I read somewhere this week that the Conservative Party gathering in Manchester felt like a “Potemkin conference”. It had all the forms of a party conference, with hordes of journalists and lobbyists, but few actual members. That reminded me of something: Liberal Democrat conferences during the coalition era of 2010 to 2015. So, after comparing Jeremy Corbyn to Margaret Thatcher, an ideological leader who had a shaky start before eventually becoming dominant, this time I will compare the Conservative leader and Prime Minster Theresa May to Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister during the coalition.
Nick (I usually use first names for members of my own party) was little known to the public before he burst onto the scene in the 2010 General Election. His performance in the leader debate astounded people, and led to a brief moment of Cleggmania, in which the party stormed up the polls. A concerted press campaign, and a late rally by Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, brought him down to earth somewhat. But the party did well enough to enter coalition with the Conservatives. That was a heady moment for the party; we had hardly dare hope that the party could enter government, and that some of our colleagues would be cabinet ministers. This looked to be another important step towards the party taking its place at the top table of British politics. But that was a serious misreading of the situation. Large numbers of supporters were outraged, support plummeted and membership drained away. And yet the party retained all the outward forms of success, including those Potemkin conferences. Insiders talked up the party’s prospects with various arguments about historical precedent, real achievements and the need for a centre party. But nobody outside the party was fooled. Nick limped on as captain of a sinking ship; nobody wanted to replace him, and a change of leadership looked too risky. The party’s collapse was confirmed in the 2015 General Election.
Theresa May too burst onto the scene suddenly, after the EU referendum did for her predecessor David Cameron, and one by one her rivals for the leadership were sabotaged. Her honeymoon lasted much longer than Nick’s. But then came that fatal moment of hubris when she called an early election. At first it looked a brilliant move that would usher in an era of Tory domination of parliamentary politics, and her personal authority would be unchallenged. The speed with which she fell apart staggered everybody. Suddenly the Conservative Party looks vulnerable: on the wrong side of history and, to mix metaphors, lacking the will to fight its way of the cul-de-sac it finds itself in. The party is haemorrhaging members. It all reminds me of Nick Clegg’s fall from grace in a few weeks in 2010. The Tories cling to power; they try to convince themselves that things aren’t as bad as they look; but to outsiders they look doomed. Only Labour can save them. But they can carry on in this living-dead state for years, just like the Lib Dems in coalition. Or John Major after Black Wednesday in 1992.
But wait, are things really that bad for the Tories? Their poll standing has not collapsed, unlike the Lib Dems after 2010; Labour’s lead is a narrow one – and not enough for that party to win a majority. Labour aren’t following Tony Blair’s strategy of pitching for the centre ground – instead they are trying to present a radical alternative. That gives the Tories more air to breathe. There is a potentially winning coalition of working class Brexit supporters, middle class conservatives, and private sector workers worried about Labour. That was Mrs May’s strategy in the Spring, and it looked like a winning one then. But there are three huge problems for the Tories.
The first is Brexit. After the referendum the party had little choice but to take ownership of it. But there is no coherent plan for Brexit; if there had been such a plan it would have given the remainers something solid to attack, and surely they would have won. There is no political majority to be forged for any particular vision of life after exit. Meanwhile Brexit will take the blame for everything that goes wrong in the country for the next decade, regardless of whether that is true or not. British politics is stuck between two incoherent camps who can each prevent the other from ruling effectively. And disruptive change is inevitable. Since hanging on to the certainties of the status quo is usually any government’s best defence, it is fatally undermined. And Labour’s radicalism doesn’t look so bad compared to the crazy talk of the more radical wing pro-Brexit Tories, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg. This looks a hard situation for even the most capable government to handle.
The second problem for the Tories is demographics. Mrs May’s potentially winning coalition is a shrinking one – it depends disproportionately on older, white voters. And on people who own their own homes. But the proportion of such people is shrinking relentlessly. Somehow the party needs to break out of this bind to appeal to younger voters, and those renting their homes. Mrs May seems to understand this, but has little idea how to do it without putting off the party’s core support. A few gestures about building more houses will not be enough.
And thirdly there is the party itself. It has been shrinking for some time. There is a story circulating that its rank and file membership is now smaller than even the Lib Dems, who have seen a membership surge since 2015. No doubt fear of Labour will keep money flowing into the party – but a political campaign based on money rather than grassroots support is a fragile thing. Mr Cameron’s success in 2015 took years of careful preparation; the absence of such preparation was painfully apparent in the Tory campaign this year. And yet the party now lacks the stability and consistency of leadership needed for such planning to work. Things are hardly better when looking at the party’s elite: its parliamentary party. Mrs May is a gritty and determined leader, but lacks political skill, and her authority is shot. But her main rival, Boris Johnson, looks a more effective rebel than a leader. He showed no great skill or leadership in his role as Mayor for London, which is hardly the most demanding of jobs. In Lib Dem terms he is Tim Farron to Mrs May’s Nick Clegg (though, I need to add, that Nick has far more political skill than Mrs May). For all Tim’s talents he fell short of what was needed for the top job. And yet four years of the party being hollowed out under Mrs May’s leadership is a pretty much a guarantee of disaster.
The Conservatives have no serious rivals on the political right. Ukip has collapsed. The Lib Dems ar interested in picking off the Conservatives’ more liberal supporters, but not its core vote. The party can surely reinvent itself – just as the Lib Dems are doing. But you can’t do that in government. Tory prospects for the next five years look dismal indeed.