Party is trying something new. At present, the Conservative Party under Theresa May can be easily portrayed as grey, worn-out guardians of a despised status quo – not a good foundation for future electoral success.

Will anything positive come out of all these meetings? Who knows. More and more, the right things are being said, and glaring failures and weaknesses finally acknowledged. But the epiphany is happening far too slowly, and as was pointed out during the event, any future strategic planning will be for nought if the Tories cannot rack up some positive accomplishments between now and the next general election. A few people approached me after the Q&A was over and expressed support for what I had said, which I take as an encouraging sign, but ultimately I don’t see any real Conservative renaissance taking place unless the party and its orbiting system of think tanks and advocacy groups cast off their insularity and start welcoming input from outside.

Seeking and accepting help from outside takes humility – the kind of humility often only borne out of prolonged, crushing failure. That’s what it took for the Tories to reconsider their slavish devotion to the failing post-war consensus policies of the 1970s, and that’s probably what it will take today.

The only question is how bad will things have to get before the conservative minds holed up in Parliament and Tufton Street recognise that they don’t have all the answers?

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Building A Britain Fit For The Future: Theresa May’s Dismal New Agenda

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Building a Britain fit for the future requires a detailed vision of the desired end state as well as a plausible policy roadmap to reach the promised land. But three months after coining their new slogan, all the Tories have are seven bland and unremarkable aspirations.

Last year, we learned that the Tories had come up with a shiny new slogan – “Building a Britain Fit for the Future”.

Despite my deep cynicism that anything useful could ever emerge from Theresa May’s intellectually moribund leadership team, I said at the time that the slogan had potential because it at least acknowledged that the current state of Britain is in fact unfit for the future – that we have entered a period of discontinuity where old policy solutions neither work nor command popular support, and that new, hitherto unimagined solutions would be required to overcome the challenges now facing our country.

Unfortunately, three months later and it appears that the slogan was no more than window dressing. Having done nothing to flesh out the statement until another rash of negative headlines and outbursts from concerned ministers and MPs last week forced her hand, Theresa May finally revealed the next layer beneath the slogan – a set of seven principles and objectives for government so bland, vague and forgettable that they may as well have been generated by a computer, printed out and put straight in the waste paper bin.

The Times reports:

An internal statement laying out Theresa May’s political strategy has been attacked by ministers as “pathetic” and “anaemic”.

The seven-point summary, called Building a Britain Fit for the Future, was prepared by senior Downing Street aides for ministers and backbenchers to head off accusations of political drift and timidity. For some, however, it has simply deepened concerns that the prime minister lacks a coherent plan to take on Labour.

The document summarises the government’s mission as ensuring the best Brexit deal, balanced government spending, more jobs, more homes and improving educational standards. The two final points are entitled “backing the innovators” and “tackling the injustices”. The environment is not included in the main bullet points but is said to “underpin” all of them.

[..] One of those shown the document — in a presentation by Gavin Barwell, Mrs May’s chief of staff, and Robbie Gibb, the director of communications — was dismissive. “This is just a list of anaemic bromides. It doesn’t amount to a political strategy or a call to arms. If this is supposed to inspire us I despair. It’s pathetic.” Another said: “It’s hardly going to get you all fired up.”

This government does not understand the meaning of ambition, beyond the leadership’s narrow, selfish desire to cling to power and prevent anyone else from having a go. But worse than being cynically without purpose, the government is also incompetent and lacking a functional political radar.

Even a government of chancers and fakers, having been warned numerous times that their lack of a bold and clearly defined positive vision for Britain was alienating voters, would have concocted a plausible fake programme for government by this point, if for no other reason than to keep the newspaper editors of its back. But Theresa May’s rudderless government can’t even fake having an agenda, beyond producing a list of seven wishy-washy bullet points probably cooked up at 3AM by an overworked SpAd:

  1. Getting the best Brexit deal, guaranteeing the greatest possible access to European markets, boosting free trade across the world and delivering control over our borders, laws and money.
  2. Taking a balanced approach to spending, getting debt falling but investing in key public services, like the NHS, and keeping taxes low.
  3. Helping businesses to create better, higher-paying jobs with a modern industrial strategy that invests in the skills, industries and infrastructure of the future.
  4. Building the homes our country needs, so everyone can afford a place to call their own, restoring the dream of home ownership and helping people on to housing ladder.
  5. Improving standards in our schools and colleges, so our young people have the skills they need to get on in life.
  6. Backing the innovators who deliver growth, jobs, lower prices and greater choice for consumers — while stepping in when businesses don’t play by the rules.
  7. Tackling the injustices that hold people back from achieving their true potential.

This would be a worryingly vague list of aspirations if it were presented by the official Opposition, but coming from a government and party which has been in power for the better part of a decade it is unforgivable.

