Mon, 20 May 2024

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'Conservatism is going back to the future': inside the Tory battle to regenerate in the wake of coronavirus

Boris Johnson unveiling a £5bn infrastructure spending package in Dudley

12 min read

Boris Johnson’s evocation of Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ to announce the coronavirus economic recovery package was a successful piece of salesmanship. But does it signal a wider shift in the Conservative party? Sebastian Whale reports

Though the charge had not been laid, Boris Johnson still felt the need to put the record straight. “My friends,” he said in Dudley. “I am not a communist.” 

Ostensibly, Johnson’s social distancing from the far-left was to reassure a strand of the Conservative right, who had hoped he would prioritise slashing taxes and cutting red tape to invigorate the UK’s struggling economy. Instead, in a nod to former Democratic president Franklin D Roosevelt, the prime minister had just unveiled a ‘New Deal’ investment plan for Britain to “build, build, build” its way out of the coronavirus economic crisis.

“I was amused by the comment,” says Norman Lamont, the Tory peer and former chancellor. “The prime minister and Mr Gove have been talking a lot about Roosevelt. Roosevelt was frequently accused of being a communist.”

Will Tanner, a former No 10 adviser and director of centre-right thinktank Onward, says: “It was more than anything a recognition of how far he is diverging from some Conservative economic orthodoxy, certainly from those who remember Margaret Thatcher in hallowed terms and think the answer to every problem is tax cuts and deregulation.”

Bringing forward £5bn of investment projects falls well short of the remarkable level of infrastructure spending authorised by the US government in the wake of the Great Depression. But that is to miss the point, say senior Conservative figures, who argue the PM’s speech was about setting the direction of travel. Chancellor Rishi Sunak is due this week to outline more detail on the Government’s plan to revive the UK’s economy, which shrank by 20% in April as the pandemic took hold. 

With high unemployment and a deep recession now near certainties, a debate has been brewing on the political right about how best to recover. For some, the PM’s plans – which prioritise infrastructure spending and contain elements of intervention – take them into uncertain conservative territory. For others, it is a return to a conservatism of old.

While the economic arguments rage, there are more existential questions facing Johnson’s party. At a time of pandemic, what will it mean to be a Conservative? And can a party, whose ability to adapt has made it a potent electoral force, regenerate its offer once more, especially amid criticism of its handling of the crisis?

“Just keeping the Conservative party fresh and responsive to the country’s needs is in itself a challenge,” says Nicky Morgan, the former Cabinet minister and Tory peer. “I am confident we can respond to it, but you’ve got to get over that before you can get onto political territory.” 

“Conservatism is a much wider philosophy than merely the economy,” says Norman Lamont. “Conservatism is not just the small state; conservatism is about the individual, individual responsibility, incentives, hard work. It isn’t just a dry economic doctrine.” 

By its very nature, the coronavirus crisis has resulted in a number of steps being taken by Boris Johnson’s administration that would otherwise be anathema. Civil liberties have been slashed, the rights of individuals curtailed, and the state has spent hundreds of billions of pounds to prop up the economy.

“I do think many people will have thought it was extraordinary that a Conservative government would decide how many people someone could visit in a week or whether they could stay overnight. That is not instinctive conservatism,” notes Lamont.

Personally I’d prefer Reagan to Roosevelt. The recovery has got to be private sector-led, not government-led. That’s a temptation I’m worried he may fall into

Whenever the UK returns to normality – in whatever form that may be – libertarians such as Steve Baker, the backbench Conservative MP, will resume their calls for greater freedoms for the individual. “It’s the thing I’m always geared up for,” he told me in May. “In a sense, it’s the same battle now that it has been for ten years.”

The current curbs on freedoms, Conservative figures argue, are just temporary measures that will not endure or serve as a precursor to a more bureaucratic government. “Conservatism is not incompatible with dealing with a public health emergency and these are emergency measures for an emergency, and they will go,” Lamont insists.

Instead, the Tory grandee believes Conservative values could become more appealing as a byproduct of people being forced into lockdown. “People will be very conscious of the freedom they’ve temporarily forfeited during the crisis and will want to cling onto it more than ever when we’re out of it.” As evidence, he quips: “I personally never go to a pub but now I’m longing to go.”

While not an unreasonable proposition, the current crisis could also impart a more interventionist state that seeks to correct inequalities exposed by the crisis or prepare for any potential new outbreak. There could also be calls for greater spending on areas such as health and an increase in public sector pay. 

Writing recently for The House, Tory MP Christian Wakeford, elected in 2019, argued the Government should provide food provisions schemes for all children at risk of hunger during every school holiday. “School breaking up for summer should never mean hunger – pandemic or no pandemic,” he said.

The PM’s change of heart over measures to tackle obesity, brought about through his experiences of battling Covid-19, and a commitment to give every young person the chance of an apprenticeship or in-work placement, also show he is not shy of the state intervening where necessary. 

“I am conscious, as I say all this, that it sounds like a prodigious amount of government intervention,” he noted during his speech in the West Midlands. “It sounds like a ‘New Deal’. And all I can say is, if that is so, then that is how it is meant to sound and how it is meant to be.”

In the most eye-catching part of his address, Johnson said the state should put “its arm around people at a time of crisis”. Will Tanner says: “It is the type of language the Conservatives previously might not have been hugely comfortable with because they see it as a precursor to a much larger and more interventionist state… He was clearly saying that there is an alternative, more egalitarian form of conservatism that exists.”

Philippa Stroud, a Conservative peer and former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith at the DWP, says she is “encouraged” by the focus on the poorest in society. But Stroud, who co-founded the Centre for Social Justice, adds: “It’s going to take more than just bricks and mortar to see these communities really revived... it has to translate into jobs, housing and educational outcomes for the long-term.”

Nicky Morgan argues: “What people need to realise is that Boris Johnson, putting aside Brexit, is a One Nation Conservative. From his days as mayor in London, he has always been an interventionist Conservative. In a way, what the country now needs really plays to his strengths.”

Not everyone on the right agrees. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s alma mater, columnist Sherelle Jacobs lamented a lack of “authentically conservative policies” in the PM’s ‘New Deal’. Ministers should cut red tape, “drive a tank” through planning regulations, and “aggressively” pursue tax cuts, she argued. “Instead, Boris Johnson continues to pursue strongman statism, pouring billions into road and rail connections, and flashy housing developments.”

The divisions have a distinctly wet versus dry feel to them, reminiscent of the internal conservative debates of the 1980s.

With low interest rates enabling greater borrowing, Johnson has made infrastructure spending a central focus of both his economic recovery plans and ‘levelling up’ agenda, which plans to bolster different regions of the UK. Success of this project is essential, contributors to this article suggest, to shoring up support in Labour’s so-called red wall. 

"The minute you have a levelling-up agenda, it needs to be supporting those who feel as though they are at the bottom, to move up. It can’t just start in the middle,” says Stroud.

Lamont says: “Infrastructure investment is sensible and affordable. But I do think the recovery has got to be market and private sector-led. That is the most important point. Personally I would prefer Reagan or Thatcher to Roosevelt.”

He also warns the Government against “picking winners industrially” by using state funding to target particular sectors. “It’s much better if it’s the market and private enterprise that develops the green technology, the electric cars, the artificial intelligence. It doesn’t need to be government driven and it’s better if it’s not government driven. That is a temptation I am a little bit worried the Government may fall into,” he says.

Having ruled out a return to austerity, Johnson refused to do so on tax rises. “I remain absolutely determined to ensure that the tax burden, insofar as we possibly can, is reasonable, and that we continue to be a dynamic, competitive, open, market economy,” he said.

