Can The Conservative Party Change Course While Staying In Power?

Margaret Thatcher election - 10 Downing Street - 1979

If the Conservative Party has a saviour-in-waiting, they are doing a great job of staying hidden from view

Blogger Effie Deans has some good thoughts here on how to revitalise the Conservative Party and give it the kind of purpose and sense of mission that might actually inspire people to vote Tory out of enthusiasm rather than fear of the alternative.

I don’t agree with every last letter of what she says, but we should all be able to stand behind the conclusion:

What we don’t need is someone who thinks the task is to limit the damage from Brexit. We need someone who realises that leaving the EU is a turning point that can improve life in Britain. We therefore above all else need a Brexiteer to lead the Conservative Party. We need someone who actually believes in free markets, lower taxes and smaller government rather than someone who thinks that price controls are a sensible idea because Ed Miliband gained a few percentage points when he suggested them. Don’t let’s try to steal Labour ideas, let’s come up with new Conservative ideas.

We don’t need a new leader yet, but start preparing for the time when we will need one. Find the brightest minds in the Conservative Party, give them the task of coming up with the new ideas that will break us free from the cosy establishment consensus. These must actually address the genuine worries that ordinary British people have about our country. Let no idea be forbidden. But above all else make sure we develop Conservative ideas for a new Conservative Party. When that is done find the best communicator, perhaps someone we’ve never heard of, to present these ideas. Then believing in what we stand for,  with ideas that we believe to be true and important let us take on Labour and win. That just might just give us a new turning point.

This chimes with everything I have been writing about the Conservative Party since 2013. Appeasement of the Left has gotten us absolutely nowhere. By cowering in the face of leftist moralising and making concession after concession to statist thinking, all that David Cameron and Theresa May have succeeded in doing is expanding the Overton Window of British politics further to the left.

The one area where I potentially disagree with Deans is that she believes that a conservative course correction is possible while the Tories are still in government, while I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about the prospect. Mid-term course corrections are hard enough to pull off at the best of times. Doing so in the midst of Brexit (and remember, Brexit is a process, not an event, even if we do formally leave the EU on schedule) and with no standout candidates is inviting failure.

And that’s why a fresh face for conservatism is so important, which Deans also acknowledges, to her credit:

When considering who should be the next Conservative leader it is crucial to think about ideas rather than people. Few people had heard of Tony Blair much before he was elected leader, the same was the case for David Cameron. What matters is not so much the person as what the person believes.

The major problem that the Conservative Party has faced since the election of David Cameron is that it has not had a leader who really believes in anything. Cameron was concerned mostly in how to get the Conservatives into power. He therefore did all he could to occupy the centre ground. He wanted in essence to become Tony Blair. The difference between these two is essentially trivial. Both are in reality social democrats. They believe in capitalism, but they think that its purpose is essentially to fund state spending. Neither views the goal of government is to become smaller and neither wish to lower the amount that the state spends.

Theresa May takes a similar view. Worse still despite the occasional stern face she completely lacks conviction. She just wants to manage Britain as well as possible while spending as much as possible on nice things. She didn’t even really have an opinion on the EU. She campaigned half-heartedly for Remain and then became a Brexiteer. It is because she doesn’t really believe in Conservatism that she comes up with mush and incoherence and thinks the solution to all problems is to drift to the Left and end up in the centre ground.

Yes, a thousand times yes. Nobody currently touted as a plausible immediate successor to Theresa May sets the heart racing with excitement or optimism for the future. Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson & co all suffer from exactly the same lack of conviction as Theresa May and David Cameron. Boris Johnson has slightly more charisma than the others (though this is more than outweighed by his other flaws), but none of them have shown any ability to make a clear, bold and positive case for conservatism. Moreover, they are all equally implicated in the unambitious centrism of the present government.

New blood is absolutely required, whether that is from the backbenches or junior ministerial ranks (Priti Patel? Kwasi Kwarteng? James Cleverly? Tom Tugendhat?) or form somebody not yet even in the parliamentary party. The latter is likely possible only if the Tories find themselves in opposition, though – a neophyte as Leader of the Opposition is just about tolerable; an inexperienced prime minister in challenging times is an immediate non-starter.

Despite the bitter complaining of the centrists, there is in fact nothing wrong with the entirely human desire for politicians and leaders to stand for more than the technocratic, managed decline. The challenge for the Conservative Party is to find a new message – and a messenger – to resonate with people who yearn to be inspired and called to a higher purpose than claiming entitlements form the government. And that messenger aspire to be something more than a dreary administrator of austerity, a British Comptroller of Public services.

Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s transformative premiership (cited approvingly by Effie Deans), however, an new incoming Conservative prime minister will have had no time to develop a new philosophy of government away from the heat of battle before assuming office. They will be plunged straight into the thick of things, and almost inevitably become a reactive rather than proactive leader through no fault of their own.

Margaret Thatcher had four years as Leader of the Opposition to think about her approach to government, and eventually entered Downing Street with a blueprint for national renewal in the form of the famous Stepping Stones report. Unless somebody has been doing some equally radical thinking away from the spotlight in our present decade, it is hard to see a new conservative leader coming to power with anything like as transformative an agenda ready to go – particularly as the challenges we face today, while very different to those of 1979, are every bit as serious.

Can this ideological and national renewal be attempted while the Tories are still in government, without giving Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party at least a brief (and potentially disastrous) spell in power? I fervently hope so.

But for the life of me, I don’t see how.

 

Theresa May

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Chasing Liberty

David Green, author of the upcoming “Inclusive Capitalism: He we can make independence work for everyone“, has a good piece in the Spectator about the extent to which the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the goal of maximising liberty. Bonus points to Green for quoting Michael Oakeshott, with whose work I gained a very passing familiarity and appreciation thanks to reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog back in the day.

Green writes:

There is also much to be learnt from the great philosopher of freedom, Michael Oakeshott, who tried to put his finger on the fundamental truths that are worthy of defence. Our freedom, he said, rests on mutually supporting liberties none of which stands alone:

‘It springs neither from the separation of church and state, nor from the rule of law, nor from private property, nor from parliamentary government, nor from the writ of habeas corpus, nor from the independence of the judiciary … but from what each signifies and represents, namely the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power.’

In short, he says, we consider ourselves to be free because: ‘no one in our society is allowed unlimited power – no leader, faction, party or “class”, no majority, no government, church, corporation, trade or professional association or trade union.’

Precisely. Yet tell anyone today that there are no “overwhelming concentrations of power” in our society and they will laugh in your face, quite rightly. At least in the 1970s the enormous power of the trades union (bad though it was) balanced out the power of the state and ensured that there were at least two competing interest groups. Now there is no such balance. The unions were de-fanged, which was right and necessary. But the decline of religion, waning influence of the church and the gradual capture of arts, culture and academia by metro-leftist ideas mean there has been no real opposition to prevailing policies inside or outside Parliament.

Today, recent anti-establishment backlashes including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – while dissimilar in every other way – are united by the popular belief that recent government policy had served the interests of only one interest group, the university-educated metropolitan elite, with no countervailing force able to successfully represent other interests. Certainly the Labour Party gave up any pretence of supporting or representing their working class constituents well over a decade ago.

Green goes on to argue that one reason the pro-liberty wing of the Tory party have lost so much ground to the inept clan of statists and authoritarians like Theresa May is that their definition of liberty has become too narrow, and their view of how to achieve it too simplistic.

It is not enough to argue that capitalism is great and to shout hysterical warnings about Venezuela and North Korea in the expectation that this will convince an increasingly sceptical population to embrace a status quo which is evidently failing so many of them. And the more one lays into Jeremy Corbyn and his merry band of socialists without revising and promoting one’s own definition of freedom, the more one appears to be an apologist for the crony corporatism that the Left now falsely claim represents the entirety of capitalism.

