The Conservative Party can smell blood. From top to bottom, the Tories are quietly on a leadership contest footing. From the sycophantic circus of contenders making their case from barely-veiled manifestos in Sunday paper splashes, to the ConservativeHome polling of Tory members that puts Theresa May as the party’s second least popular senior figure, the crossheads of power in the party are searching for a new target.
What’s alarming, though, is how little we know about the vision behind each of the plausible candidates – David Davis, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Amber Rudd, and so on. Instead, each is defined merely by their avatar, their intra-Tory meme: David the steady-hand Brexiteer; Boris the populist vote-winner; Priti the new-generation candidate; Amber the tough-on-crime closet liberal.
None of these memes comes with a serious intellectual movement behind them.
This comes from the Conservative Party’s failure to “do” ideas. Not only has there been an intellectual chasm at the heart of the Tory party for almost a decade, there’s been a total failure to communicate those ideas.
The Conservative Party of 2010 was rooted in ideas. There were new approaches, such as “hug a hoodie”, husky photo-ops, and the “Big Society”. Lots of this was nebulous and a bit vague, but it showed that they were thinking. Back then, the Tories looked like they were a party that had had a quiet sit in the corner and thought about what it wanted to be.
By 2015, that vital process of thought and reflection was totally gone. Going into the election, the message was entirely focussed on competence, and on messaging. Ideas were null at this point; Cameronism had been completely hollowed out by 2015. He had gone from the bright young face of the new Tories who wanted to do things differently into the “middle-class dad” with a few grey streaks who could be trusted to keep us on track. He was a hashed-out cliché of competence in pursuit of power, and it worked.
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By 2017, it wasn’t just that the Conservative Party had no ideas – it also didn’t know how to handle ideas when it found them. So when Nick Timothy’s big version of the New Conservatism came along, the party imploded in the face of an idea.
A Tory staffer I know said the problem was that Mayism (aka, Timothyism) never introduced itself. Where a slow-brewing process was needed, introducing the party to an idea in order for them to introduce the country to that idea, we instead saw an alien concept launched in a hurry.
With no time to brew its bold concepts, this package of ideas was vulnerable to the first person to notice something untoward. The Tory manifesto of 2017 was killed by whoever invented the “Dementia Tax” phrase; it transformed the way that document was approached. From then on, every sentence was open to scrutiny and ridicule in an extreme way.
While Nick Timothy and his school of thought brought ideas back to the Tories beyond the technocratic drill of “strong and stable”, there was no space for intellectualism in the party machine.
Where the Conservatives needed to show they had clear ideas and vision to make Britain better in five years’ time, the party machine churned out the same tired old nonsense, rejigged to fit Theresa May and Brexit.
At the same time, Labour has become obsessed with ideas. It can’t get enough of them. The party seemed to question everything after its 2010 and 2015 defeats: Which Miliband brother represents who th party wants to be; how much it could work with the ideas behind Blue Labour; which bits of Brownism does it carry forward; can Blairism survive the crash; did they party lose because it was too left-wing, not left-wing enough, or just not very good?
The Labour party became intellectually obsessive in a distinctly leftish way – always questioning and obsessing, constantly splitting into factions that were often more important than the fact of being a Labour member. Civil war constantly erupted between Kendall’s neo-Blairites, Cooper’s New Brownism, Burnham’s Northernism, Umunna’s vague modernism, and Corbyn’s far-left approach – not to mention the constant sideline sniping from any of Progress, Blue Labour, Open Labour, or the Fabian Society, to name but a few.
Perhaps, counter-intuitively, that was a good thing. Even in the party’s darkest days, it had a whole host of ideas from which to gather a pick ‘n’ mix. Ideas always mattered.
To suggest that the electorate really looks to the party with the largest number of voluptuous intellectual tomes behind it come polling day is obviously silly.
But the context – of ideas versus none – creates an environment in which shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry’s slam-dunk line, that “We have a vision for Britain and the Tories do not” sticks with new voters. A rumbling impression builds over time. Labour seems to have a future in mind, while the Tories merely want to stay in power for the sake of staying in power.