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Existential questions

The Conservative Party has to come up with some compelling answers if it is to survive

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This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

I have a bad record on voting in Conservative leadership elections. I managed not to vote in either the IDS/Ken Clarke election or the David Davis/David Cameron election, because I had resigned from the party in protest at its support for House of Lords reform and ID cards. In 2022 I also abstained, although on this occasion by choice rather than because I wasn’t eligible as an elector.

This decision I blame almost entirely on the late Henry Kissinger, whose book on leadership I was reading. It held such an unfavourable mirror up to the weakness of both candidates that I didn’t feel I wanted to propel either to high office. I can’t say I look back on my decision with regret.

In fact, as two years have rolled by, my initial analysis seems decidedly prescient. Kissinger’s book, littered with self-aggrandising stories, identified in the leaders he studied three qualities.

The first, that they had known and admired Kissinger; the second, that they had identified the causes of the crisis in which each of their countries was mired; the third, that they were able credibly to offer a way out of that crisis, either creating or re-creating a national story.

It felt in 2022 that we, as a nation, were in a bad way. Two years on, it now feels like the country faces an existential crisis. The obliteration of the Conservative Party, which the polls have predicted for about two years, is intimately tied up with this.

In short, unless the Conservative Party has a credible answer to the following two questions it deserves to die.

Why is it that most of the things most people care about have got worse over the last 14 years?

Why is it that the things that Conservatives (in particular) care about have got worse over the last 14 years?

These are not the same question. Broadly speaking, a lot of people vote Conservative whilst holding their nose, thinking that Tories might not be nice but at least they are competent. Nobody would say that right now. Why?

This needs honest analysis from within the party, otherwise the only analysis will come from outside it — and the narrative already taking hold is that this is all the fault of Brexit and Austerity. These are basic partisan answers which, if the Labour Party decides to believe, will land them in the same mess as the Conservative Party is in pretty fast.

Why is it that we are taking more in tax, and spending more on the NHS than at any time in history — but, if the NHS were a patient, its heart monitor seems barely to be registering a pulse?

The answer has to be cleverer than Rishi Sunak’s five-point plan

Why are junior members of all the old professions up in arms and often out on strike? Why can nothing, literally nothing, be built even when it’s essential infrastructure?

The answer has to be cleverer than Rishi Sunak’s five-point plan, which seems so trivial in the face of the excruciating state of the nation, that I can’t believe even he thinks it will move one solitary vote — in the unlikely event that it is seen to have succeeded.

On the contrary, any decent answer given to these presenting issues should then raise deeper questions.

To give an example, why are young middle class professionals on strike? Because they can’t afford the lifestyle they reasonably might have expected. Why? Mostly because of the explosion in the cost of housing. Why have house prices exploded? Because we have increased the size of the population by factors considerably outpacing any increase in the size of our housing stock or supporting infrastructure.

Why has the population grown? Because we have decided to import workers from around the world to work in low-paid industries, most especially the care and health sectors, in order to keep costs down … and onwards.

This is only one deep dive of the dozens needed.

That is before we get to question number two. Whilst there are things most people of whatever party care about, there are certain things Tories in particular care about, and all of them have got worse under this government. The Conservative Party really has to work out why if it wants to survive.

Why is the Defence Secretary outraged at the MoD’s diversity and inclusion policies one day (announcing a review exploring how these contentious decisions were agreed) and on the next day did his deputy Andrew Murrison stand up in the House of Commons and take credit for them?

Why have the armed forces been cut to their embarrassing state in the middle of a European war? Why are our children being taught according to theories and narratives that hold Britain to be a villain of world history? Why do the police no longer serve without fear or favour? Why are taxes higher than at any point since Attlee’s government?

There is a long list of whys. Unless the Conservative Party makes a serious attempt to answer them before the next election, they will have earned their landslide defeat. Unless they credibly answer them afterwards, they will have earned oblivion.

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