Money quote:

But apologists for capitalism in its current form are undermining what is mutually beneficial about a market economy. If we want to continue adding to our prosperity we must accept that it depends on constant adaptation to fluctuating demand for goods and services through the system of voluntary exchange at freely adjusting prices. We must enjoy the personal freedom to react to incessant alteration of the conditions affecting the occupations available to us and the products we are able to buy. The mistake of free-market fundamentalists is to assume that this freedom to adapt implies minimal government. But freedom does not depend on the absence of government. We must learn to choose between government actions that are compatible with a free economy and those that are not. Compatible actions included contract law, measures to prevent the abuse of private power through cartels and monopolies, and laws regulating corporations, including limited liability.

And this is just one of many things that this year’s Conservative Party Conference and Theresa May’s meltdown of a speech failed to accomplish. The prime minister made a half-hearted attempt to acknowledge the crisis of faith in capitalism in her speech, but when she later called out the dysfunctional energy market, her solution of national price caps was straight from the leftist, Ed Miliband playbook. The remedy proposed did not seek to enhance the liberty of either the producer or consumer – perhaps by finding ways to promote competition, break cartels, lower barriers to entry or increase transparency and information for consumers – but merely sought to impose the imposition of a state-mandated settlement on both parties.

Like the entirety of the Left, today’s Conservative Party seeks to regulate outcomes rather than provide a level playing field and equal opportunities. We see exactly this explicitly stated in Theresa May’s audit of racial disparities, which blindly looks for inequities of outcome and attributes them to racism rather than looking at underlying demographic, social or systemic issues.

So fearful has the Right become of the Left, so desperate are they to shed their image of being the “nasty party”, so totally have they absorbed the Left’s narrative about 21st century Britain being some terribly racist dystopia that policy is now made according to the headlines the Tories hope to generate rather than the results they want to see. No wonder they also lack the courage to stand up to leftist smearing of capitalism and make the positive case for free markets.

David Green is quite right to remind us that promoting maximum freedom does not mean a complete government withdrawal from regulation and oversight. But Theresa May’s government (as with David Cameron’s before) goes too far, abusing this principle by trying to regulate both inputs and outcomes, and prioritising the latter over any commitment to defending liberty.

 

Theresa May - Building a country that works for everyone

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Claudius Goes To Manchester

Theresa May conservative party conference speech - building a country that works for everyone - set malfunction - 2

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?

More:

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.

 

The wording on a slogan is changed after letters fell away from the backdrop immediately after Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May concluded her address to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester

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Granting G4S And Serco The Power To Arrest Is Tory Madness

G4S HMP Oakwood

Granting private security firms the power to arrest people shows that this grasping, constitutionally illiterate Tory government does not understand what the state should and should not be outsourcing

The next step in the Tory Party’s slow suicide and abnegation of any remaining conservative principle: a leaked proposal to grant private security companies the power to arrest people, granting their employees the full suite of powers currently held by Civilian Enforcement Officers.

The Daily Mail reports on the latest thoughtless privatisation scheme to be cooked up by the government:

The proposals would allow, for the first time, staff from companies such as G4S to arrest members of the public for failing to pay fines imposed by the courts.

The plans would see HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) privatising part of its compliance and enforcement operations in a deal worth £290million.

The measures were slipped out as a tender by the Ministry of Justice during the summer.

Under the proposals, the Government could transfer all services carried out by Civilian Enforcement Officers, who are civil servants employed by HMCTS, to the private sector.

This would include the arrest and detention of individuals who fail to pay off their debts and haul[ing] them to court.

The courts can already allow authorised agencies, including private firms, to send bailiffs to a person’s home to seize possessions to encourage them to pay debts.

But this would potentially be a sweeping expansion of the powers – covering so-called warrants of arrest, which are issued by JPs to compel an individual to attend court.

A separate justice-related proposal bubbled from the Left this week, published in the Daily Mirror, demanding the unification and centralisation all of the police forces in England, because that same creepy exercise in big government authoritarianism worked such wonders in Scotland under the SNP. But now the Tories have gone one better.

