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Artillery Row

The Conservatives have been too soggy, not too harsh

Their voters expected them to cut taxes and immigration — they did the opposite

There are three and half weeks of the 2024 general election to go, though the result seems like a foregone conclusion. The Conservatives lie some 20 points behind Labour in the opinion polls, and Nigel Farage’s announcement that he is leading Reform and campaigning for a seat means a Labour Party government is an almost nailed-on prospect. 

Nigel Farage said as much on his return. To fend off accusations that “a vote for Reform is a vote for Labour”, he stated that the Conservative Party has already lost the general election of its own accord, and that disgruntled patriotic voters should support Reform become the party of the British right for the future.

The Reform Leader’s analysis of the general election seems largely correct — the Conservatives were not showing any sign of recovery before Farage’s announcement — and it is for the voters themselves to choose who they wish to be the future standard bearer for British conservatism. 

Britain’s political class is already trying to work out what went wrong for the Tories. This discussion is likely to run for months to come, and will inform the contest to take over what remains of the party after the election. One such piece in this discussion comes from Ben Ansell, a political scientist at Oxford University, who blames the Conservative Party’s apparent shift to the right, and “obsession with immigration”, in order to win votes from Reform-inclined voters, as the reason for its imminent demise. He quotes the parable of the frog and scorpion to illustrate his point, where the Tory frog is stung by the Faragist scorpion, an inevitable consequence of the Tories’ attempt to win the support of their right-wing enemies.

We should expect to see this view become commonplace in the next few weeks and months. The election victories of 2015 and 2019 will be reimagined as victories of the liberal centre-right, Matthew Parris’ column about the voters of Clacton will be quoted again, and William Hague’s campaign to excise the inconvenience of the Tory Party membership from voting in party leadership elections will continue noisily. This analysis is comforting to some, but it is almost entirely wrong. It misunderstands the Conservatives’ two outright election victories in the last decade, and why it has lost the trust of both its core and swing voters. 

This was not a victory from the left, whatever revisionism has occurred since the 2016 referendum

In 2015, the Conservative Party won an outright majority on a platform of the continuation of austerity and a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. It ran a disciplined campaign which focused on economic competence, Euroscepticism, and a repeated promise to cut net immigration to below 100,000 people per year, to be achieved, in part, by the renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. This was not an election victory fought and won on gay marriage or climate change, but on the destruction of the Lib Dems in the West Country, presenting the Labour Party as economically dangerous and fiscally incontinent, and — most importantly — appealing to Eurosceptic voters who has been moving towards UKIP. It is now usually forgotten that the party even pledged a vote to repeal the Hunting Act. This was not a victory from the left, whatever revisionism has occurred since the 2016 referendum. 

In 2019, the Conservatives changed their tone away from steely competence and embraced a more exuberant form of populism. It worked. Despite what Ansell might suggest in his piece, voters supported the Conservatives in order to “Get Brexit Done” and keep the crypto-communist Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street, rather than because of any pledges about “levelling up”. The 2019 election campaign was fought in the context of a bureaucratic and judicial attempt to prevent the delivery of the Brexit referendum. Only weeks before the election was called, Boris Johnson referred to the tricks being used to stop Brexit in Parliament as the “Surrender Act”. It is implausible to say that this was a victory fought from the centre ground, whatever the spending pledges made in the 2019 manifesto. 

they have increased taxes, and they have not merely increased immigration, but more than doubled it

So why, then, are the Conservatives in free-fall as they apparently try and campaign from the right to win back voters from Reform? It doesn’t need that much over-thinking to understand. The Conservative Party is allowed to exist in this century if it is the party that does two things: cuts taxes, and cuts immigration. Almost everything flows through these foundational positions. In both cases they have failed on their promises: they have increased taxes, and they have not merely increased immigration, but more than doubled it.  

Conservative voters have simply had enough, and they are either flocking to Reform or will stay at home on polling day. While some are switching to Labour, not nearly enough are doing so to suggest that the party has gone too far to the right to win. Instead, it is a matter of public trust and fatigue. After years of promising to cut taxes and cut immigration, even going so far as to leave the European Union as a tool for doing both – but primarily to cut immigration – the party has done the opposite, and its voters may be done with it forever. 

Even now, in an election campaign, the Conservatives are unable to say what they would cut immigration to, after presiding over net immigration of over 700,000 people per year. Instead, Rishi Sunak has suggested that a quango, the Migration Advisory Committee, be charged with identifying such a number, instead of an elected government. It is hard to think of a more elegant illustration of how the party has failed its voters. 

Likewise, the government increased taxes, despite promises not to, yet public services have not improved, and nor of course have living standards. The Prime Minister’s pledge to shave another two pence off National Insurance will be met with a shrug by voters who feel taken for fools. Talk of a shift to the right relies too much on rhetoric, rather than action. Deeds, not words, are what matter.

No diagnosis can ignore these facts. The party will not be able to return to office in the future if it does not recognise them. Many commentators pretend mass immigration is like the weather, a force of nature and impossible to change, or that the rising tax burden is an inevitable consequence of an ageing population, rather than something ministers have chosen to implement. To govern is to choose, and on the totemic subjects of immigration and tax, the Tory party has consistently chosen to break its promises. This is what it must reckon with before it can recover.

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