The Tory party is suffering from an intellectual crisis of confidence. Before 8 June, its collective view was that Jeremy Corbyn was simply too left-wing to be a serious candidate for the prime ministership in modern Britain. He hadn’t learnt the lessons of Labour’s defeats in the 1980s, and while he might excite a noisy 35 per cent of the electorate, thought the Tories, he’d never be able to put together a general election-winning coalition.
Corbyn, however, came closer to victory than any Tory had expected. His Labour party got 40 per cent of the vote and took seats off the Tories. Not one of them had seen it coming and, a month on, they are still trying to come to terms with what happened. They are wondering whether they got the electorate wrong, whether their campaigning approach can work in the modern era and if austerity (even they now use this pejorative word for balancing the books) should just be abandoned. The Tory party is behaving like a balloonist who has lost altitude unexpectedly and is, in panic, prepared to chuck almost anything overboard in an attempt to regain height.
But before fiscal conservatism is jettisoned, they should stop and think. There are better arguments in favour of their policies and principles than the ones they have been making. There is nothing inevitable about a massive shift to the left. Indeed, the manifesto that did them so much damage was itself a move to the left. It seemed more interested in attacking a caricature of the right than in advancing conservatism. A different approach would almost certainly have seen them home. Politically, the Tories should also remember that if they end up offering Diet Corbynism, voters are likely to favour the real thing.
Corbyn’s momentum won’t be halted by technocratic argument or by simply hoping he runs out of road. Instead, the Tories need to make the case for their values with conviction, clarity and consistency.
Take tuition fees. Rather than talking apologetically about the need for a ‘national debate’ on the matter, as Damian Green bizarrely did at the weekend, the Tories should be making the social-justice case for them. They should be relentlessly pointing out that scrapping fees, as Corbyn wishes, would amount to a massive bung to the middle classes. What is progressive about having someone stacking supermarket shelves subsidise the Oxbridge law degree of a future commercial QC? Corbyn’s supposedly progressive agenda is often just a cover for the economic self-interest of the intelligentsia.
At the same time, the Tories should move to sort out the mess that is the Student Loan Company. Given how cheaply government can borrow, it is hard to see the justification for the more than six per cent interest rate that is to be charged on student loans. They also should be on the side of the students and teaching staff against greedy vice-chancellors, who have somehow managed to end up paying themselves, on average, more than a quarter of a million pounds a year.
In the Tory election postmortem, the public-sector pay cap has been identified as part of the problem by cabinet ministers and the new Downing Street chief of staff, Gavin Barwell. The policy does save a considerable amount of money. But it is not one that fiscal conservatives should die in a ditch to defend — it is a fairly blunt instrument. Scrapping it, though, would make the Tories look as if they were simply dancing to Labour’s tune. It would be better to reform pay in the public sector more generally. Annual ‘progression payments’ should go, to be replaced by more performance--related measures, and more salaries should be set locally, not nationally.
There is currently little Tory appetite for this kind of intellectual combat. But even if the pay cap is lifted there will be a row: not everyone will get what they think they are entitled to. For instance, the Treasury is sympathetic to a rise for nurses, given the staff retention problems in the NHS, but it is far less inclined to give police officers a substantial increase. If there is going to be a fight, it might as well be on the Tories’ terms.
Some argue that the public is simply weary of deficit reduction, so the Tories must abandon it. But the problem is more that Britain has had the wrong sort of austerity. The decision to load so many cuts on to local government was politically—not economically— driven. It has contributed to the social-care crisis and degraded some of the services most relied on by voters. However, the case for fiscal conservatism and against Corbynite profligacy can still be made.
One of the great mistakes of the Tory manifesto — almost as big an error as the dementia tax — was the failure to include any costings. This threw away one of the great advantages a governing party has: setting the baseline for spending and taxes. If the Tories had done this, they would have been able to respond to all of Labour’s spending pledges by asking whether they intended to raise taxes or borrow to pay for it. Ultimately, this would have put Labour’s spending plans at the centre of a debate about how much they would cost working households. Voters are canny enough to know that you can’t spend as much as Corbyn is planning to and just have the rich pick up the tab.
The Tories were oddly reluctant to say this. Another thing they were unwilling to point out was the deficit they had inherited and the progress they’d made in reducing it. I understand that suggestions from ministers that they should remind voters of the infamous Liam Byrne ‘There is no money’ note were rebuffed.
These are not easy times for the Tory party. The Prime Minister is a lame duck, the far left is closer to power than it has ever been in Britain and the property-owning democracy, the best defence against populism, is in decline. Abandoning fiscal conservatism would not solve any of these problems, though. Instead, the Tories should be making the proper case for it. That’s what would halt Corbyn’s momentum.