As I feared, Rory Stewart did not last long in the Conservative Party’s leadership contest. Despite some surprisingly positive commentaries in conservative circles, he’s out. Boris Johnson is set to win; the party would prefer a fool than a statesman because the fool is more electable.
Observing the downfall of Theresa May and the uncanny rise of Boris Johnson, critics from all sides of the political spectrum see a bleak future for the Conservative Party. The party trails in the polls, thumped by the Brexit Party in the elections, distrusted and disliked by the public at large. ”The European question” has blown the party to smithereens.
In a recent essay for the New Statesman, the historian Robert Saunders paints a depressing picture of British conservatism and its future. The movement has forgotten its core principles of cautiousness, pragmatism and tradition; we are witnessing, as Saunders writes, “the closing of the conservative mind,” the end of conservative ideas and the embrace of knee-jerk reactions and nonsensical manoeuvres.
British conservatism has surrendered its critical faculties for cheap and easy wins, risky ventures and dashes of madness. Even its own doyens believe that the movement is intellectually spent. With a Johnson premiership on the horizon, maybe it will abandon thinking altogether.
Things might look grim, but I don’t think the movement is out for the count. Like a sloppy chef at a grotty restaurant, some conservatives see a solution in reheating lukewarm leftovers and passing them off as freshly-cooked.
Saunders mentions Margaret Thatcher’s bold intention to reshape “the whole mindset of British society” with her ideas and values, as informed by the work of Hayek and Friedman. I think she did a pretty good job. Not only did the Labour Party, a socialist party at heart, embrace the role of markets in British life, but politicians after Thatcher have introduced markets in the NHS, in education, railways, energy and beyond.
As Saunders notes, as a result of the Thatcher revolution, we speak about so much of modern life in market terms. We talk about the benefits of competition and the importance of consumer choice; we have debates about whether it’s right for the government to make laws on how much sugar is in our chocolate or meat we have for dinner. Libertarianism has always been on the far fringes of British politics, but today its British proponents can be found on television and in the newspapers, cheerfully talking ad nauseam about the boundless wonders of the free market and the state’s habit of getting everything wrong.
Throughout the leadership election, conservatives young and old have been grappling with the governing party’s existential crisis. Several have been asking the party to become “conservative again”. To them, someone like Rory Stewart, with his new ideas of “conscription”, is a hippie and a statist. Instead the party should go back to old ideas; back to framing the debate as a battle between freedom and the evil state and its use of force to control people’s lives.
Brexit put a smile on the faces of free-marketeers. To them, it represents a giant opportunity to extend Thatcher’s revolution. When the free-market-supporting Institute of Economic Affairs launched its ‘Plan A+’ proposal for a trading arrangement, its writers described Brexit as a “great prize” for ditching regulations and liberalising trade. The proposal was championed by the Conservatives’ free-market supporters, some of whom attending the launch in person, who said that it would “set us free” from the shackles of EU regulation.
‘Plan A+’ is no more - it was retracted under instruction from the Charity Commission - but the dream of a low-tax, small-state post-Brexit Britain continues to inspire Conservative admirers of Thatcherism and the free market. Its followers are well-placed to return today’s party to yesterday’s ideas: almost every leadership candidate brought forward crazy plans for tax cuts and removing regulations. Dominic Raab fancies more profit-motivated companies working in education and healthcare; Sajid Javid is a devoted fan of Ayn Rand; and Esther McVey brought Thatcher with her when launching her leadership campaign.
When Jeremy Corbyn took over Labour, we talked about a return to the politics of the 1970s. When Johnson, another admirer of ‘Plan A+’, leads the Conservatives, we’ll get back to the politics of the 1980s. The Conservatives might lack ideas for the future, but they’re not quite done with the ideas of the past.