Wanted: A Tory candidate with the faintest idea of what modern Britain really looks like | John Harris
Ssomeone is missing in the Conservative leadership race. I have no idea who they are or what exactly they would do to Conservative MPs and party members. But as we approach the point where there are only two candidates left, their absence becomes all the more glaring.
The country that the remaining pretenders say they want to rule is in deep trouble. Their party has now lost three of its most secure seats in by-elections. Conservative support among young people is negligible and may well decline further. Faced with this image, you would expect at least one top candidate to argue for an ideological overhaul. But at the heart of the whole show is a nagging tension. Outwardly, a contest dominated by women and people of color might suggest a party in tune with modernity, but arguments between contenders have so far betrayed a telling mix of bigotry and political nostalgia.
A huge amount of energy has been spent talking about tax cuts, and a debate only about whether they should come sooner – or, in the opinion of Rishi Sunak, later. There are support at all levels – even of Tom Tugendhat, the supposed representative of a more compassionate conservatism – for send refugees to Rwanda, surely the most monstrous conservative policy of the last 12 years. Amid baking temperatures, there was almost no serious discussion about the climate emergency. To the delight of his supporters in the right-wing media, Kemi Badenoch, the only serious contender who seemed to offer anything radical, seems to want post-Thatcherian Toryism to be taken to its logical conclusion, that government does no more than “the essentials”; though the politicians responsible for it must also guard against any element of culture deemed unhealthy (remarkably, one of its chosen targets is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, as if speaking on behalf of an imaginary constituency of diehards who pass Waitrose’s freezers and spit feathers).
In response to any suggestion that fundamental change is needed, any staunch Tory would likely cite their party’s victory by an 80-seat majority in the Commons. But its aura of strength is partly due to an equally weak and confused Labor Party – and in any case, the Tories now face an indisputable and increasingly uncomfortable set of political facts. If Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman and zealous Brexit convert Liz Truss often sound like politicians frantically trying to change the country before it’s too late, it may be because somewhere in their political subconscious , they know that their time is running out.
In 1983, Conservative support among 18-24 year olds who voted was just over 40%; by 2019, that had almost halved. This is partly because the market economy has completely failed young people, but there are other changes at work. Last week I heard a brilliant lecture by historian David Olusoga on the legacy of the British Empire, in which he spoke of the primary schools in Manchester, Bristol, London and Birmingham, whose classes are now very diverse , often polyglot and increasingly full. of children whose heritage is complex and multifaceted. This, he said, is the new Britain that will be fully coherent by 2040. In my experience, the kind of political and attitudinal changes that this vision entails have long since reached young people, even in Brexit-friendly places. The United Kingdom of the near future, in short, will surely not be a country agitated by flags, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s vision of history, serial cruelty to those deemed foreigners and fighting without end with Brussels.
To some extent, such changes are already here. The Tories have now lost any real presence in just about every major UK city and, following the Tories’ transformation into a Brexit party, their former rock-solid presence elsewhere now appears to be weakening. They no longer run the council centered on Tunbridge Wells; in the town of St. Albansthe archetypal bedroom community, they have just four seats out of the Lib Dems’ 50. Whenever you see Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Conservative backbench committee, remember that Altrincham, the central town of his Greater Manchester constituency, now has three Green Party councilors in a borough of affluent suburb – Trafford – which the Tories lost to Labor in 2018. What all this tells you is quite simple: the Tory party takes the Daily Mail’s view of the middle class far too seriously, without realizing that – partly thanks to the expansion of higher education – it is increasingly very different.
A reinvented toryism to respond to these changes would hardly convince many of us, but still: conservatives could perhaps retain their underlying skepticism of the state and their belief in the market, while remaining flexible enough to at least deal with our current economic crisis, and to have a more convincing approach to climate policy. With a new way of thinking, party leaders could do much more to revive the dream of proprietary democracy. They could also continue to extol the value of marriage and family, provided that families now come in different shapes and sizes; a kind of softer social conservatism, indeed, could appeal to large swaths of the population, including many ethnic minority voters. What should go away, however, is the bitter, nasty strand of politics that dominates, shutting down all non-Thatcherite thought, continually seeking enemies and trying to put an end to the revolutions of yesteryear.
Most incompletely, some Conservative MPs and members are beginning to understand all of this. This may explain the unexpected popularity of Trade Secretary Penny Mordaunt: a candidate with socially liberal views and at least a patina of modernity. She is also an ardent Brexiteer. So far, his fuzzy uncertainty is probably an asset. But if she manages to win, that might well be clear, revealing a leader at the mercy of her party’s hard right and familiar Conservative business acumen as usual – a short replay of the Cameron years, perhaps, without his PR glow and his brass neck. .
Last week I read Biggerthe 2020 book that Mordaunt co-wrote with Chris Lewis, the counselor who for some reason pretends to be her”Large Enchilada”. It’s a very strange text, which slaps on a “mission to modernize” without ever really specifying what that could mean. Most of his sugary homages to the British character – “Britons prefer a future that is much like the past, only much better,” he says – could be used as a showcase for a change in Tory attitudes and more of the same . Moreover, the fact that the Tories will soon be on their fourth prime minister since 2016 surely shows that, as Mordaunt is rather hard-working wording puts it, their predicament is not really about the leader but about the ship. Smart, forward-thinking curators must surely know: they should soon change course before they collide with the rocks. As this bizarre and twisted contest continues, the question that should haunt them is whether they even can.
John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to the John Politics Weekly UK podcast, search for “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday