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Where the Tories must go from here

The Conservative Party must set aside backbiting in favour of building a radical political project that can appeal to young and old alike

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

There is no tradition more storied — and more futile — than that of the post-election autopsy.

With the dust settled, the ballots counted, and the bodies buried, defeated parties typically spend months engaged in a performative display of soul-searching and wound-licking. Previous leaders are disavowed, new directions charted, and old ideological assumptions questioned. In a year or two, the new-look party is presented in earnest to the electorate, alongside promises that, this time, things will be different. The comparisons to desperate ex-boyfriends write themselves.

Put simply, the Conservative Party lost the election because it wasn’t very good at governing

In the wake of its defeat, the Conservative Party looks set to continue along this well-trodden path of self-discovery. This will all, largely, be a pointless exercise. The reasons for the Conservative Party’s defeat are obvious, and the steps that it must take to reconstitute itself are plain to see. The preening that will doubtless characterise the coming months will not be a product of sincere self-reflection, but of selfish ambition and stratospheric ego.

Put simply, the Conservative Party lost the election because it wasn’t very good at governing. For 14 years, it presided over historically high migration, a stagnant economy, and bloated public services. It failed to grapple with — or even really understand — the Blairite institutional state. It mismanaged its electoral coalition, and chose to hitch its wagon to the fickle “grey vote” at the expense of its working-age support. The Tories sowed the wind, and reaped the whirlwind.

Despite Brexit and numerous leadership changes, David Cameron’s vision of the party predominates

At the root of these political miscalculations are numerous organisational and attitudinal deficiencies. If the Party cannot conquer these fundamental faults, then it will find itself unable to move forwards. 

Since at least David Cameron’s time as leader, the party has been dominated by people-pleasing vote maximisers, who have preferred to avoid trade-offs in favour of “win-win” options which aim to please everybody. Where it has been forced to make trade-offs, the party has preferred to pander to narrow but reliable demographics, instead of recognising the opportunity that new voters present.

Rather than making hard decisions on behalf of its voters, the party has allowed itself to be swayed by the narrow opinions of “friendly” lobby journalists, pollsters, and “expert advisers”. Stray too far from this orthodoxy, and you can expect to see yourself exiled from the dinner party circuit, a fate worse than death for the middle-class strivers that now occupy the upper rungs of the Conservative Party. All of this has a chilling effect on the willingness of Conservative politicians to make hard calls at a time when Britain sorely needs politicians with the strength of will to do so. 

The Conservative establishment, meanwhile, has collectively watched too many episodes of The West Wing, and has thus become obsessed with the idea of “politics”, for which read “performative scheming”. These people spend their time backbiting, backstabbing, and spreading dubious sexual gossip about one another, while governance is left to a small handful of committed but isolated weirdos. 

Some commentators will point the finger at Nigel Farage, blaming the cigarette-scented populist for the party’s collapse in seats — they are wrong to do so. The rapid rise of Farage and his band of misfits was entirely the product of Conservative failure to deliver on their promises of lower migration. In the (almost) eternal words of Genghis Khan, if they had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like Nigel upon them.

Some will insist that the party was too left-wing, failing to seize on the opportunity presented by Boris’s new coalition of voters. Others still will say that the party was too right-wing, alienating its traditional core vote in the Home Counties. 

While the former perspective is more accurate than the latter — how can a party that presided over the highest annual inflow of migrants in recorded history be regarded as “too right- wing”? — neither analysis is particularly useful. The party’s defeat owes far more to operational incompetence than to a particular ideological trajectory. 

Rather than dwelling on the past, right-minded Conservatives should be looking to the future, and seeking to rebuild the British right in time for an eventual implosion of Starmer’s Labour government. Challenging global circumstances and unfavourable economic fundamentals will create a difficult few years for Labour, once the initial honeymoon has worn off. If British political history teaches us anything, it’s that governments, even those with large majorities, can soon find themselves remarkably unpopular with the public. Just ask the Conservative Party.

New-look Tories must be able to present a vision of a high-growth, low-migration, low-tax Britain

In order to prepare itself for a credible stint in government, the right must reorganise and regroup. That means clearing out the dead wood that presided over 14 years of national decline, replacing them with ruthless professionals who understand the scale of the challenge at hand. The brightest minds from the worlds of think-tanking and journalism should be brought on board, and the party’s candidate selection processes should be rebuilt from the ground up. 

The Conservative Party should also aim to expand its coalition to accommodate younger voters, both politically and presentationally. As the recent success of conservative-nationalist movements on the continent demonstrates, younger voters are susceptible to progressive, optimistic visions from the political right. Making a success of this pivot will mean embracing the high-energy, tongue-in-cheek tone of modern political communication, and dropping dogmatic commitments to unsustainable financial burdens such as the pension triple lock. 

The Tories will have to settle The Farage Question one way or another

Like it or not, any new Conservative leader must also come up with an answer to The Farage Question. If Europe’s ailing centre-right parties can teach us anything, it’s that getting into bed with charismatic populists rarely turns out well for the moderate partner. Far better to take the language of the populists but eschew the Dad’s Army aura of scruffy rebellion, transforming their ideas into a clean, competent programme for government. 

To this end, the new-look Conservatives must be able to articulate a vision of a high-growth, high-tech, low-migration, low-tax Britain. That means developing a clear, progressive agenda that aims to end our dependence on human quantitative easing, reform our lethargic institutions, and get the economy growing again. The Thatcherite “wiring diagram” of the 1980s, masterminded by John Hoskyns and Norman Strauss and laid out in the “Stepping Stones” report, will be informative here. 

Institutions and conventions which present a hurdle to political decision-makers must be removed. Our broken planning system will need to be fixed, making it easier to build houses and infrastructure — in turn, this will boost economic growth, fuelling a construction boom in the short term while making energy cheaper for businesses in the long term. History suggests there can be no growth without cheap energy. Law and order must be stringently enforced, and the number of people coming to the country drastically reduced. In all of this, the party must embody a radicalism that befits the severity of our current predicament. 

This must be the political project of the next parliament; never before has unity and clarity of purpose been so important. Get it right, and Britain could see some form of right-wing government in a few years’ time. If, instead, the British right indulges in feuding and gossip, it will find itself exiled for decades to come — and deservedly so.

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