The Tories need waking from their complacent slumber | Harrison Pitt
For many it is distressing even to imagine voting Conservative in a general election, but not all of us are fortunate enough to view politics with such clarity. I can personally testify that whenever election day comes around, the urge to support the Tories against one’s better judgement is always strong among small-c conservatives. Once the tabloids remind us that the Labour Party exists and has had the gall to field its own ghastly candidate for PM, the temptation becomes overpowering.
It is no great surprise, then, that the government is privately keen on an early election – apparently flirting with the idea of a vote in 2023, depending on how events unfold. The conventional wisdom is that the Conservatives’ confidence in another victory should be put down to the failures of a weak, intellectually bankrupt Labour Party. It is hard to be taken seriously by the nation (as one suspects Sir Keir Starmer wants to be) when you are leader of a party that has engaged in so much as a debate, let alone a civil war, over the definition of ‘woman’. Is it any wonder the Prime Minister is licking his lips?
But after two bewildering years of Conservative-led tyranny and incompetence, Labour’s predicament begins to look like comic relief, if not a distracting sideshow. The real story in British politics – and the true cause of the Prime Minister’s confidence of victory in a snap election – is the granite durability of support among Conservative voters. This applies less in the case of the newly gained ‘red-wall’ seats, like Sedgefield and Blythe Valley, whose constituents will be less forgiving if they come to view “levelling up” and “building back better” as the hollow platitudes which they surely are. But it seems as though typical Conservative voters are happy to tolerate all manner of broken promises and abandoned principles, so long as the red peril is kept from Downing Street.
Since the December 2019 election, the Johnson government has failed to conserve anything other than its own power to dominate us. To fight against Covid-19, ministers have invaded areas of private life in which they should have no business. Meanwhile, they have failed to protect the very settings where they have nothing but business: the public hospitals and care homes which we actually do trust our leaders to manage, and yet where the virus has spread most fatally.
Consistently, this Conservative government has overstepped its rights and fallen short of its duties. It has spent more of its emergency Covid-19 budget paying healthy people to stay at home than on supporting frontline NHS services, pumped out inhuman propaganda to scare people into compliance, and trampled arrogantly over parliamentary procedure to make all these calls without scrutiny.
Those who would excuse such foolishness as the result of an emergency situation should be reminded that not all of the government’s blunders have been forced by the pandemic. Conservative leadership was conspicuously missing when woke outrage mobs destroyed statues to historic icons throughout the summer of 2020. The same government boasts daily about its vainglorious green agenda, calculated to hit ordinary people’s incomes, while also breaking its ‘no tax rises’ promise by raiding the pockets of the poor on national insurance – all to make good on another promise, made without any plan or forethought, to resolve the social care crisis.
In light of such damaging buffoonery, it might seem flippant to complain as well about Johnson’s ridiculous promise, trotted out at the G7, to rebuild the economy in a “gender-neutral” and “more feminine” way (as if both terms do not utterly contradict each other). But while essentially harmless, tedious slogans of this sort do offer a glimpse into the mind of a Prime Minister running empty on ideas. Feminine or otherwise, any renewed growth at all would be a start after a 9.9% decline in GDP throughout 2020, most of it caused by the government’s addiction to heavy-handed lockdowns.
After such a chaotic, two-year display, one might have expected the Conservatives to be searching for ways to postpone the next general election beyond 2030. So why are they apparently so confident about winning another mandate in 2023?
One reason is the lack of any serious threat to their voting base. While the new Reform UK Party limps on at 4%, the Conservatives are under no pressure to remain loyal to the people who keep them in office, as they had to be back when UKIP and the Brexit Party held them to promises by eating into their vote share. Absent this pressure, Johnson feels invincible from any backlash against the theft of our liberties, the wrecked economy, high budget deficits and the U-turn on tax hikes. “What are you going to do?” ask the Tories to their supporters. “Back Labour instead?” This has been enough to keep backbenchers quiet.
However, it does not explain why there has been no mass exodus from the Conservatives in the wider country. Why are there not more people itching to show the Prime Minister that, while he deserves credit for not being Keir Starmer, there are consequences to governing poorly? If a Jeremy Corbyn government had spent its first two years trampling over our freedoms and democratic norms, conservatives up and down the land would be working themselves up into a frenzy. There would be panicked talk of “socialist tyranny” and “government overreach”. The continued support of conservative voters for a government responsible for such destruction is only matched in absurdity by those Remainers who called Johnson a fascist for supporting democratic self-government, yet demanded absolute state power and even rougher treatment once he started locking them in their own homes.
There have been many high-profile conservatives who have refused to keep their silence. It should be said, too, that some freedom-friendly parts of the Left have been equally dogged in their opposition to the government’s despotic measures. But to transform the political landscape, it will take more than a handful of honourable names. Johnson’s critics may think they are winning the argument, but they are losing the larger war of persuasion.
To bring around public opinion and make a dent in the Tories’ approval rating, the scrutiny must be kept up and intensified in the years ahead, even as Covid-19 slides down the list of contentious issues. Only then will it start to dawn on Johnson that he is unwise to take for granted the support of voters, conservative or otherwise. Taking too much pleasure in the pantomime of Starmer’s Labour Party merely distracts us from this task and encourages complacency at the heart of government.
Elections are notoriously tribal occasions. My concern is that in the event of a snap vote in 2023, many of today’s most outspoken critics of the government will line up to support the Johnson agenda out of fear of the Labour alternative. Conservatives can be very forgiving, forgetful creatures. Nobody knows that fact better than the Conservative Party leadership, who are thus expectant of a comfortable triumph at the next election.
The future looks gloomy for those of us who value freedom and responsible government. There will be cause for optimism only when rumours emerge that a sudden turnaround in the polls has forced the Prime Minister to drop his enthusiasm for an early election – and that he is instead dreading the thought of a civilised, democratic backlash in 2024.