First re-opening the divisive fox hunting debate for no good reason on the eve of a general election, and now this. It’s like the Tories are actually trying to self-destruct by living up to every hysterical stereotype about conservatives ever levelled by the Left.

This is a Tory party that claims to be so concerned about fiscal responsibility that it is willing to outsource the arrest and detention of British citizens to poorly managed private companies with appalling records and an ability to screw up and commit fraud even under close oversight, all to save a paltry few million pounds, while shamefully failing to tackle the real drivers of the deficit such as welfare, healthcare and pensions.

Depriving somebody of their liberty – even only briefly, as a means to compel their attendance at court – is one of the most sacred and serious powers that we the people invest in the state. Arresting or imprisoning a citizen, depriving them of their liberty or (in extremis) compelling their draft into the armed forces are powers that could and should never be vested in private hands, outside direct control of local or national government which is directly accountable to the people. No exceptions, no excuses. This is the red line.

And it is a red line which David Lidington and the Ministry of Justice have just nonchalantly stepped on, whistling, hands in pockets, as though the Tories did not already have grave reputational issues and stand on the brink of giving power to hard Left Corbynite socialism.

The arrogance and incompetence that would motivate the Tories to even whisper this proposal are quite simply off the charts. It’s as though Theresa May’s government is effectively shouting to its critics “Fascist? Call us fascist, will ye? I’ll give ye some real fascism to worry about!”

If this proposal goes ahead, the Tory party and I are through. Not an extension of the current temporary breakup, but a permanent schism. I will work to get it cast from power and thrown into the electoral wilderness forever, and agitate for a new right-wing party take its place, one which is not stuffed full of grasping proto-fascists with pound signs in their eyes, one actually worthy of bearing the name “conservative”.

 

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The Big Tent Ideas Festival

Stepping Stones Report - Goals and Risks - Brexit - EU Referendum

Searching for the missing conservative soul in a Berkshire field

Various people have been raving about an event which took place last week in Twyford, Berkshire, where Conservative MP George Freeman set up a few yurts in a field and held an impromptu late-summer symposium on how to renew British conservatism.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is a laudable ongoing effort to refresh and reset British conservatism while the Tory party is still in government, as opposed to waiting until they languish in opposition. This is easier said than done – as anybody can plainly see, Theresa May’s listless and fratricidal government has run out of what little ideological steam it inherited from David Cameron’s equally muddled tenure. Now they sit, idling in neutral, on the cusp of making an almighty mess of Brexit and being kicked out of office without a single lasting achievement to their name.

Mark Wallace of Conservative Home was in attendance, and describes the extent of the challenge:

The Right’s challenge is that time in government saps the energy, and increases the centralisation, of any movement. The never-ending trials of running the country drag in, and burn through, many of the policies and people. Indeed, we produce our best ideas and develop our greatest new talents when the variety of interests that exist across the centre right movement have room to breathe and freedom to operate. Often that happens in Opposition – the Party’s apparatus, authority and powers of patronage are more limited, and there’s a clear objective to pursue.

That’s as true for Labour as it is for the Conservatives – consider the contrast in energy between the respective camps of Major and Blair, or Brown and Cameron. The task for our movement today is to break that cycle: to renew and innovate now, while the Conservative Party is still in power. To do so requires us to recapture that freedom and urgency enjoyed in the years between 2004 and 2010, which saw such fertile growth of new thinking and campaigning organisations, the development of new outlets to communicate our ideas (not least ConservativeHome), the development of a raft of strong, new policies and the emergence of a generation of talented campaigners, thinkers and communicators.

