Picture credit: Henry Nicholls - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Artillery Row

What on Earth are the Conservatives running on?

Rishi Sunak needs a vision for the country, not just anti-Starmer posturing

Alea iacta est, proclaimed Caesar as he emerged on the southern bank of the Rubicon. Rishi Sunak may have been just as dripping wet yesterday, but he could conjure no similarly immemorial line.

In my very first article for this most august organ, written nearly two years ago as Rishi took over from Liz Truss, I asked; “Can the Tories win back alienated voters?”

In that piece, I wrote that Rishi Sunak was uniquely placed to capitalise on the seismic shift of the 2019 election, firstly by virtue of his economic credibility with the 2019 electorate, and secondly because his Cabinet choices indicated that he recognised the importance of delivering on small-c conservative cultural issues. Matt Goodwin agreed with me, arguing that Rishi “has clearly got a grasp of the conservative electorate and who he needs to win over”.

The polling was bad but not irreversible, I argued the collapse “more a thin simmer than a rolling boil”; the Conservatives had leaked votes, but not back to Labour, whose vote was only 15 per cent higher than it was at the last election. Fewer than one in ten 2019 Tory voters had gone red again, effectively a reversal of the shift in voters from Labour to Conservative between the 2017 and 2019 election.

Truss had failed to recognise the underlying change in politics that drove the rise in populist parties, Brexit and Boris Johnson’s 2019 landslide, a seismic shift potentially as powerful as the Reagan coalition and as long term as the Southern Strategy; the redrawing of politics between what David Goodhart called somewheres vs anywheres, with more nationalist, social conservatives on one side and more cosmopolitan, social progressives on the other.

The rise in political apathy, I thought, was due to neither side successfully offering a compelling or unifying vision for the kind of country Britain should become. Rishi’s hope of success, I argued, was contingent on his ability to provide a coherent vision of a conservative state, fit for the challenges of the 21st century. “He will have to tell a story of how Britain got to where it is,” I wrote, “and where it’s heading. That is the only way that the party can stop being blamed for what’s wrong with the present.”

Have a look at the polls. Tell me how you think he’s done so far. 

Rishi arrived into No. 10 stumbling and unheroic, and launches himself into his re-election campaign in much the same vein. Ben Sixsmith summed up the speech well; a sad announcement, “miserably symbolic of Conservative failure.”

The principle failure, the thing rotten in the state of Denmark, remains the inability to articulate a compelling and unifying future for where Britain is heading. Starmer suffers from the same problem; however, as I predicted, Rishi is being blamed for being what’s wrong with the present by virtue of being Prime Minister right now.

If this is the tone the election campaign will follow, the Conservatives will not be running on a platform so much as running on fumes

Rishi’s speech offered little in the way of a roadmap; his main line of attack seemed to be a re-tread of the “Chaos with Ed Miliband” line. After laying out the geopolitical turbulence ahead and the challenges (Ukraine, covid ) already overcome, “now is the moment for Britain to choose its future”, Rishi argued, “to decide whether we want to build on the progress we have made or risk going back to square one with no plan and no certainty.” If this is the tone the election campaign will follow, the Conservatives will not be running on a platform so much as running on fumes.

The truth is that Tories have been unable to lay out a vision for what Britain should look like for some time, although this has been handily obfuscated by Brexit, Covid and Ukraine. Lurching from crisis to crisis is apparently a very convenient electoral strategy.  

But Brexit is far distant, Covid is over and, whilst the war in Ukraine rumbles on, it is now part of the political wallpaper. There is no major political crisis to overwhelm the myriad messes that plague Britain — swarming around like flies on a sickly cow.

The Laodicean nature of voters will continue, because the fundamental question of this election is the one no party has an answer to; what is the great goal to which we are heading?

If Rishi wants to follow the (incredibly) narrow path to victory, he will need to come up with a more compelling argument than asking voters to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. For too long the conservatism on offer has been the result of poverty, of inertia, of timidity

But it doesn’t have to be like this. People are ready for an ideological mission again, to be sold on a political project they can buy into. As Rashid Dar writes;

Political liberals, however—in their insistence that all people wanted was to be left alone as libertine individuals freed from “ideology”—failed to understand the degree of ennui, meaninglessness, and “spiritual confusion” that their own ideology had been leaving in its wake. Now realizing just how grave of a liability this was, they’ve been rudely awakened to a brave new world, one in active revolt. People the globe over are in rapture by the idea that politics could, once again, re-enchant the world with collective mission and purpose.

What that collective mission and purpose is what those of us on the right must grapple with. And until we do, we will simply be waiting for the next crisis to save us; because once you’ve jumped off a cliff, your only hope for survival is the abolition of gravity.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover