A PM with n-o credo and a paltry record, a party with no plan or direction. That’s the Tories now

Feb, 19, 2024 :There is a point past which weakness becomes its own form of security, and that is the paradoxical position in which Rishi Sunak now finds himself. Even in the wake of last week’s disastrous byelections, his leadership seems secure, for the simple reason that nobody vying for the crown wants to seize it this side of the general election.

Security isn’t strength, of course. An already divided party is likely to grow only more mutinous over the following weeks and months, each faction peddling its own remedy for the dire state of Tory polling.

These battles are not unimportant. While it is hard to find anyone now who thinks the next election is winnable for the Tories, closing the gap by even a few percentage points could make the difference between an extinction event and a merely miserable result.

And under our electoral system, where individual seats can be won or lost by tiny margins, a carefully targeted campaign could save seats that might otherwise be lost – if CCHQ is willing and able to dig the political trenches in the right places.

But digging those trenches is a fraught business, because once you do, all those MPs who find their constituencies in no man’s land will notice. (No wonder we might see more than 100 Tories stand down from parliament before the election.)

A good defence relies on making hard choices. Dig in against the Liberal Democrats in the “blue wall”, and stand accused of abandoning the new voters won over by Boris Johnson in 2019. Focus on boxing in the threat of Reform UK, and risk losing more voters to Labour and the Lib Dems, the parties actually positioned to take Conservative seats.

Cut taxes, and potentially alienate an electorate who currently tell pollsters they prioritise public spending; don’t cut taxes, and Jeremy Hunt passes up probably the government’s last opportunity to give voters a tangible reason to choose the Tories over Labour.

Then there’s timing.

But as I wrote in December, there are good reasons why a May election would suit the party. Coinciding with the local elections would not only probably save hundreds of Tory councillors, but also ensure that even activists unenthused by Sunak would be out anyway, fighting for their own seats.

Postpone, and the prime minister risks serious damage to the Conservative ground machine, and all with no guarantee that an extra six months in office will make things better rather than worse. No surprise, then, that rumours of an earlier election are swirling again.

Jeremy Hunt
‘Even Jeremy Hunt’s mooted tax cuts would be illusory, offset by his decision to freeze income tax thresholds.’ Photograph: Hollie Adams/Reuters

To an extent, however, all of this is political shadow boxing. While every faction will have its tactical recommendations for how to fight the election, they are really gearing up for the almighty row that awaits if and when the Conservatives return to opposition.

At its heart will be two related questions. First: how did the Tories manage to go from a historic landslide to what is shaping up to be a historic rout in a single parliament? Second: how did the party manage to spend nearly 15 years in office without managing to do much, beyond Brexit, to move the country in a more conservative direction?

This last is true whatever faction you look at, too, because there is now an almost complete disconnect between the Conservative party’s idea (or indeed ideas) of itself and how it actually governs.

Rhetorically, it continues to cherish low taxes and personal responsibility. In reality, taxation is at a historic high – and even Hunt’s mooted tax cuts would be illusory, offset by his decision to freeze income tax thresholds.

On paper, the party is committed to strong borders and lower immigration. In reality, since 2019 the government has operated one of the most laissez-faire immigration policies this country has seen in modern times. Time and again, the home secretary du jour is tasked with talking tough while the departments of business, education and the Treasury push for higher numbers.

Andrew Rawnsley

Defence? Budgets are falling, and ill-spent. Education? Ministers all but lapsed on to autopilot the moment Michael Gove was sacked. Family policy? Legal childcare has been regulated into a luxury product, and state support is geared entirely around getting parents back into work as soon as possible.

In opposition, the Conservatives are going to have to have a reckoning with all this. What sort of party are they? What is their actual diagnosis for what ails Britain – not the Britain of 1975, which birthed Thatcherism, nor the Britain of 2008, which delivered David Cameron to office, but the Britain of 2024.

Sunak does not really have a place in that battle. Not merely because it will only take place after an election defeat, but because he doesn’t have an ideological dog in the fight. There isn’t a Sunakism.

Thus, unlike Margaret Thatcher, whose infamous pledge to be a “good back-seat driver” reflected a real philosophical stake in the future direction of the party, the prime minister’s Treasury-minded managerialism will depart with him.

Until then, he has the thankless task of trying to salvage the best result possible in an extremely difficult election – a task that depends on forcing hard choices on a party that has proved congenitally incapable of confronting them.

Again, no wonder there’s fresh talk of an election in May.

  • Henry Hill is deputy editor of ConservativeHome

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