The Big Tent is currently focusing on three main strands of renewal: Social Renewal, Political Renewal and Economic Renewal. Fair enough – these designations seem to make sense. And some of the questions being debated across all three areas resonate very strongly with topics that this blog cares deeply about, namely:

  • What are the causes of the deepening crisis of disconnection between government and the citizens it is supposed to serve?
  • How do we define a meaningful notion of citizenship with reciprocal responsibilities with the state, which works for us all?
  • How do we better support our third sector and encourage volunteering?
  • How do we reform our benefits system?
  • How do we build lifelong learning, from antenatal, through the early years, school and adulthood, and incorporating resilience, emotional and social learning, as well as key skills? How do we get parents and communities to support this in the poorest areas?
  • Is the rise of extremism – to left and right – a function of failure in the mainstream centre or simple liberation of the radical fringes?
  • Given the public’s rejection of mass low wage migration, how can we achieve the transformational skills and training revolution of the UK workforce which has defied policymakers for 150 years?

And particularly:

  • How do we embed lifelong learning to increase workforce resilience for the coming tech change tsunami so we do not make the same terrible mistakes as happened in 1980s mining areas (and from which we have still not recovered)?

Remarkably, though, the housing crisis was not called out as a separate issue for discussion, even though it is the pre-eminent challenge driving a wedge between the Tory party and otherwise potentially sympathetic voters. This is a very curious feat of omission, to the extent one wonders whether it can have been accidental. As with Conservative policy since 2010 there seems to be a deliberate refusal to acknowledge the need to do anything which might annoy the current rural, home-owning, NIMBYish Tory base by threatening the continual upward trajectory in the value of their houses.

This is short-sighted, and needs to be addressed urgently. Housing should be one of the absolute key issues being debated by the Big Tent, not something whispered about on the margins or tangentially as part of another discussion. In the 2017 general election, the Tories did not win a majority of any demographic until the average age ticked over fifty. Fifty! Conservatives no longer merely have a problem with youth voters, though we are certainly more radioactive than ever among this crowd. We are now almost equally unpopular among young professionals and people in early middle age.

At least the Tories of Margaret Thatcher’s day had some slick city Yuppies with stripy shirts and enormous cellphones in their corner. I have lived and worked in a professional capacity in London for a decade now, and can count the number of fellow “out of the closet” conservatives in my social circle on two hands, with fingers to spare. That CCHQ does not presently view this deficit among young, educated voters as an existential crisis speaks volumes about their complacency and sheer incompetence.

This is a demographic time bomb waiting to explode in the Conservative Party’s face. The metaphorical conveyor belt carrying young idealists from left-wingery to conservatism as they age cannot be taken for granted – it has only worked in recent decades because as people get older, government policy has allowed them to acquire a greater stake in society, primarily through home and equity ownership. People do not just magically start voting Conservative when they get their first grey hair, and people who have been consistently screwed over by selfish, short-termist policies which pander to the Tory base at the expense of the wider national interest will develop a lasting antipathy to the Conservative Party and to conservatism in general.

Dodging the housing issue is not an option. It must be tackled head-on, and (unlike Theresa May’s “dementia tax” debacle) it must be done with care and sensitivity. So long as Jeremy Corbyn or somebody like him leads the Labour Party, the Tories will have a bit of political cover to do something radical on housing – even if it enrages a section of their base, few of these people will defect to a Labour Party eager to tax them to death. Failing to act before Labour falls back into centrist hands means that the Conservatives’ scope for manoeuvre will be greatly reduced.

Additionally, while the tripartite focus on social issues is laudable at first glance, this area should not be allowed to dominate the discussion as it dominated much of Cameronism and now Theresa May and Nick Timothy’s very statist, paternalistic brand of conservatism.

Yet Toby Guise at The American Conservative reports that the “society” tent was by far the most popular:

The mainly young delegates heard speakers in tents marked “politics,” “economics,” and “society.” Tellingly, the last of these was the largest—with a program that opened with pitches from the founders of two significant charities focused on social exclusion. This theme reflected the fact that accusations of a compassion-deficit are at the heart of Labour’s attack on the Conservatives.

This reflects the current priorities and incentives for success in conservative Westminster politics. Being seen as a beardy Nick Timothy acolyte seeking to extend government influence into every home and mind is viewed as trendy and forward-thinking, while sitting at a desk thinking about how to encourage entrepreneurship and decrease reliance on the state is seen as excessively “ideological”.

It may sound harsh, but conservative renewal will not come about by focusing relentlessly on social issues, as though the state can and should provide an answer to every single social ill in Britain. It is tempting to believe that government must fill this expansive role these days, especially since the Tories are pounded day after day by Labour’s wobbly-lipped moralisers about how they are supposedly so callous and unfeeling. It is only natural in these circumstances to want to begin offering scattergun policy prescriptions to address every last issue which happens to excite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Indeed, the phrase “compassionate conservatism” only plays into the Left’s hands by wrongly conceding that ordinary vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel and uncompassionate, and that we can only redeem ourselves by accepting statist, left-wing talking points and policies. This is a dangerous nonsense.

People say that they are interested in social justice and equality, particularly at dinner parties, when talking to pollsters or otherwise needing to make themselves look good. But when they are in the privacy of the voting booth they actually care about the economy and the general direction of the country. That means that to make a measurable difference in the fortunes of the Conservative Party, the Big Tent should focus primarily on the Economic and Political renewal branches, trusting that improving the overall health of the nation and spurring the reinvigoration of civil society will improve conditions for all. Rather than more government intervention, we need to create the conditions for a rapid growth of charitable (real charities, not 90% government-funded money laundering outfits) and private solutions to entrenched social problems rather than the clunky, failed attempts at social engineering preferred by New Labour and their successor Tory governments.

The good news is that there is precedent for all of this. In 1977, the “Stepping Stones” report was published by the late John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss, two businessmen (at IBM and Unilever respectively) who took it upon themselves to diagnose the “British disease” which threatened to doom us to long-term national decline, and propose radical solutions. Crucially, the treatment prescribed by Stepping Stones was not a mixed basket of scattergun solutions to individual problems, but rather a coherent package of reforms which sought to simultaneously treat all of the symptoms of the British disease while also identifying and destroying the root cause (the grip of statist socialism and the unions).

The Britain of the 1970s, wallowing deep in the failing post-war consensus, can hardly be described as being highly receptive to radical right-wing thinking at the time Stepping Stones was published. But that didn’t matter – Hoskyns and Strauss managed to get the ear of aides to Margaret Thatcher back when she was still Leader of the Opposition, and when she walked into Downing Street in 1979 she did so with Stepping Stones in her handbag and on her mind. Then, as now, the important thing to begin with was not that the country understands the entire plan or knows that the Tories view the current status quo as a disease to be cured, but just that the government seems to have energy and purpose again. The plan will reveal itself in good time, just as Stepping Stones did.

That doesn’t mean that the Tories can avoid coming up with a better narrative than “Strong and Stable” or “Brexit means Brexit”. These were appalling battle cries with which to fight the 2017 general election, and deserved to be mercilessly picked apart and ridiculed by the media and a newly-confident Labour Party. A new narrative is certainly needed, but this must be both authentically conservative and it must avoid clashing with policies that the government intends to adopt. For instance, it is no good for the Tories to publicly wring their hands about such-and-such social issue when they have little intention of directly tackling it through the levers of government. That’s why I am hesitant to support the Big Tent’s heavy focus on social renewal – it opens up endless opportunities for the sanctimonious parties of the Left to attack us for weasel words or hypocrisy, while at the very best all we can hope to do is fight the socialists to a draw.

But of course, back in 1977-79 all of this ideological and rhetorical renewal was done from the relative comfort and obscurity of opposition. Now, an intellectually exhausted Tory Party must effectively perform the same feat while in government and seeing their worldview held accountable for every little thing that goes wrong up and down the land. This is a much harder task, bordering on the impossible.

Yet that is exactly what we need. We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, recognising that the challenges we face today – globalisation, automation, mass migration, Islamist terror and Brexit – are very different to those faced by the incoming Thatcher government in 1979, but that these contemporary problems must be tackled with exactly the same spirit and according to the same conservative values.

