The Problem with the Conservative Party
It's probably not the one you think it is.
Sometimes, when overwhelmed by morbid curiosity, or procrastinating something particularly important, I find myself reading the Wikipedia pages of plane crashes. Thanks to the data recovered from black boxes, especially the cockpit voice recordings, the last moments of flights can be recreated with vivid accuracy. The most interesting are those caused largely by human error.
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In those final fateful moments, you can observe highly intelligent, highly trained professionals making error after error, gradually dooming them and their passengers. Despite the ringing alarms of the onboard systems, they lose sight of what they are doing or how to avoid the impending doom. They pull the joystick, instead of releasing it, they shut down the working engine instead of the failing one, or sometimes the two pilots pull in different directions, cancelling each other out. Eventually, they hit the Point of No Return and, shortly after, the ground.
The current Conservative leadership election has a similar atmosphere. Every day in this interminably long contest, the final two candidates fire out press releases and half-formed policy proposals, only to wind them back in – flailing around the controls they want to wield in a month’s time. Meanwhile, the country slides towards crisis.
Neither Rishi Sunak nor Liz Truss appears to recognise or acknowledge the looming problems Britain faces, both in the short and the long term. Analysts predict that this winter the energy price cap (a cap lifted more often than that of a subservient chimney sweep) will hit £4,400. For the average household, this will represent 14% of their post-tax income. As an isolated threat, that would mean deep discomfort for many. Combined with other price rises and increasing interest rates, it will mean destitution. Government will have to act to prevent this, yet everything promised so far is lacklustre.
The grants already in place will cover less than 10% of the cap limit. Abolishing VAT on domestic fuel would knock another two hundred quid or so off, while removing the green levy would drop it by £155. It’s piecemeal help in the face of a massive problem and failing to address it now will only mean more hurried help when the bills start dropping on doorsteps.
It might be forgivable if that were the only issue where the candidates seemed oblivious. But everywhere you look, the country faces massive challenges that the governing party has no answer to. Friends have written at length about the Tory failure to tackle the housing crisis. I shan’t repeat their arguments, save to say that throughout the leadership contest there has been no serious attempt to remedy this. Rishi Sunak has swung behind defending the greenbelt, whilst Liz Truss has prevaricated and developed an obsession with “Soviet style targets”. Anyone who has managed KPIs will tell you, if there is no target for something, the target is zero.
Beyond this, Britain looks forward to running out of water and electricity. Infrastructure projects that could have alleviated this have been bandied around and frustrated for decades, and little can be done to turn it around on short notice. Yet equally, there is limited planning now for the threats of decades hence. They say the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, and the second-best time is today. In Britain, the second-best time to begin is after three preliminary reports, two judicial reviews and a general election. The best time is never.
Even in foreign and military policy, the natural home of the Conservative politician, things look bleak. Whilst the country has performed well in arming Ukraine, its own defence commitments have been mealy mouthed. Promised rises are undermined by inflation and clever accounting, while procurement remains scandalously wasteful and the UK eliminates its own tanks more efficiently than its Javelin missiles deal with Russian ones. With beautiful bureaucracy, a chunk of our defence spending goes on consultants planning the next round of cuts and another chunk on how to cope with the last ones.
This blog isn’t, however, meant to be a mere catalogue of the UK’s woes. Instead, these issues are served up to highlight what I consider the most pervasive and surprising problem the Tory Party faces: that the Party doesn’t care about politics.
That is not to say that the Party doesn’t care about winning elections. It remains ruthlessly committed to that and its record is clear. Even after the crashing scandals of the Johnson era, the incoming PM has a fighting chance of securing the next election, giving the Tories nearly twenty years in power. The problem is that they no longer understands why or to what end they wield such power.
Those on the left would be shocked by how apolitical most of the Conservative Party is. There is no theory in conservative politics. I suspect no more than a handful of Tory MPs have ever read Burke or Hayek, unless they cropped up on a PPE reading list. They will be far more familiar with Isabel Oakeshott than Michael.
Factionalism within the Party is driven far more by aesthetics than by ideology. One (former) MP once told me that when he asked his association why they had picked him for the safe seat, he was told “It was the lovely way you spoke about your wife at the selection”. Many MPs come to parliament without any real belief than a view that “good things are good, and we should do more of them, and bad things are bad”. I’ve met less than half a dozen mainstream Tories who could be classed as ideologues.
At its best, this makes the Party flexible and pragmatic, able to pivot around the issues of the day. At its worst, and it really seems to be falling into the worst now, it becomes listless, incapable and slightly baffled by the power it holds. It’s the cat that has finally caught the laser pointer.
Rather than principles or goals, the Tory Party today lives for day-to-day, object level reactions to the things that catch its eye. Most MPs have no understanding of economics, but instead repeat half-remembered maxims about lower taxes (we are, it seems, forever to the right of the Laffer curve), whilst at the same time celebrating the latest boondoggle that happens to land in their constituency. In the same vein, you see the Tory MPs who have started to get their head around the housing crisis call for more housebuilding everywhere except where it threatens some historic carpark or sacred waste ground on their patch. They will tweet almost back-to-back about the unaffordability of homes and their objection to a new development.
This track record of the current government is testament to this. Despite coming to power with a majority of 80, as close to total control of the British state as you can have, the government has failed to push forward on any of its purported objectives. It is bizarre to see left wing commentators talk of the “rise of the far right” or the democratic backsliding associated with post 2019 Conservatism, when those I know on the right laugh darkly at the impotence of the government.
The government which claimed to be hard-line on immigration did nothing to reduce it. The government that seeks to be tough on crime has seen petty crime become almost legal. The government that complains about “woke-culture” has done nothing at a legislative level to prevent it. The Party, even with all the resources of the state at its disposal cannot even achieve its own aims most of the time.
The Tory Party is not driven by some grand policy agenda, but simply grasping at shiny objects. It passes repetitive, unnecessary and ultimately inoffensive laws that criminalise nothing new – like dog theft or assaults on emergency workers. Or else spends its time complaining that the world, the civil service and the blob is against it. The Party once sought to campaign in poetry and govern in prose, now it campaigns in shitposts and governs in tweets.
Even on its beloved Brexit, the Party tries to stoke an ongoing threat that it might be undone or revoked or strangled at birth rather than engage with the realities of leaving the EU. With the simple in and out completed, the Party has no clue whether Britain’s future is Singapore on Thames or shoring up the dying embers of Red Wall industries. Instead, it jumps to silly-season headlines on imperial measures and crowns on pint glasses.
There is ultimately an emptiness at the heart of the current Conservative Party. Its politics and principles are skin deep and conflicted. It is apparent in almost everything it does, from Remainer Liz Truss becoming the “Brexit candidate” for leadership to the pious Catholic JRM defending the serial liar and philanderer Boris Johnson to the hilt, or the Tory MPs who claim to be cost conscious whilst vetoing the cheapest way to repair the Palace of Westminster because they like being surrounded by old oak and stone. Everything is an image; everything is a meme.
There is an almost complete absence of policy innovation. The party grasps around for yesterday’s answers to yesterday’s problems, copying the homework of a leader who has been out of power for thirty years and dead for ten. It’s why the party recycles so much from the policy intern brain and fails to come up with anything equal to the challenges we face. It does not even propose simple answers for complex problems – just no answers beyond the triple lock and ever rising house prices.
It is not that the Conservative Party is deliberately and mindfully pursuing ends inimical to British interests. Tory MPs do, mostly, want a prosperous and safe country. They’ve just lost any sense of what that means beyond platitudes, or how to engage with the challenges that stand in our way. The party would rather hide behind the curtain, pulling at levers that aren’t attached to anything.
When I read lots of what is said by the popular left, I’m amazed at the image they have of a scheming, conniving Conservative Party, like the one it alleges is running down the NHS to sell it off to private interests. The reality is far scarier.
In a world where the British economy is stagnating and the population is ageing, there is no way to square the circle without raising taxes or reducing services. The Conservative Party is afraid to have either end of that conversation, so lets it spiral. Those that do foresee the problems look to the magic cure of “efficiency savings”, promised in the same way I promise that next summer I will have a six pack: lacking both a concrete plan to do it, and the discipline to implement anything they did think of.
Instead, all the party can do is say things that appeal to the voters who keep returning it – the generally older, wealthier suburban dwellers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the leadership contest. This weekend, Twitter was ablaze with shock when Rishi Sunak talked about cutting degrees that don't lead to good jobs. Many only the left again took this as an attack on the university sector, or even part of a grand plan to exclude the working classes from the humanities.
In truth, it is neither. It is Sunak appealing to an electorate who came of age when 10% of the population went to university and economic growth carried them to prosperity, who now see their grandchildren laden with debt, unable to buy a home. It’s the “common sense” of the bloke at the end of the Conservative Club bar, nothing more than a trope. It’s not something that will ever seriously happen.
Liz Truss’ plan for every child with three As to be offered an Oxbridge interview is similar politicking. It pays no heed to (i) the burden this places on the university (ii) that for many reasons such a person might not want to go to Oxbridge or (iii) that the highest A-level grade has been A* since 2010. It ignores many of the challenges of widening access, and in particular universities like LSE/UCL/Imperial who have fewer admissions resources per student and make more paper-based decisions which can bias against poorer children.
I could go on through a dozen such announcements – the theme remains the same. Tory MPs, Tory leaders saying what they think the person in front of them wants to hear. No plan for implementation, no plan for adverse consequences, no underpinning logic or principle. They are bricks thrown through windows with no notes attached.
It takes me back to those panic filled cockpits. With an impending crisis, they have lost sight of what levers they hold and what they can do. They’ve lost sight of the mission they need to fulfil, instead debating whether they want the chicken or lamb as the altitude warnings flash. The Conservative Party has fallen into a fundamental problem – it is unwilling and unable to address the needs of the day.
Many people reading this will disagree with me about what those solutions might look like. I am, after all, firmly rooted in the right of centre. But when I look at my own (nominal) party, I feel little but disappointment. From the housing crisis, to the stagnating economy, to law and order, to the health service, there are solutions out there – yet the Party has given up on seeking them, seduced instead by the 24 hour news cycle, the focus group and the Twitter grifters. Neither leadership candidate offers much hope. Sunak looks like he will run the country like a private equity project, cutting any expense he can and damn the consequences, whilst Truss will run it like a village fete of boundless enthusiasm and harking back to the old hits.
Whoever wins in September, the Party will be stuck in the same problem. Even in power it remains incapable of generating and delivering credible policies, incapable of using its resources to tackle the challenges ahead. In an uncertain world it struggles to decide what it wants to do, and even struggles to implement that. The Party has become a machine for garnering headlines and votes but is now starting to stall. Insulated by a media which also focuses on the day-to-day rigmarole of politics-as-soap opera, the leadership are missing the signs of short- and long-term crisis which will soon hit. They are failing to adapt, failing to plan. The sirens are ringing, the ground is coming.
 For more on the useful lessons that can be drawn from this data, see Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success by Matthew Syed.
 No Tory MP could or would entertain a discussion about the shape or accuracy of the Laffer curve.
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