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Artillery Row

What the Conservatives can learn from Germany

The Tories should have a clean break with their past and rebuild

The recent European Parliament elections contained a number of interesting stories about the state of the European right. Most notable was the victory of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, which was immediately followed by President Macron calling a snap election which polls suggest he might lose. Others focused on the continued rise of Alternative for Deutschland, who have transformed in a decade from a libertarian, anti-Euro party into a populist force. Populism didn’t win everywhere. The Sweden Democrats faced their first electoral setback in many years, flatlining in the polls after decades of growth, and the overall makeup of the European Parliament seems similar to that seen in 2019, albeit with a general shift to the right.

European politics is different to Britain’s, and the European Parliament elections are often a place for protest votes. However, behind the headlines in Germany about the AfD, lies an interesting story of relevance to British politics. This is the recovery of the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s leading conservative party. 

The CDU topped the EU parliament elections in Germany, on 30 per cent of the vote, followed by the AfD on 16 per cent, and the ruling Social Democratic party on 14 per cent. This is a remarkable turnaround from 2021, when the CDU suffered their worst ever defeat at federal elections, being turfed out of office for the first time since 2005. 

Differences in national politics notwithstanding, the CDU’s fall and recovery are worth looking at with the future of the British Conservative Party in mind. After a long period of time in power, the CDU were voted out following disillusionment with Angela Merkel and her party’s legacy, defined by her decisions to terminate Germany’s nuclear power industry and open the country to an unprecedented wave of mass immigration. After Merkel’s resignation, the CDU chose the centrist Armin Laschet to succeed her as leader, against the far more conservative Friedrich Merz. Though this decision was lauded by much of the mainstream press at the time — received opinion had not yet turned against Merkel — Laschet was trounced at the general election. After suffering a bad defeat, the party elected Merz, on his third attempt, who campaigned on a decided anti-Merkel platform. His pledge to mark a clean break with the Merkel era won him over 60 per cent of the votes in the CDU leadership election. 

His conservative platform has reaped results. The SPD-led coalition government pursued an almost farcically progressive agenda, prioritising fighting climate change above other economic policies, expanding migrant rights, and legalising drugs. Come the war in Ukraine, and an era of high inflation and insecure energy supply, the government’s honeymoon era abruptly came to a halt, and its left wing agenda was revealed as the height of irresponsibility. German industry, once the engine room of continental Europe, was crippled by high energy costs, and the government persisted with Merkel’s termination of nuclear power. Since 2022, Merz’s CDU has been climbing in the polls, and they are expected to win next year’s elections, returning Germany to conservative government. 

Why does this offer a lesson for the British Conservatives? The beleaguered party here faces similar troubles to the CDU in 2021. First, they have been in office for a long time, and have overseen high levels of immigration and presided over a general leftward shift in society, against the will of their voters. Though the leftward shift in Germany under Merkel was more extreme — perhaps aided by coalition politics — the parallel holds, particularly regarding the disillusionment of their middle-class conservative voter base. 

Second, both Britain and Germany have populist right-wing parties climbing in the polls on an anti-immigration platform, and in both countries, this has prompted a discussion about whether the centre right party should strike a deal with the right wing populists. Some prominent Conservatives like Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Suella Braverman have advocated cooperation with Reform UK; Merz suggested that the CDU could do deals with the AfD at a local level. Doing so, he broke a convention that no mainstream party would work with the AfD, though this is yet to be repeated on the federal stage.

Under Merz, the CDU has reconnected with its middle-class voters, who are enraged with the left-wing government for presiding over extreme inflation and continued immigration.  They even seem to have forgiven the CDU for its role in the migrant crisis of the 2010s, perhaps thanks to Merz’s relative lack of complicity in it, and how he presented himself as a clean break with the centrist Merkel years. This offers a lesson for the future Conservative Party. Many in the CDU believe there is little need to strike a deal with the AfD for federal elections if the CDU does its job properly and remains a properly conservative party which provides the German middle class what it wants: an industrial policy based around cheap energy and generally free markets, significantly reduced immigration, and a generally socially conservative, corporatist welfare state which supports working families. 

As the tumbling fortunes of Labour’s sister-party, the SPD … show, victories do not always last for long

There are limits to this comparison. All incumbent governments in the age of high inflation have suffered heavily in the opinion polls. This is as true of Britain and Germany as it is the United States and Canada. However, barring electoral wipeout, the Conservative Party should take heed from the CDU’s recovery under Merz. The programme in the Labour Party’s manifesto offers few convincing routes to economic growth, and a host of progressive, left-wing social and constitutional policies, as well as Net Zero policies which risk blackouts and uncertain, even more expensive energy. 

The Conservatives will not be able to succeed and restore public trust without a proper diagnosis of what went wrong. This shouldn’t just cover immigration, but also the continuation of Labour’s social and constitutional agenda, the steady overregulation of the economy — leading to the explosive increase in the cost of energy — and the failure to reform and improve the increasingly dysfunctional health service. Any future leader must be able to achieve a clean break with this, and restore conservative principles to the party. If such a project is concluded and Reform UK does not eat quite as much of the Tories’ lunch as some fear, the Conservatives will have laid the foundations of a rebuild and recovery. As the tumbling fortunes of Labour’s sister-party, the SPD, in Germany show, victories do not always last for long.

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