Hopefully the Big Tent can play an important role in this process. If nothing else, it is hugely encouraging to see somebody, anybody else finally acknowledge that the Conservative Party does actually need to renew itself and come up with a compelling conservative vision for Britain rather than arrogantly waiting for Jeremy Corbyn to fail. This blog has been something of a voice in the wilderness on this topic since mid way through the coalition government – hammering home the point here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, herehere and here – but it is good to be belatedly joined by a chorus of establishment journalists and conservative commentators who have finally woken up to the fact that the Tories need an explicitly ideological answer to Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s resurgent socialism.

Toby Guise is broadly hopeful that the Big Tent has potential:

Disheartened conservatives should remember that cultural Marxism was born out of weakness not strength—specifically, the failure of Western proletariats to obey Marxist doctrine by revolting during World War One. Since the fall of Communism, the strategy has been pursued with ever-greater vigour as a displacement activity from discussing discredited economic ideas. When British Labour politicians are put on the spot about policy, they often flounder spectacularly. Yet the overall direction of travel in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech today at the Labour national convention was clear: towards a Venezuelan-style command economy based on nationalization and authoritarianism. Equipped with this tried-and-failed policy program, it’s no surprise that the party machine diverts as much attention away from economics and onto kulturkampf. By refusing to engage this strategy—and instead directing attention firmly onto clear-minded political solutions that make markets work for all—the Big Tent Ideas Festival is precisely the right type of response.

Mark Wallace was also pleasantly surprised:

I’m pretty sure I saw some Hunter wellies, and some conversations did occasionally threaten to induce a minor wince. But, if we’re honest, there was probably less of each of those phenomena to be seen in the beautiful Berkshire sun than there will be in Manchester next week.

Crucially, they did not outweigh the value of the event, which grew on me as the day went on. Here were Conservatives, entrepreneurs, inventors, charity founders, policy experts, young people, older people and a mix of journalists and politicians talking about ideas for a whole day. That shouldn’t be unusual, but it is. The election, and the problems suffered by the Conservative Party among certain key demographics, was the inevitable backdrop to the discussion, but the Big Tent encouraged people to exchange views openly, to hear experiences alien to their own, and to consider how their principles might be applied to real world issues.

With about 220 people in attendance, it wasn’t a lobbying-fest, or a jockeying arena for glad-handing and card-swapping. It felt more like what I’d imagine to be Steve Hilton’s ideal wedding reception (except with more shoes): tents and bunting, a good buffet, and a bar of sustainably-produced beverages, along with speeches about the environment, prison reform and the impact of technology on democratic culture.

This wasn’t a representative sample of the Conservative Party, still less of the electorate, either socially or ideologically, but I found it refreshing to see people applying their minds and experiences to pressing problems.

I have also now volunteered my time and effort to the cause. And in a way, I will regard whether my offer of help is taken up as a sign of whether the Big Tent has the potential to be a useful vehicle for conservative renewal. Not because I am so amazing, talented and inspired that I can single-handedly save British conservatism, but because if they start listening to independent bloggers and other voices (besides the usual MPs, journalists, Westminster types, charity representatives and community organisers) then it will be a clear sign that British conservatism is willing to entertain ideas from outside the bubble. That having hit intellectual rock bottom they are finally willing to take a dispassionate look at their failings and make some vital changes.

Stepping Stones, which literally formed the blueprint for saving Britain from 1970s-style national decline, was not borne of a cosy conversation between people inside the Westminster political elite. It took outsiders – from the world of business, in this instance – to hold a mirror up to the country and to the establishment, showing them that the old path was unsustainable and that new ideas, previously dismissed as unworkable or politically unpalatable, were required to get Britain back on track.

We need a new Stepping Stones report for the Britain of 2017, and a Conservative Party with the ambition, courage and clarity of thinking to get on and carry out its recommendations, effectively executing a dramatic mid-term course change rather than waiting fearfully for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to cast them back into opposition.

God speed to the Big Tent and the work they are doing; Lord knows that it is desperately needed.

 

Stepping Stones Report - Wiring Diagram

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