After diverting my readers with the fringe entertainment of the Labour Party, and the even more eccentric fringe of the Liberal Democrats, it’s time to look at the politics that really matters: Britain’s Conservative Party. They had their annual conference last week, and this gives us some idea of what to expect in the next five years.
The speed with which the Tories, led by David Cameron, have assumed the ascendency in British politics is astonishing. Not six months ago I, along with many others, thought that they would be unable to win the General Election in May, and that they were so toxic to the other parties that they would have difficulty in forming a new government. But they succeeded in securing a narrow but decisive victory. I had failed to understand how England’s centrist voters regarded the political scene, and how cleverly the Conservatives were able to exploit those voters’ anxieties.
And as if that result wasn’t good enough for the Tories, the subsequent left-wing takeover of the Labour Party has removed the principal opposition party from the field for the time being. The Labour leadership’s priority seems to be to consolidate the left’s power in the party, rather than take on the Tories. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats have been crushed, and even Ukip, the Tory’s rivals to the right, look like a busted flush. Only the SNP look in fighting form, and they are confined to Scotland, which is of minimal electoral importance to the Tories. The next General Election is due in 2020, and at present nobody can see that it can produce anything other than another Tory victory, and quite possibly a landslide.
How the Conservatives take things from here is therefore the most important question in British politics. The first thing to note is that the position of its leader, David Cameron, looks secure. The vultures were circling for his expected failure in May, so his triumph is a very personal one. And he has earned his strong position. He has a powerful instinct for the middle ground in English politics (which extends to much of Wales too, though he seems to have little grasp of Scotland’s politics). What he understood in a way Labour politicians did not is that this middle ground, the floating voters who decide elections, had not moved to the left, as it was fashionable to suggest. These voters accept much of the economic conventional wisdom that the left dismisses as “neoliberal”. They do not want higher taxes; they think that the previous Labour government spent too much on benefits and public services; and above all they fear the loss of private sector jobs that might arise from a new economic crisis. These are concerns that Labour failed to address, because, as we now see, much of its core support disagreed. Middle ground voters in England became so afraid of the consequences of a Labour government (and especially one dependent on the SNP), that they happily ditched the Lib Dems, who were also trying to pitch for their votes.
But Mr Cameron understands other things about these middle ground voters, which make both Labour and Lib Dem politicians uncomfortable. They are suspicious of the European Union, but open to pragmatic arguments for staying in. They are nervous about immigration, especially (whisper it) of those from Islamic countries. But they also don’t want to be racist. Mr Cameron treads this ground with skill.
What the conference made clear was Mr Cameron’s strategy for his party, shared by his chief ally, the Chancellor George Osborne. He plans to set up a fortress in the centre ground, much as the Labour leader Tony Blair did for his party, to secure its hegemony over British politics. He will continue to push through his largely neoliberal economic policy, and in particular a dramatic rolling back of tax credits. They hope to reduce the overall cost of the state to a historically low level, by making further cuts – though trying to preserve the beloved National Health Service. Within this overall framework Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne want to tackle three important issues: the European Union; the economic weakness of northern England; and the country’s overheated housing market.
On the EU, Mr Cameron aims to “renegotiate” Britain’s terms, and then present the country with an in-out referendum. This is a bold enterprise, not least because his party cares deeply about it, and mainly disagrees with him. It could profoundly change the party he leads; it could even destroy it. Losing the referendum (i.e. taking the country out of the EU) would cause his whole project to unravel.
On the north, the duo’s approach is to devolve and invest. This will be very interesting to observe – their approach is surely sounder than previous attempts to address the issue. They hope that it will revive the party’s fortunes in the north, much as Mr Blair revived Labour’s in the south (ground that Labour has now lost).
On housing Mr Cameron seems to be surrendering to the conventional economic wisdom – that is a simple game of numbers, and that setting targets for new homes, and taking a firm hand on planning delays, will help ease the crisis and make home ownership more widely available. Social housing plays no role in their thinking; neither is there a recognition of the pernicious role of cheap finance. Few feel that their strategy has sound foundations. Housing looks like something of a Tory blind spot – they draw too much support from owners of homes who enjoy the sky-high prices. They may yet surprise us though.
The biggest problem with Mr Cameron’s plan to establish Tory hegemony is his wish to step down as party leader and Prime Minister before the close of the parliament. None of his possible successors has his touch. Mr Osborne is a better strategist, but the public will find it harder to trust him. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, is playing to the party’s right, endangering her centre-ground credentials as she does so. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, has flair but lacks depth. A messy transfer of power could easily upset the project.
Two other hazards await, just to deal with the known unknowns. The first is Scotland. The SNP’s dominance remains unchallenged. Mr Cameron has not played his cards well here, with a particularly foolish bid for “English votes for English Laws” made too hastily of last year’s independence referendum. He does not like to fiddle with the British constitution, and yet some kind of federal settlement, involving much such fiddling, looks to be the only way to seize the initiative. If the SNP were to secure a second referendum and win it, it would be catastrophic for the Tories – who set much prestige on the union, even though it actually makes life harder for them politcally. Just fighting them off could be a massive distraction.
The second hazard is the economy. All looks well for now, and yet the growing problems in “emerging” economies threaten the developed world’s financial system. This could cause a new financial blow-up just as the US sub-prime market did in 2007 and 2008. That could dent the government’s reputation for economic competence, which is core to its appeal.
But such is the weakness of Britain’s opposition parties, that it is hard to believe that even these troubles could stop the Tories. But things can change quickly in politics.
And this demonstrates a political truth that all should ponder. Political success requires both a strong core vote and an appeal to middle ground voters. It is a hard conjuring trick. Labour failed to, or were unable to, understand and appeal to the middle ground. The Lib Dems failed to develop and retain a core vote. Mr Cameron has pulled off this trick for the Tories. He successor may fail. And that would make British politics very turbulent indeed.