Do we need a new party? │ Ben Khamis
Just yesterday, I received an email informing me that my Conservative membership was due to be renewed soon, but for the first time since I joined, I doubted whether I would.
For two years, I consistently made the case that it would be wholly disadvantageous to the Tories and Britain to remove Theresa May as Prime Minister despite her beige political outlook because she was clearly committed to tackling Brexit as best she could – a task for which she deserves praise – but now that the clouds of Brexit are clearing, she must up her political game for Britain, not Europe, or risk losing decades worth of progress to Corbyn’s dangerous powers, if she does not, then I for one can see no reason why she should not resign in favour of more dynamic members of her party. The issue facing the Tories is that no one is entirely sure what they stand for. If Theresa May went head-on-head with Jeremy Corbyn in a debate, she would destroy his emotional moral arguments with hard facts and outline his fraudulent nature to the public, but she won’t, and to most Conservatives, who wish to actively take an ideological stand for their party, that is unacceptable.
Philip Hammond unwittingly demonstrated the problem in his Mansion House speech. He mocked Theresa May for not mentioning the economy and rightly said the lowest-paid have done better than in any other major economy. But he credited the minimum wage, a Labour policy now aped by the Tories. There was no link made with tax cuts for low-paid workers, which have encouraged so many to move from welfare to work. And no mention of the corporation tax cut, which sent revenues surging and left employers better able to hire those workers. This isn’t a failure of communication, it’s a basic lack of belief. Tories used to be able to explain that tax cuts bring prosperity but also — crucially — were able to explain the point of prosperity. It brings a stronger, fairer, more cohesive society: that’s why Conservatives want it. The aim is to reduce poverty, augment life chances, foster creativity and confront social evils. When David Cameron offered tax relief to the low-paid, the results were extraordinary; he managed things so the incomes of the lowest-paid rose faster than anyone’s. But this is a success that dares not speak its name.
As leader of a coalition, Cameron didn’t talk much about conservatism — instead, the party let itself be defined by its enemies as blundering, selfish, cold-hearted and greedy. But the coalition era did mean that proper conservative ideas were tolerated in isolated areas, mainly welfare and education. The results? Unemployment plunged, poverty fell, thousands of secondary schools opted to become independent of government. The level of attainment in what was once Hackney Downs, the worst school in Britain, now surpasses that of most private schools. But Cameron shied away from discussing, let alone explaining, such successes. When he won his majority in 2015 he decided to copy Labour party ideas (the highest minimum wage in Europe, etc) rather than deploy more conservatism. It was a remarkable moment: the Tories had an unexpected opportunity to woo Labour voters, persuading them that conservatism could deliver the progressive goals that Labour never managed. But instead they copied the very agenda they defeated.
In wrongly thinking that old debates had been settled, the party of Wilberforce, Churchill and Thatcher ended up serving clichés and platitudes to a country that faces serious issues and wanted a discussion. Crying Brexit was no substitute for that discussion. In the 1945 general election, Churchill found out that defeating Hitler was not enough: people wanted to know what came next, and Labour had the more interesting answer. The Tories now struggle to describe what comes after Brexit, what benefits might lie ahead for a country able to set its own trade deals, or what wider goals are in sight.
The social justice agenda that the Tories carved out under Cameron is now being abandoned — to Labour’s astonishment and delight. The Grenfell Tower disaster showed the results. The Conservatives forgot that they are supposed to be on the side of the victims of bad, negligent government. It’s nonsense to blame austerity if flammable cladding was fitted to a 24-storey tower block: this was bureaucratic failure, with lethal results. Three years ago, Michael Gove said that Tories should consider themselves ‘warriors for the dispossessed’. His suggestion was ignored and Corbyn’s message is clear: Labour are the warriors now.
So, if the Conservatives cannot redefine what they stand for, then do we need a new party to stand behind? Of course, there is already a “Liberal” party, but we need a truly Liberal party, one that stands for free speech, libertarian economics, pro-British sentiment (perhaps even nationalism), and isn’t afraid to take the fight to Labour. There isn’t much time. The momentum is with Jeremy Corbyn, who has proven he can out-campaign a decaying Tory apparatus. The surging Corbynites know what they believe in. If the Conservatives can’t say the same, they’ll lose power completely.