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Artillery Row

The central myth of Conservative centrism

The Conservatives are not suffering because they are too right-wing

Andy Street, outgoing Mayor of the West Midlands, has warned the Conservatives against a drift to the right in the aftermath of their disastrous local election results. On Twitter, Tobias Ellwood MP agrees, saying “a move to the right concedes vital centre ground”. “No incumbent has ever won an election by doing so,” Mr Ellwood asserts.

I’m not going to give the Conservatives advice on how to win the next election. One might as well give Sheffield United advice on how to win the Premiership. They could sign Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the second coming of Diego Maradona and they would not have a chance.

Indeed, unless your favourite policies can be implemented within months, you should hope that Rishi Sunak doesn’t take a fancy to them. It would be a bit like a helmet manufacturer sponsoring a cyclist as he plunges off a cliff.

But once the Conservatives are in opposition, self-consciously “centrist” Tories cannot be allowed to push the myth that Starmer won because the Conservatives “drifted right”. This idea — a favourite of former Conservatives like David Gauke, Rory Stewart and Gavin Barwell — is an absolute fantasy — a live action role-playing game for people who like The Rest is Politics. 

Gavin Barwell, for example, presents a poll which asked voters to place Labour and Conservative leaders on a scale where “+100” meant maximally right wing and “-100” meant maximally left-wing. Rishi Sunak was placed at +58. But Theresa May was at +57. And who was her Chief of Staff? That’s right — one Gavin Barwell. Whatever the poll means, then, it doesn’t mean that the Conservatives have lurched to the right.

Unidirectional explanations or solutions are inadequate here

To be sure, it would not be entirely true to claim that Conservatives are losing because they are not right-wing enough. Unidirectional explanations or solutions are inadequate here. The Tories’ dire lack of front bench talent — which has served to make David Cameron, of all people, look statesmanlike — transcends their actual beliefs. Major issues facing Britain, too, cannot be looked at through the singular lens of the political spectrum. The housing crisis, for example, is not easily explicable in left-wing/right-wing terms when Greens and Tories alike are so obstructionist when it comes to development. 

Yes, Conservative failure is a tale of death by a thousand cuts — some literal, some figurative. (Others might prefer to call it death by a different word containing the letters “c”, “u”, “t” and “s”.) Yet when Guto Harri, former adviser to Boris Johnson, says that the Conservatives “did not lose because we were not right-wing enough” he is not telling the whole truth. 

It is a demonstrable fact that the Conservatives have bled support over allowing immigration to reach unprecedented heights. In 2019 — whatever Tobias Ellwood says about the importance of incumbents not moving to the right — Priti Patel said that the Conservatives would “look to reduce numbers” and Boris Johnson claimed that he would assert “control over the number of unskilled immigrants”. 

Of course, the opposite happened. Migration reached levels that made Tony Blair look like Donald Trump. Why do you think the Conservatives have lost supporters to Reform — a party so useless that in happier times they would get fewer votes than Change UK? If Keir Starmer pledged to raise NHS funding and then promptly privatised the institution, no one would behave as if his subsequent electoral defeat had nothing to do with not being left-wing enough. 

Or take gender issues. Now, whether you, or I, or JK Rowling like it or not, I don’t think the trans debate is ever going to determine the outcome of elections. It doesn’t have a big enough impact on the average person’s bank account or sense of safety. But imagine if the Conservatives hadn’t been such self-conscious occupiers of that semi-mythical “centre ground”. Imagine if Penny Mordaunt hadn’t backed self-ID, and Liz Truss hadn’t declared herself to be an LGBTQ+ ally, and Rishi Sunak hadn’t avoided saying what makes a woman a woman. The Conservatives would have been far better placed to position themselves in a post-Cass world. As it is, their jibes at Keir Starmer look slippery and opportunistic. He hasn’t been much less clear than they have.

The central myth of Conservative centrism is that to take a clear position on such things as record demographic change or outright biological facts is symptomatic of political radicalism. Where left-wing taboos are concerned, one can only equivocate. The Conservative stance is to be at most a mild and tolerant sceptic rather than ideological opposition. (Somehow, this aversion to divisive stances and firm rhetoric only applies to certain issues. I’m sure Mr Ellwood, for example, still saw himself as the embodiment of moderation when he was calling for a no-fly zone above Ukraine.)

Again, I do not dispute that a right-wing agenda could be electoral poison. If Conservatives approached voters who have seen prices rise, wages decline, waiting lists soar et cetera with the key headline promise to abolish the Equality Act they would be punished. If nothing else, it would miss the point. There is sometimes a difference between what you want to do and what will get you elected. Keir Starmer might support low-traffic neighbourhoods but it won’t be on the first page of his manifesto.

But this does not mean that right-wing policies are essentially unpopular. If there is one lesson right-wing Tories can take from the grim defeat of Susan Hall it is not to frame them in such negative terms. Paul Scully, who Hall bested to become the nominee in the London mayoral election, is not wrong that Hall’s campaign was not aspirational enough. She did not get enough support from the Conservatives — who wanted Daniel Korski and who would have had him but for groping allegations — but she also failed to rally voters round a cause. She was monstered in the press for supporting Donald Trump but she did not take one important lesson from him. His message was “Make America Great Again”, not “America — It’s A Bit Rubbish, Isn’t It?”

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