SOMETHING very remarkable is happening to the mainstream conservative commentariat. Since Jeremy Hunt’s catastrophic Autumn Statement, right-leaning pundits who, if often disgruntled, have stayed loyal to the Tory Party through thick and thin are now openly questioning what it stands for any more and whether it needs to be replaced.‘There is no point to the Tories if all they do is surrender to the Left’ wails the headline above Allister Heath’s latest Telegraph piece, There is no point to the Tories if all they do is surrender to the Left and I expect you have read others in a similar vein.
Within the professional commentariat, the columnist Peter Hitchens has ploughed a lonely furrow for many years stating that the Conservative Party must be replaced, and of course many conservative independent voices – not least on TCW – have long been arguing the same. However, it is easy to understand why so few of Hitchens’s peers have hitherto followed suit. For one thing, professional journalists who rely on a network of political contacts to ply their trade could quickly find themselves cut off from scoops and gossip. Secondly, newspapers do not like being too far ahead of their readership; pundits writing for papers with a large tribal Tory-voting bloc who endlessly flayed the party might find the editor having a quiet word.
Now that the polls show the Tory Party entering the kill zone, conservative columnists – and perhaps editors – are plainly starting to hedge their bets. At present those polls show mass abstentionism rather than active realignment. If, however, right-leaning voters start to migrate to a rival party in large numbers, some level of active backing from the mainstream press may well follow, in the same way that Patrick O’Flynn once brought the Daily Express on board for UKIP. A tipping point may well be reached which could – please God – see the Tory Party crippled and the emergence, for the first time in British history, of a serious conservative party.
The obvious candidate is Richard Tice’s Reform UK. Although it has been edging up in the polls recently, it has not reached escape velocity. No doubt in response and anticipating much greater media scrutiny, Reform UK has just revamped its policy portfolio. So, is it really all that conservative? Do its solutions have the breadth and intellectual depth that conservatives have been yearning for?
Until very recently, Reform seemed to concentrate on a rather narrow Thatcherite-style agenda of limited appeal to socially conservative, economically left-leaning Red Wall voters, although to be fair its attack last week on Hunt’s disastrous plans was truly excellent.
On other areas of policy, sadly, the party is still patchy. On the plus side, it has well fleshed-out ideas on the energy crisis, although Tice’s continual public utterances about ‘shale treasure’ can come across as rather obsessive.
However, when we come to the really big issue of our time –immigration – Reform has still some way to go. Until recently, the party seemed to have little to say on the subject, and even now concentrates almost solely on illegal Channel migration, where it is at least robust about the need to leave the ECHR. On legal immigration it gives assurances about reducing numbers but needs to go where no party has currently dared to tread – the need for strongly aligning immigration with cultural compatibility and clamping down on family chain migration. It shouldn’t repeat UKIP’s mistake of ranting on about the ‘I’ word, but people are rightly worried sick about the catastrophic social impact of immigration from incompatible cultures, not just sheer numbers.
How about other conservative touchstone issues? It appears strong on civil liberties and the outrages of the Covid state. It walks the anti-woke line but without saying precisely how it will resolve specific issues. It could, for example, take a strong line on the need to protect women’s rights from the vicious, misogynistic attacks of the trans lobby. Likewise, an area that I have argued for many years is fertile ground for a new political party is advocating the rights of men and the need to combat their alienation from has become a significantly misandrist society, which surely partially explains their large-scale withdrawal from and underperformance in the workforce.
On social conservatism and the need to promote marriage, stable families and a higher birth rate to stop relying on immigration, the position is disappointing – the party seems to have nothing to say at all. Again, outside of the Westminster bubble, this is another issue whose time has come: women are consistently unable to find decent partners to marry and young couples space to start a family. Liz Truss tentatively ventured on to this territory as part of her Tory leadership campaign – then did predictably nothing in her mayfly moment as Prime Minister.
All in all it’s a mixed bag: in policy terms Reform UK has yet to seal the deal. To date that hasn’t mattered much, but as both the public and the media start to look for alternatives to Toryism, it will do: it is essential that it gets what is stands for straight before perceptions about the party are crystallised in the eyes of the public. Unlike the major parties Reform UK does not have to rely on attracting centrist swing voters and can craft a series of unique selling points which will have considerable resonance with the British public.
So over to you, Richard Tice – it’s all to play for.