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Artillery Row

Retreat to victory

Why the Tories should embrace a spell out of power

It was not merely Kwasi Kwarteng who was axed — his departure also signalled the end of the flagship economic programme Liz Truss promoted throughout her leadership pitch. The dynamic, tax-cutting agenda, designed to rouse the ailing British economy from its apparently inevitable lethargy, fell at the first hurdle. After more than a decade in office, and on its sixth Chancellor since 2019 (and fourth since July), the Conservative Party has run out of ideas — and people. 

After chaos erupted in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister might end up resigning before I finish this sentence. I’m not sure even Jeremy Hunt, meanwhile, feels inspired by Jeremy Hunt.

More than ever, the country needs a general election. Polling released in the past few weeks suggests that a Labour victory in the next general election is now almost certain. Rather than signalling the end of centre-right government in Britain, it might provide the Conservative Party with what it most needs: a period in opposition. 

The Conservative Party is more interested in mutual backstabbing than long-term reform

The Conservative Party has clearly lost any moral mandate to govern. Despite its many inadequacies, the Party has always remained an electoral force due to its reputation for economic credibility. When this is lost, the whole operation breaks down. This is precisely what happened on “Black Wednesday” in September 1992. Once John Major’s government had been humiliatingly forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), it took a further twenty-three years for the Conservative Party to secure a fresh Parliamentary majority. Throughout the 1990s, despite it being evident that the Party was doomed, John Major managed to drag the misery out for years. The consequent Labour victory was all the greater, with a public clearly impatient with a Government seemingly incapable or unwilling to govern. 

The same scenario now looms depressingly before us. The Conservative Party is much more interested in mutual backstabbing than in focussing on long-term structural reform. The last roll of the dice in its attempts to revive a failing economy lasted a few weeks, and it appears now to be at the end of the road. The key contrast with the 1990s is that — after several years of sensible economic stewardship under Ken Clarke — the Labour Party inherited an economy in good shape. Having adhered to Conservative spending plans during the initial period of Labour government, Gordon Brown had a much healthier economy from which to expand public spending. 

The new Labour government will have no such luck. The many problems which beset this economy are due to long term underinvestment in energy and technology; reliance on cheap foreign labour and allowing wages to stagnate, rather than upskilling the domestic unemployed; closing down the economy during the Covid pandemic; and injecting huge inflation into the economy through the furlough scheme. On all of these issues the Labour Party was at least as complicit as the incumbent government; so it may as well be left to clear up the mess it was cheerleading. 

With a comfortable majority, it is unlikely that the Conservative Party will decide to dissolve Parliament when so many of its MPs will lose their seats. This is a shame. It is not simply that the Party has become completely dysfunctional, and is so distracted by its internal politics that it is incapable of focussing on the many and severe problems this country faces. It is that the entirety of this period of Conservative government has been a wasted opportunity, a busted flush. Despite its rhetoric, there is a complete disconnect between the aspirations it articulates, and the practical policies it pursues

In twelve years of Conservative or Conservative-led government, almost nothing of any substance had been achieved. Indeed, the only conservative achievement of the past twelve years has been Brexit, the referendum for which was forced on the Conservatives through UKIP pressure in the lead-up to the 2015 general election — and the deliverance of which was forced on the party through the pressures of the Brexit Party in 2019

This near-total absence of any apparent achievement was not for want of ambitious promises. In 2010, the Conservative Party pledged to bring down net immigration to the tens of thousands (a pledge repeated in all three subsequent elections); yet figures since have continued out of line with its own promises — and public opinion.

Former Home Secretary Priti Patel, long regarded as a hardliner on immigration and criminal justice, nevertheless ended her tenure in 2022 presiding over the same levels of immigration that the Conservative Party inherited in 2010. Despite commenting in 2019 on her desire for British criminals to “feel terror”, violent criminals in Britain remain routinely released halfway through their insultingly short sentences due to legislation dating back to Major’s government. Most do not even end up in prison.

Most Tory members, voters and MPs share a broad and determinate view of what a healthy society looks like. MPs talk of economic growth, lowering taxes, reducing crime, encouraging stable families and home-ownership — but years of Tory government sees the country move no closer towards this vision. Why, after twelve years of government, have the Conservatives failed to deliver on any aspect of a vision they share with a majority of the voting public?

The Truss-Kwarteng mini budget has brought forth endless comparisons to the budgets of the Thatcher years. But Thatcher’s modest reductions in income tax rates during her first term were offset by rises in indirect taxation — principally VAT. Thatcher’s first term mission was to cut public spending as a preliminary to the reductions in income tax which Nigel Lawson would implement in her second term. The earlier, monetarist budgets of Geoffrey Howe were intended to reduce both the deficit and inflation in order to bring down interest rates in the medium to long-term. The attempt to reduce income tax through deficit spending was never a Thatcherite policy: in her Downing Street memoirs she criticises Reagan for pursuing this strategy in America, describing it as “the one topic on which the President and I continued to be at odds”.

If an historical comparison is required, then the Conservatives’ reckless “Barber Boom” of 1972–1974 is a more appropriate one. With unemployment rising, the then-Chancellor Anthony Barber pursued an inflationary budget and lifted controls on public expenditure. These measures, which stoked inflation and merely postponed the rise in unemployment, were simply a continuation of the broad approach to unemployment and inflation which had been pursued by both parties since 1958. At the beginning of that year Harold Macmillan’s entire Treasury front bench resigned in protest at his refusal to reduce inflationary spending — which Macmillan suavely dismissed as “a little local difficulty”.

Tory passivity has had an entropic effect on the economy

Margaret Thatcher had been a member of that government, and she was complicit in its adverse economic consequences. It was the period of opposition which followed the loss of the February 1974 election which gave the party the space to reconsider its approach to the fundamental questions of British politics. Thatcher, along with other Ministers in the 1970–1974 government, used the opportunity of Opposition to analyse the lessons of successive post-war Tory governments. Intellectually complacent, they had governed in accordance with the orthodoxies of their time, and pursued policies which only encouraged the country’s decline. The consequence of their loss of office — and the shift within the party to a new formulation of policy — would come to restructure Britain. Sir Keith Joseph, one of the ministers of the 1970–74 government, and a key figure in recalibrating the Party in Opposition, once said, “It was only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism. (I had thought I was a Conservative but I now see that I was not really one at all).” 

Whether one agrees that the Thatcherian emphasis on economic questions can legitimately be described as conservative is another matter. The conclusions that the Conservative Party came to during its period in opposition could only have resulted from electoral defeat. The party was out of step with the electorate, pursuing deadening economic policies, and indistinguishable from the Labour Party. It was this electoral defeat that allowed the party the opportunity to decide not merely what it wanted to achieve, but how it could achieve it.

One of the worst elements of Tory passivity of the last twelve years is the entropic effect it has had on the fifth largest economy in the world. Not only has the party failed to pursue a desperately needed domestic energy strategy through public investment, the Conservatives of the past twelve years have also inhibited private capital from pursuing it independently. This lack of vision has also infected housing policy, wherein public investment has been wildly insufficient, and private investment is continually blocked. Virtually every area of public life is a monument to structural failure: whether public infrastructure in water or energy, healthcare, crime or inflation.

Regardless of our personal judgements of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, both were Prime Ministers who entered office with a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve, and how they might achieve it. The contrast with modern Tories could not be starker. The Conservative Party is now heading inevitably for Opposition. Rather than postpone the agony, it ought to welcome a general election which will put it out of its misery — and everyone else’s.

Let us hope that its time on the opposition benches is put to good use. 

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