As a natural Tory supporter, I am deeply uncomfortable with the direction of the party
What is the point of the Tory Party? I ask because so much of what this government has done since last Party Conference is so breathtakingly un-Conservative that many have been left wondering who is actually in power.
As a political journalist, I have been attending party conferences for the past 15 years. Like everyone else on the circuit, I love and hate the experience in almost equal measure. Life inside a secure zone crammed with thousands of politicians, lobbyists, party activists and Westminster hacks is weird, expensive and exhausting – but for me, it has never quite lost its thrill.
This year, however, due to other commitments, I won’t be going. And while I may have fleeting moments of “FOMO” as I watch the highlights in Manchester from afar, I’m also rather relieved.
The truth is that, as a natural Tory supporter, I am deeply uncomfortable with the direction of the party, and I know many others privately feel the same.
The slump in the remarkably high poll ratings the party has maintained since the last general election and Boris Johnson’s own faltering approval ratings are evidence of a growing dismay among voters at the state this country is now in – and at the nature of the policy decisions being taken in the wake of the pandemic.
The Conservative Party owes its proud history to its commitment to the pursuit of a small state; low taxes; the upholding of law and order; and the promotion of educational and welfare measures that will lift up the most disadvantaged of our society and promote opportunity for all. Traditionally, it’s a party with a healthy attitude to risk; a deep aversion to interfering jobsworths; and a determination to do away with pointless red tape.
A rapid return to the core values that have kept the Conservatives in power since 2010 is urgently required
It does not casually squander taxpayers’ money and is as much a champion of small businesses as it is of multinational corporations. Above all, it believes in giving individuals maximum freedom and responsibility over their own lives, while making the cultural, institutional and fiscal changes required to engender social mobility.
Since December 2019, barely anything this government has done is consistent with these ideals. It is unrecognisable as Conservative-led. If the party wishes to be re-elected, that must change.
Amid the panic of the pandemic, voters cut Johnson a great deal of slack, recognising some justification for draconian measures to save lives. Even those most offended by the abrupt removal of everyday freedoms and unprecedented state intrusion sympathised with the weight of responsibility on the Prime Minister and his advisers.
What began to grate was the apparent relish with which they embraced their new powers and the casual jettisoning of our precious democratic process amid a barrage of diktats. None of this felt, or was, remotely Conservative. Worse, Tory MPs knew it, but with a few honourable exceptions (Steve Baker, Sir Graham Brady and Esther McVey among others), very few had the courage to speak out.
Natural Tory supporters might have felt a bit better if more senior government figures had been brave enough to say in public what they were muttering in private: that not all of what was being done in the name of this virus was justified; and some of it stank.
After breaking a key manifesto pledge not to raise national insurance, some humility from the party leadership, as well as a rapid return to the core values that have kept the Conservatives in power since 2010, is urgently required. As a disillusioned former Tory supporter put it to me this week: “If I’d wanted a socialist government, I’d have gone for the party with the track record.”
Isabel Oakeshott is a political journalist and broadcaster
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.