The state is there to ensure everyone has opportunity, no matter where they’re from. That is completely reconcilable with Conservative principles

Recent research suggests Johnson’s moderately leftwards tilt could chime with voters. A report for UK in a Changing Europe found that on four out of five questions asked about economic values, Tory voters at the 2019 election have more in common with every section of the Labour party than they do with Conservative members, activists and MPs. As an example, 73% of voters agreed there is “one law for the rich and one law for the poor” compared to 5% of Tory MPs.

The report – ‘Mind the values gap: The social and economic values of MPs, party members and voters’ – also suggests that the average British adult is more socially conservative than the average Conservative and Labour MP. Will Tanner believes the Tories’ 2019 success was due to the party reflecting the views and attitudes of the public. 

Rather than departing from an established conservative consensus, some argue the prime minister’s instincts point to a return to a previous iteration of centre-right politics.

“We should see Boris Johnson much more in the Harold Macmillan mould,” says Morgan of the former prime minister, who served from 1957-1963. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he sent a memo to the head of the Conservative Research Department, as Harold Macmillan did, saying: ‘If you can just tell me what people want, then I’ll work to make sure we can deliver it’. Boris Johnson listens to people; he has an instinct for people.”

Will Tanner argues: “In some ways, Conservatism is going back to the future.” He explains: “The state is there to fix market failures, help provide the incentives and the institutions that allow people to live their lives in a sustainable way both financially and in terms of their health and education; and it is there to ensure that everyone has opportunities no matter where they’re from. That is completely reconcilable with Conservative principles.”

If there was an aberration, Morgan and co argue, it was the Conservatism pursued under Margaret Thatcher. “It was what the country needed, although very difficult for people in terms of the changes particularly to our manufacturing industries in the 1980s,” says Morgan. 

Michael Howard, the Conservative peer and former party leader, says: “In 1979, the state had grown to the point where it had become an impediment to the growth of the economy and to the role which a healthy private sector could play in achieving economic growth. It was, therefore, absolutely essential at that time for the state to be pruned back, for taxation to be lowered and for enterprise to be given the incentive that it needed in order to get economic growth going again.

“That was the challenge of that time. The challenge that we face today is a different one. And so, the response inevitably has to be different.”

This malleability, insiders contend, is behind the Conservatives’ electoral success. Howard argues: “Conservatives have always been pragmatic and have always tried to find the right solution to the challenges of the particular times that we were in. There’s no doubt that this unprecedented virus has led to a situation in which the Government has to intervene and has to intervene in a decisive way.”

With Brexit, the raging culture wars, and calls for institutional reform, the Conservatives also face questions about what conservatism should mean in the modern age.

Conservatism will have nothing substantial to offer if it simply becomes seen and defined as a reactionary world view – complaining about cultural change and conspiratorial about modern institutions

“There is not a beginning and end of Conservatism,” says Norman Lamont. “It is an attitude of mind, gradual change, respect for the institutions of the country, acknowledging that if things exist they exist for a reason, defending what is best but not defending everything.”

Ryan Shorthouse, the founder and CEO of centre-right think tank Bright Blue, says: “Conservatism is a temperament that offers a helpful counterweight – even for progressives – by stressing the value and effectiveness of a sceptical, gradual, scientific and responsible approach to decision-making and reform. Conservatism will have nothing substantial to offer if it simply becomes seen and defined as a reactionary world view – complaining about cultural change and conspiratorial about modern institutions.”

The party’s positioning on such issues could be guided by that of their opponents. All who contributed to this article note that Keir Starmer’s Labour party presents a serious challenge to the Tories. “I hope and believe that the Conservative government will continue to demonstrate that it is doing the right thing by the country and in that event it will be rewarded in four years’ time,” says Michael Howard. “But it’s an awfully long way away and a lot of water will pass under many bridges before we reach it.” 

After securing an 80-seat majority in 2019, the coronavirus crisis has presented a new reality. The Government has come under scrutiny from all quarters for its handling of the pandemic, with the UK’s death toll the third largest in the world from Covid-19. 

The Conservative party may well have a unique ability to adjust its offer, but few could say with absolute certainty that the British public will be willing to listen by the time of the next election in 2024.

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