Something old, something new, something stolen, but still blue | Andrew Rawnsley | Opinion


Just in time for the election, a searing critique of the past 40 years of Conservative philosophy and practice has been published and it is freely available to all voters. I recommend reading this repudiation of all that so many Tories have held dear for decades. The salient passage is to be found on page nine of the blue volume entitled Forward, Together: The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2017.

Under the heading “Our principles”, it declares: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.”

I know a lot of her Tory colleagues winced when they got to that passage of Mrs May’s little blue book. Some Conservatives think it a caricature to suggest that their party has spent the past 40 years being obsessed with “rigid dogma and ideology”. Other Tories see nothing wrong with “untrammelled free markets”. They believe that “selfish individualism” is the well-spring of the profit motive that is the engine of capitalism and that the uneven distribution of individual rewards is a price worth paying for progress.

Their complaints sort of suit her purpose for Mrs May clearly wants people, especially those who have not previously been in the habit of voting for her party, to think of her as a different kind of Tory, a brand distinct from both the patrician metropolitan liberalism of her immediate predecessor and the aggressive laissez-faire individualism unleashed by Margaret Thatcher. If Mrs May didn’t want us to think that she represents some kind of evolution in Toryism, that passage wouldn’t be in her manifesto. At the same time, she reacts like a scalded cat when anyone tries to label the difference between her and her predecessors. “There is no such thing as Mayism,” she insists, mainly because her instincts tell her that the British are wary of ideologies. However much she might protest otherwise, Mayism is a form of ideology. Like most ideologies, it has fuzzy zones, labours under internal contradictions and comes with its own rigid dogmas. The latter is to be seen in her insistence on adhering to immigration targets that she has never managed to meet in seven years of trying and which many in her own party regard as politically reckless and economically illiterate. Personal dogma also gets expression in her zeal for more grammar schools, a passion driven by her childhood distress at seeing her school turned into a comprehensive rather than any evidence that more academic selection will do anything for social mobility.

What will it mean in practice? Though a lot of that won’t be known until the election is over and Mayism collides with events and makes contact with opposition, some things we can say. One thing we already know is that there will be another lurch in Tory economic policy. The party that sells itself as a reliable custodian of the national finances is as haphazard as a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel. Remember the deficit? You will recall how centrally important “living within our means” was supposed to be to the Tory creed. You will also not forget how every other function of government had to be subordinated to an austerity programme of cuts. The deficit, at the core of the Tory argument at the previous two elections, has barely featured during this one because it is no longer convenient for the Conservatives to dwell on that subject when they have so miserably failed to meet their goals.

Over the past seven years, the Tories have bunged more debt on the national credit card than every Labour government put together and they plan to rack up more. The target date for clearing the deficit has been put back again to 2025, 10 years later than they originally promised. Everyone had a good giggle at the expense of Diane Abbott when she fluffed her arithmetic. Yet the shadow home secretary’s struggles with maths are campaign small change when set against the Tory record of handling really big numbers. And they will get away with it. Most voters don’t care; being more relaxed about deficit-cutting sounds sensible when the perils of Brexit lie ahead and the opposition don’t have the authority with the public on economic competence to punish Mrs May’s crew for their incompetence.

It is sometimes hard not to succumb to awe when you contemplate the sheer shamelessness with which the Tories change their positions and the brazen larceny with which they thieve ideas from opponents once they have worked out that they are popular. Another element of Mrs May’s repositioning of her party involves the expropriation of policies that Tories were only recently deriding when they were promoted by other parties. She wants to impose a tariff cap on the energy providers. A state intervention that was evidence of chronic Marxism when it was mooted by Ed Miliband is rebadged in blue as a necessary adjustment to a failing market. Confronted with the crisis in social care, Mrs May adopts a plan that was denounced as a “death tax” when opponents floated an almost identical policy. Curbs on executive pay, restraints on foreign takeovers, regulation of the gig economy, workers’ rights and industrial strategy were all ridiculed as policies made in Venezuela or throwbacks to the 1970s when they were proposed from the left. By a process of miraculous alchemy, they are now Mayite policies “for the mainstream”.

Today, we publish an interview with Damian Green, a member of her cabinet who knew the Tory leader when she was Theresa Brasier and they were students at Oxford. He suggests his old friend is not a political thinker, but a political climatologist. She doesn’t hold with grand theories. What she does is observe the weather and respond accordingly. There is an obvious element of electoral opportunism in where Mrs May is placing her party. The weakness of the Lib Dems, the implosion of Ukip and the leftward lunge of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn have all created a lot of vacant political real estate for Mrs May to grab. She is doing some triangulating when she defines herself against both “the socialist left and the libertarian right”. “The common good”, the location she claims for herself, is a place on the map that sounds as attractive as it is vague. The size of her poll lead gives her the freedom to do things, such as diluting previous commitments to pensioners, which won’t be liked by many of her party’s older and more affluent supporters. She thinks she can disappoint these richer Tory voters because they have nowhere else to go.

She is also responding to a deeper movement in the mood of the country, especially among the less affluent, a shift that has been observable since the financial crisis. She thinks the Brexit vote was sourced, above all else, in a voter rebellion against the uneven impacts and rewards of globalisation. There is evidence to support her calculation that the electorate has shifted to the left on economic issues and to the right on questions of culture and identity. This is where an election-winning coalition of voters is currently to be found for the Conservatives. Her approach to immigration may be wrong-headed, her energy pricing policy may prove to be counterproductive, but they are, at least for the moment, notes in a tune that strikes a chord with sufficient voters to put her back in Number 10 with an enlarged majority.

A Toryism that places more emphasis on community and social cohesion has been a consistent theme of her chief ideologist, Nick Timothy. The current moment in politics is a neat confluence for Mrs May in which her brand of Toryism marries with where electoral advantage lies.

This is consistent with the richest seam of thinking in the long and gnarly history of Britain’s oldest party. That is not to believe in anything too excessively, not to have a consistent philosophy, but to adapt the Tory party, and with ruthless expediency, to the political environment. Mrs May declares that she stands for “good solid Conservatism”. The secret to Tory electoral success over the years is actually the party’s chameleonic fluidity.

What she can’t be sure of, and neither can anyone else, is how much of her party genuinely buys in to this latest iteration of Conservatism. The Tory press is in cheerleading mode and internal dissent will be largely smothered until 8 June. Once the election is in the rear-view mirror, there will be fierce battles, not least between Mrs May and powerful interests and bodies of opinion in her own party. The rising rumble about the proposals for social care – the “dementia tax” as it has already been dubbed – is a harbinger of that. A lot of this is not what the right of her party thought they were signing up to when she became leader. When some of them call her the most leftwing Tory leader since Ted Heath, they don’t mean that as a compliment. There will be turbulence ahead. Strong and stable? That doesn’t sound at all likely from a party that asks the country to trust the Tories with the future by disowning its own past.

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