Last week we said that the Conservative Party and the country’s new leader, Theresa May (above) needed a clear direction as quick as they could get one. Well, it didn’t take long for Mrs May to show us exactly where she was going. And it wasn’t all that pretty.
Last week we said that our own hunch was that the new Conservative pitch would be all about ‘security’ – national security, of course, but also the perhaps-illusory security of tighter borders and much lower immigration, with a bit of a side order of Blue Labour-style contributory benefits and more generous welfare payments. All the better, perhaps, to appeal to voters who seem increasingly restive about the constant change and transformation they have come to associate, in many ways correctly, with economic globalization.
And to some extent, that’s what we got. The accusation that Labour no longer speaks for workers and the public sector was almost casually tossed out, and via measures such as places for workers on company boards, and a slower path to deficit reduction, the impression was given that the free market was no longer to be seen as the be-all and end-all of Conservative politics.
But the real thrust was about immigration. Now this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The Brexit referendum was in many ways won and lost on the issue. It’s the most important issue in the country. It’s also the main preoccupation of the main group of voters up for grabs at the moment – older voters who’ve been plumping for the United Kingdom Independence Party, now riven by its own internal squabbles and scandals. What did the Conservatives have to say about this? Well, they basically admitted that they were willing to guide economic policy almost entirely by these lights. No more free movement of people, Mrs May intoned. No more knuckling under to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. What that means is that Britain will almost certainly no longer be a member of the European Single Market, and may (depending on how well or badly negotiations go) may not even have very good access to it.
Worse, though – much worse – was to come. Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in her speech, floated the idea that companies' hiring practices should come under sceptical public scrutiny once they’d been forced to publish the number of foreigners that they employed. The whole absurd and vaguely sinister idea was soon dropped, but not without lingering in the air like the bad smell that it always was. There was also more on the terrible idea that landlords should check up on the nationality and immigration status of their tenants. And there was yet another putrid stinker of a concept: that students’ right of abode and work should depend on the quality of their course or institution. Who is going to decide on all that, and on what basis, we weren’t told. Measures more likely to turn away actual business, deter investment, real hard cash (at a time of enormous strain on sterling and on Britain’s balance of trade), and more likely to tie us up in knots just as we come to grips with the reality of Brexit? Well, they’d be hard to imagine.
It wasn’t all immigration. Yes, they’ve said that there’ll be a bit kinder about Work Capability Assessments, and claimants with chronic conditions won’t have to go through rolling re-assessments. And there’ll be some more money for housing (though it will amount to only a drop in the ocean of true need). Mrs May also made clear in her second speech to the Conference that she thought that more interventionist economic policies may be necessary, while Chancellor Philip Hammond let it be known that the Government was thinking about a renewed emphasis on budgetary policy to go alongside the Bank of England’s monetary activism.
Some of that is all to the good. There’s nothing wrong with rowing back from policies that are widely seen to be either cruel (in the first case) and wise in a potential crisis (in the second). But a really worked-out rationale for a more active state, with aims and objectives for all to see? Rather than just the Jackson Pollock-esque chucking of some cash at more infrastructure projects, when Brexit volatility makes it imperative to underpin at least some domestic demand? That we didn’t see. What we got – what we got out of the Coalition after Chancellor Osborne’s tardy spending u-turn over 2012 and 2013 – was just some feints towards a real strategy. All the noise of economic security, to be sure: but without much of the reality.
So what we were really left with was the idea that immigration was always the real focus. That will probably push their poll ratings even higher than they are now, for a while. But this kind of shouty spray-it-all-around posturing might become a problem for Conservatives in the medium to long-term, because it gives the distinct impression that this is now a party that now wants the United Kingdom to turn in on itself – what we feared all along would be the price of a decision to leave the European Union, of course, but let’s leave that old argument for now. Of a Conference dominated by the concept of border security to the exclusion of anything else – of really good access to the Single Market, of inward investment, of attracting the workers and the skills that we are going to need as we age, of bringing the country together in the wake of a really divisive and bitter referendum campaign. Of a party that didn’t care if it was going to be seen as nasty and unpleasant all over again. As if all those years of modernization were little more than a Public Relations exercise.
The whole thing left quite a nasty taste in the mouth, if we’re being at all honest. The Conservative Party is the party of slum clearance under Benjamin Disraeli; of Keynesian economics under Stanley Baldwin; of council housing under Harold Macmillan; of Europeanism under Edward Heath; of gay marriage under David Cameron. Okay, that’s a very selective reading, but you get the picture. It cannot be, and it must never be, just the party of the Right if it’s also to pose as the party of the nation.
It’s true that Mrs May faces absolutely no opposition for now – except from a little bit of Single Markeering within her own government, and sterling’s role as the only real counter to her untrammeled power. But one day, the Conservative Party will face a renewed challenge. If all they’ve got to offer is an illiberal bunker mentality and a scattergun list of not-so-coded measures against immigration, they won’t be able to meet it. Before they meet again next year, Conservative activists and lawmakers have to get a more positive and coherent message. If they don’t, the voters will notice – and remember. One day, that will matter, quite a lot.