When a political party is in trouble, we see infighting, leak inquiries, resignations, mass loss of council seats, dismissals and botched attempts to depose the leader. But when a party implodes, something different happens: it loses the ability to defend or explain itself. An imploding party can and will lose any argument, no matter how strong its track record. The Tories entered this terminal stage under John Major after the disastrous local elections of 1995, which were followed by their landslide defeat of 1997. With the party now having had its worst set of election since 1995, it looks very much like they might be entering it again.
When John Major left, the economy was in such good shape that it took a typically overspending, over-regulating Labour government a whole decade to ruin it. Wages were at an all-time high, as was disposable income — and yet the Tories were still wiped out. Why? Because they came across as a feuding, disgraceful shambles; a sorry pantomime, which voters wished to bring to an end. Tories are yet again obsessed with their own party, more interested in settling scores than in governing or defeating Labour. They seem unable to work out what they got right, let alone where they are going wrong.
University reform, for example, has been a progressive success. It never made sense for the government to subsidise wealthy students — for as long as the huge subsidies existed, student numbers had to be capped. The fee was expanded to £9,000 and the cap removed. The result: vast expansion, more offers, and more students from poor backgrounds going to university than ever before. Graduates who don’t go on to earn much will never be asked to repay the whole fee. Yet all it took was an attack by Jeremy Corbyn for the Tories to put the entire policy under ‘review’.
On the environment, they also had success: coal-burning in power stations is at the point of being consigned to history. Britain has cut emissions faster than any G20 country since 1990 — carbon emissions have fallen to their lowest level since in Victorian times. The Tories had managed to strike a sensible balance between environmental protection and the need for affordable energy — and yet they end up repeating the soundbites of anti-capitalist protesters. The 16-year-old Greta Thunberg makes headlines because she has what ministers lack: self-confidence.
The Labour party this week produced a video suggesting that extra welfare makes the economy grow. It was well-produced but it made old and easily disproven arguments. Why can’t the Tories communicate the success of their own employment policies? Jobs have been created at a faster rate than at any time in our economic history, wages are growing at the fastest rate in ten years, and a labour shortage has taken power from employers and given it to workers. When Tony Blair came to power, 20 per cent of children were in jobless households. Labour left this at a still shocking 18 per cent. Tory reforms have further reduced this to 12 per cent. This is what progressive government looks like.
School reform has paid dividends, yet since Michael Gove left the education brief the Tories have been unable to recognise, let alone highlight, their success. Most secondary schools have successfully applied to become self-governing academies. Standards are soaring: since Labour left office, the proportion of children in schools rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ has risen from 66 per cent to 85 per cent. This is the surest way to promote opportunity and social mobility. Bad schools, which inflict damage on their communities, are rarer.
As for social justice, the best-paid 1 per cent are now paying a record 28 per cent of all income tax. That is an achievement which ought to warm the heart of any redistributionist — yet the Tories are silent. When Sir Roger Scruton was accused of thought crime, he was sacked within hours. The Tory assumption was that if it came to a fight, they should cave in as soon as possible. It’s not that government ministers are huddled in their bunker. It’s worse. Mentally they are already on trial, pleading leniency in the kangaroo court of their enemy.
Where is the fight? The party is supposed to have been fighting local elections this week, yet its senior figures can barely bring themselves to show their faces. There has been very little visible campaign. No wonder many of the party’s own councillors have all but given up and are threatening to vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.
In 1997, John Major lost to a competent and moderate opposition at least. Theresa May is in danger of suffering an equally calamitous defeat to what would be the most left-wing government in British political history — led by a figure so shambolic that he makes Michael Foot look a statesman. There is still time to avoid that defeat, but it will require a total transformation in the Conservatives’ approach — and of leadership. With every day that Theresa May stays on, the Tories become more closely associated in voters’ minds with incompetence, chaos and defeat. As Sir John found out, such impressions, once formed, take a long time to reverse. It takes a truly incompetent party to create such a disaster from a backdrop of such success. If the Tories cannot replace Theresa May with a better leader, they will deserve what’s coming — even if the country does not.