The Tory party is having the wrong conversation. Whenever two or three Conservative MPs are gathered together, they discuss who should succeed Theresa May. They lament that the front-runners all have their flaws, scan the ministerial list for a ‘dark horse’ candidate — and debate whether it’d be better for May to go at this autumn’s conference or to hang on until the end of the Brexit talks.
But rather than discussing who should succeed May, and when, they should be thinking about what should succeed her. The general election campaign confirmed that the Prime Minister is no saleswoman. What should worry the Tories more, though, is how little she had to sell. Back in government, the threadbare nature of the Tory agenda is even more obvious. If it were not for the Brexit-related legislation, this Queen’s speech would have been embarrassingly brief.
The 2017 Tory manifesto echoed Beveridge in identifying ‘five great challenges’ facing the country. The Beveridge report, however, had an answer to its five evils: the creation of the modern welfare state. The Tory document did not. It told the country what was wrong with it, not how to fix it.
The first thing that the party needs now is a vision for Brexit. Whatever the Chancellor might think of it, the Tories own this issue. It was a Tory prime minister who delivered the referendum, Tory politicians who led the Leave campaign, and a Tory government that is negotiating the terms of departure. If Brexit goes wrong, it will be the Tories who get the blame.
So how do the Conservatives make a success of Brexit? Well, part of it is negotiating a sensible deal with the EU. But just as important is working out how the deal fits with a vision of the UK’s future. They need to address the question of how the UK will make its way in the world, after Brexit. The answer should be about free trade, free markets and a sensible immigration policy driven not by a numerical target but the need for European and global talent.
The next thing the Tories need to address is how badly they are doing not just among young people, but among the under-44s. The Tories can comfort themselves that Labour’s 35-point lead among 18 to 24-year-olds is a product of the Corbyn policy of scrapping tuition fees. But the Tories’ 16-point deficit among 35 to 44-year-olds is harder to explain away. These are people who, if the Tories were doing their job properly, should have realised that the facts of life are conservative. Almost as alarming for the centre right is that the Tory lead over Labour among 45 to 54-year-olds is only three points.
The explanation for the Tories’ poor performance, as with so many other things in Britain, comes back to property and the broken nature of the housing market. Among those who own their home outright, the Tories have a whopping 25-point lead. But among renters it is a very different story. The Tories trail by 23 points among those in the private rental sector, while those in social housing give Labour a 31-point lead.
The phrase ‘property-owning democracy’ was first brought into use in these pages 90-odd years ago by the Scottish Unionist Noel Skelton. In a series of essays responding to Labour replacing the Liberals as the main opposition to the Tories, he argued that a property-owning democracy was necessary to ‘bridge the gulf set between Labour and Capital; to present a view of life in which private property, instead of being reckoned, as the Socialist reckons it, a shameful thing, shall be recognised to be an essential vehicle for the moral and economic progress of the individual’. He warned that without it, Conservatism would not be able to ‘withstand the shrill and angry gales which, in the new era’s uneasy dawn, sweep across the world of men’.
With the hard left closer to power in Britain than they have ever been, Skelton’s words seem prophetic. The Tories have let the idea of the property-owning democracy go into reverse. Home ownership is now at its lowest level since 1986, when Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy programme was at full throttle. The average age of first-time buyers has increased 10 per cent in the last 20 years: from 30 in 1994-95 to 33 in 2014-15. The Tories cannot carry on expecting people who have no capital to be capitalists.
It is imperative that the Tories get a large number of new houses built — and fast, preferably before the next election. But even Conservative MPs who recognise this fact say that they still couldn’t vote to allow any building on the green belt. This is so short-sighted as to be blind. Jeremy Corbyn’s willingness to talk about requisitioning homes show where politics is heading, unless more people get on the property ladder. If Britain ceases to be a property-owning democracy, the best defence against populism will have been washed away.
The Tories must also recover their moral mission. They should remember that, at its best, welfare reform is driven by the desire to save lives, not money. On education, they should be shouting from the rooftops that 86 per cent of pupils are now in good or outstanding schools, compared to 66 per cent when they came to power. They need to become better at lauding their own achievements. For instance, how many voters know that the improvements at primary level have been most pronounced in schools with the most deprived pupils? Since they came to power, it has too often seemed that Theresa May and her team were more interested in differentiating themselves from David Cameron and George Osborne than from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. As a result, the Tory record of public service reform is an untold, and unsold, story.
The next few years will be critical for the future of Conservatism. If they don’t get Brexit right and if they allow Corbyn to become prime minister, the Tories will have failed in their patriotic duty. As Skelton warned in these pages all those years ago, ‘if Conservatism fails to show the nation an alternative line of advance, it would have to bear the blame should the people come to the conclusion that the only way forward lay along the Socialist path, however desperate and perilous that might be.’