THIS week’s Conservative Party leadership contest is exposing the fight for conservatism. Nobody can deny that the party is failing to win the ideational battle. Having held power for 18 years from 1979 to 1997, it has won only three elections in the last 22 years – twice without working majorities.
Even this modest return to government has been achieved without the advancement of conservatism. Britain’s elite is dominated by conservative-bashers and unquestioning progressives – the entertainment industry, news media, academia, police, judiciary, civil service, and Parliament.
The Conservative Party fails to differentiate. It falls over itself in its attempts to outspend the other parties on the NHS and international aid, pander to myths of social injustice, ignore the majority on everything from immigration to law and order, and even (as of this week – thank you, Theresa May, for your belated legacy) to cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero in thirty years – at a cost of at least £1trillion, by the Treasury’s own estimate.
The party has been losing members for years, most rapidly under Mrs May’s leadership. One explanation is Brexit: most members are Brexiteers, but most of the Parliamentary party campaigned for Remain in 2016, including Mrs May. Her government has failed to deliver Brexit since.
But Brexit is only part of the explanation. The party is no longer differentiated. Many of its MPs incongruously campaign against not just Brexit (and thus against democracy) but for a mis-termed Conservative Party that would become more ‘centrist’, ‘moderate’ or ‘compassionate’ than the opposition, even though the opposition had already shifted towards Marxism. Some of these MPs have crossed the floor to sit with the opposition, some of whom formed the ridiculously incoherent, disorganised and unsuccessful Independent Group or Change UK Party. The rump Parliamentary party did not take advantage of this purge to restore its conservatism, but instead pandered to the splitters, prompting more disenfranchisement for ordinary members. The haemorrhage was most obvious in April, when Mrs May attempted a compact with the Labour Party on her fake Brexit, and members publicly cut up their cards.
The separation is illustrated by the differences between ConservativeHome and The Conservative Woman (not necessarily with any editorial intent). Whereas ConservativeHome tends to act as the mouthpiece for the current Conservative Party’s elite, The Conservative Woman explicitly tags itself for ‘the philosophy not the party’. It has become a home for conservatives who lament the party’s slide, including some MPs.
‘Fake’ is a term often applied to the Conservative Party, and I have played my part, although I don’t know who started it. I first publicly described Theresa May’s Conservative Party as ‘fake Brexiteer’ in December 2017. I first described her government as ‘fake conservative’ in March this year. At the launch of Esther McVey’s leadership bid on Tuesday, a protester took the stage to call everybody who served in Theresa May’s cabinet ‘fake conservatives’. She applauded him, as if she were not one of the targets, then released an advertisement promising ‘I’ll make the Conservative Party conservative again’. Her campaign slogan was ‘Restoring trust’.
Yet the Parliamentary Party has not rewarded her promise. Most leadership contenders have avoided any promise of conservatism. Listening to their hustings and speeches, you’d be lucky to hear the term “conservative.” Yet some columnists have claimed that Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid prove that going conservative plays well with MPs Boris and Sajid prove the power of embracing true conservatism. But hang on, how conservative are the candidates?
Fortunately, a questionnaire compiled by readers of ConservativeHome included a request to complete the sentence ‘Conservatism is . . .’ Eleven of the hopefuls replied.
Below I have tabulated their responses. The candidates are ordered in their placings as voted by MPs yesterday, from left (winner) to right (lowest placed and drop-outs). Their responses are clustered in themes, at least so far as I could discern them. After the table, I have quoted their responses in full.
Note that the commonest response is ‘opportunity’, which is conveniently politically ambiguous, because it can be interpreted by the progressives as social justice or by conservatives as meritorious.
Surprisingly, ‘freedom’ – a classical liberal virtue – is mentioned by fewer than half. Margaret Thatcher would be spinning in her grave to see that economic security or stability is an even rarer response.
The other responses are scattered with little agreement between candidates. The ridiculous Rory Stewart wants to remake conservatism as ‘realism and love’, but note that he still scored more MP votes than the next four responders, who were strongly conservative in their responses.
I see little evidence for conservative revival if these contenders dominate the Conservative Party’s next Cabinet, although Boris Johnson – appropriately the winner yesterday – managed to list more Conservative principles and objectives than anybody.
Boris Johnson: ‘A belief in freedom, opportunity, responsibility, family, community, nation, duty, service, beauty, democracy, fairness, decency, the ConHome website – and the sometimes hidden wisdom of old ways of doing things.’
Michael Gove: ‘A belief in the importance of the special worth of each individual, liberated to become the author of their own life story, supported by strengthened families communities and historic institutions.’
Matt Hancock: ‘About creating opportunity for every individual, whatever their background, by backing their inherent potential and protecting their freedom to succeed so everyone can lead better and more fulfilling lives.’
Rory Stewart: ‘I became a Conservative because I believe in limited constitutional government, individual rights, trust in tradition, love of country, prudence in foreign policy, and restraint at home. But I would now define it as realism and love.’
Esther McVey: ‘Conservatism is freedom, opportunity, responsibility, and patriotism. To me, it’s also about social mobility. It took the grocer’s daughter from Grantham to Number 10; and me from Barnardo’s to Cabinet.’
Sam Gyimah: ‘About enterprise, endeavour, creating opportunity. It’s about putting country first, the Union. It’s about supporting families, respecting our great institutions, holding that the State cannot replace community or individual ingenuity.’