The Tory Party is over – now for the hangover

Published in (Wellington), 12 July 2022

As news of Boris Johnson’s imminent departure emerged last week, Newsroom Pro editor Jonathan Milne asked me if I wanted to write something about it quickly. Alas, I was attending a conference in Sydney. Besides, I had already written a political obituary for Boris Johnson – just half a year too early (“Icarus in Downing Street“). His political survival skills really put cats with their nine lives to shame.

A few days have now passed since Johnson’s bizarre resignation statement, and I am not even tempted to write anything else about him. Enough said. We all need a break from Johnson, and he will be back in some form before too long.

It may be tempting for me to look through the list of candidates to replace him. However, the field is expanding by the hour, so I may have missed the next dozen candidates by the time the column is published.

Instead, let me give you some thoughts on the state of the Conservative Party.

For full disclosure, I worked for the London think-tank Policy Exchange between 2005 and 2008. Policy Exchange had close links to the Tories.

Michael Gove was the chairman when I started and he became an MP in the May 2005 election. The Executive Director was Nick Boles, who was elected to Parliament in 2010. Jesse Norman, Neil O’Brien, James Morris, Natalie Evans, James O’Shaughnessy and Dean Godson are other Policy Exchange colleagues who became Tory MPs, peers and ministers. Our Westminster office was where David Cameron began his campaign for the Tory leadership.

I stumbled into this environment because I needed a job and wanted to work on policy development. One year earlier, I had moved to London and worked for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

I was then, and still am, a classical liberal, not a conservative. In any case, classical liberals rarely find a home in political parties. We have enough trouble reaching agreement among ourselves, let alone with people who are interested in pursuing careers in politics.

Working in this highly political environment, I observed the metamorphosis of the British Conservative Party. It started under David Cameron and culminated, many years after I had left the UK, in the premiership of Boris Johnson.

Cameron’s strategy was based on an opinion poll taken after the Tories lost to Tony Blair for the third time in May 2005. Voters were asked about some policy proposals. Despite previously agreeing with them, they disliked the ideas as soon as they learned they were Tory proposals.

It was clear the Tories had an image problem. They were regarded as living in the past, as not having any novel ideas, and in general as “the nasty party”, as Theresa May referred to them at a party conference.

Cameron set out to change all that. The old ‘torch of freedom’ logo was dumped for a stylised tree. Cameron spoke of the ‘Big Society’, ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ and climate change. He talked about dealing with the causes of crime rather than law and order (which got him mocked as a “hug-a-hoodie” proponent).

In the meantime, other issues were avoided. Everything that may have reminded voters of the old Conservative Party was eliminated. There would be no more talk about tax cuts, the EU, or business-friendly policies: that would have reminded the public of the Tory party they had always despised.

In a way, Cameron tried to mimic Tony Blair, who had tried to convince the public his party was no longer the old Labour Party, rebranding it ‘New Labour’.

In 1997 Tony Blair promised to keep to the Conservatives’ spending plans for the first two years to show he was fiscally responsible. Before the 2010 election, David Cameron briefly did the same in reverse. He pledged to honour Labour’s spending plans to demonstrate his commitment to public services before abandoning the idea, in the face of the Global Financial Crisis, at the end of 2008.

The result of this repositioning, however, was an ideological hollowing out of the Tories. Many of the new policies they adopted were gimmicky marketing tools. At the same time, the party forgot its old principles, especially in economic policy.

I remember a conversation with a Tory strategist in 2008. He was looking for new economic policy ideas and the most exciting thing he could come up with was new rules for public sector procurement. Yeah, right.

The intellectual hollowing out of the Conservatives, and their avoidance of taking stands on big issues, had consequences. One of them was Brexit.

Cameron had tried to avoid the Europe issue until Nigel Farage’s Ukip capitalised on anti-Government sentiment so much he pledged the in-or-out referendum. Cameron did not want to leave the EU. All he wanted was to take the wind out of Farage’s sails. Well, that did not work so well.

What followed was Theresa May’s ill-fated premiership, in which she then led (or did not lead) a strange Tory party: one that no longer stood for anything and was hopelessly divided on the meaning of Brexit.

That would have been bad enough, but then came Johnson. He had once presented himself as a libertarian but realised that pure populism would get him much further. It worked wonders for him at first, but destroyed the last remnants of clarity, principle and values within his party.

Today, 17 years after David Cameron took over the leadership of the Conservative Party, the disaster Britain now finds itself in is of his making. After 12 years of Conservative government, the British economy is a mess. Inflation is running at 9.1 percent. Britain’s economic growth is the weakest in the G7. Taxes are higher than at any time in the past four decades.

Meanwhile, the British Conservatives are an intellectual void. Where Margaret Thatcher used to slam Friedrich Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty on the table to declare “This is what we believe”, today’s Tories have jumped on every faddish bandwagon that rolls past.

The Tories are only still in power because the British Labour Party is even less electable. With its internal divisions, its antisemitism problem and its unpopular leaders, it was, until the advent of Keir Starmer, simply not competitive.

Although Boris Johnson deserves all the opprobrium he now gets, it would be unfair to blame the sorry state of Britain entirely on him. He is the end result of a trajectory that started in 2005, when the Conservatives believed they needed a rebranding and threw their economic competence overboard in the process.

As such, it is a cautionary tale of what can happen when politics is driven by marketing, and when economic analysis becomes a nice-to-have.

Whoever follows Boris Johnson as Conservative leader will have a big task of rebuilding the party and then – if voters allow – the country.

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