This isn’t the product of a government with a burning vision for Britain – it is the work of a terrified office junior trying to convince an overbearing boss that he is keeping a handle on his workload when in reality it is spinning out of control. Looking at these scattergun solutions to mentally compartmentalised crises, there is no sense that any thought has been put into how the various issues – housing, infrastructure, jobs, education etc. – are interlinked with one another, particularly the crucial link between jobs and education. There is no sense that formulating government policy for the sole purpose of avoiding negative headlines might not be an optimal strategy.

Worse, a number of vital issues are left off this list altogether. At a time when Britain’s armed forces chiefs are making unprecedented public interventions warning that our national defence – already cut to the bone – cannot take another round of cuts or spending freezes, the issue doesn’t even make Theresa May’s Top Seven. And again, this isn’t about having a certain type of armed forces for the sake of it – it is about deciding what we stand for as a country and what kind of footprint we want to have on the world stage, and then working forward to the kind of defence capabilities we need to meet current and anticipated future threats.

And then there are those items such as housing, where the government outlines a bold intent only to underwhelm with the policies which follow the grandiose pledges. The £2bn for social housing pledged by Theresa May during her car crash of a party conference speech last year equates to just 5000 extra homes per year, a puny figure, almost worse than doing nothing at all. And even positive signs such as Housing Secretary Sajid Javid’s plan to encourage homeowners and developments to build upward rather than outward – absolutely the right thing to do – includes a massive sop to the Tory base of existing homeowners by leaving sufficient loopholes for councils and NIMBY protesters to thwart any such developments or at least tie them up in endless appeals.

But worst of all, there is no sense from looking at this wretched list of bullet points that these policies are remotely conservative, or flow from an authentically conservative vision for Britain’s future. There is nothing in this list which would not sound remotely abnormal coming from the mouth of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband or David Cameron. Even Jeremy Corbyn would feel comfortable reeling some of them off. And this is the real sign of Tory complacency – at a time when public dissatisfaction with and loss of faith in the frayed centrist consensus has never been greater, Theresa May and her acolytes are still stuck in a dated rhetorical world where bland platitudes about improving public services are all that is needed to win the hearts and minds of voters.

In her incompetence and desperation, Theresa May is trying to work backwards – coming up with a basket of reactive and ill-considered policies designed to placate various stakeholder groups who are causing her government political problems, and then working backwards from these disparate ideas to try to divine an overarching mission for her government. No successful, transformative government in history has succeeded by adopting that approach, and none ever will.

Both for reasons of policy effectiveness and political messaging, you need to start with the big picture. We all know what Labour’s big picture is under Jeremy Corbyn – “For The Many, Not The Few“. It is an explicit call for radical redistribution of wealth and for the full bearing of the state to be deployed in order to encourage equality of outcome. And from this mission statement flow a hundred policies, all in service of that aim, from plans to raise tax to the renationalisation of industry. These policies are alternately naive, coercive, authoritarian and just plain futile, but there are few politically engaged people in the country who could not briefly summarise what Jeremy Corbyn stands for and how he wants to achieve his vision.

Meanwhile, Theresa May offers nothing and remains the most boring enigma in British politics. She was elevated to the Tory leadership despite lacking any discernible vision for Britain besides her trademark authoritarianism, and twenty dismal months later not only are the public none the wiser, her own MPs and ministers lack any sense of real purpose or direction too. Any other Opposition would have wiped the floor with the Tories at this point and dispatched them for a richly deserved spell on the other benches, and right now the only question remaining is whether the Tories are so dismal precisely because they lack a stronger challenge.

This blog has already proposed an alternative approach – the writing and publication of a new Stepping Stones report based on the seminal 1977 report authored by John Hosykns and Norman Strauss during the last period of discontinuity to face this country. Stepping Stones summarised the various problems facing Britain together with their root causes and the ways in which they were interlinked, and then proposed a suite of cohesive, mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle those issues. It was more than a pathetic soundbite backed by a list of seven woolly aspirations – it was was the blueprint taken up and used by the 1979 Thatcher government to rescue Britain from seemingly irreversible national decline. And crucially, it relied on input from people outside the world of politics, people not beholden to existing institutions, centres of power or ways of thinking.

Who within the wider conservative movement will step up and provide the vision and leadership which this government so conspicuously lacks? Who will put this failed prime minister out of her misery, not simply to have her replaced with one of the various grey substitutes in the Cabinet but with someone whose charisma and leadership ability is remotely equal to the task at hand?

It took Theresa May three months to take a vague statement of purpose and flesh it out into a dismally unexciting list of seven banal, obvious and unambitious national aspirations, none of which her government appears remotely capable of delivering. Three whole months.

“Pathetic” is too kind a word.


UPDATE – 6 February 2018

If anybody who reads this article feels called to action and could contribute in any way to a potential Stepping Stones 2022 project, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at


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