Regardless of who leads it, the Conservative party now has the opportunity to cling to office, possibly even for the rest of this five-year Parliament. They’re the biggest party and a deal with the DUP is the basis for forming a new government.
But that’s only the start. To remain in office, the Conservatives are going to have to accept a lot of compromises. They’re going to have to compromise on Brexit, and thus on immigration. They’re going to have to compromise on economic policy (spend more, cut less) and markets (intervene more). They’re going to have to compromise with the Scottish voters who threw them a parliamentary lifeline by endorsing Ruth Davidson’s humane, moderate Conservatism.
And they’re going to have to compromise with Jeremy Corbyn, or at least the forces that propelled his Labour party to more than 40 per cent of the vote. That achievement cannot be ignored or understated. It also demands an apology. I’ve never doubted that Corbynism could have popular appeal; indeed, left-wing economic populism could do very well in Britain.
But if I thought the message could work, I was wrong about the messenger. Mr Corbyn may not have the seats, but he has the moral victory over those of us who considered him personally poisonous to his party’s prospects. For all the questions about his competence and his highly dubious friends, voters in large numbers bought what he was selling.
That is part of an election result that suggests a bigger appetite for a bigger state than many people had assumed. Remember before the election the analysis that the two big parties were both offering manifestos that would give the state a bigger role in the economy and a new approach to markets? Well those two parties got nearly 85 per cent of the vote.
That is a central fact that the Conservatives will have to accept if they want to cling to power now. There will be some who will argue that the result was a rejection of Mrs May’s meddlesome approach to markets and Nick Timothy’s repudiation of ‘untrammelled free markets’. The Tory right may conjure up their imagined history of Margaret Thatcher and demand a ‘proper’ Tory platform: low taxes and a small state.
That would be deeply unwise and probably suicidal. The public, weary and angry after years of falling real wages, want a new approach to the economy and the market, where the state has a role in making that market work for people. Call it a social market, if you like.
In Tory terms, whatever happens to Mrs May, Mayism must continue, at least as far as markets are concerned. Whatever else this election result was, it was not a demand for unrestrained free-market economics.
Another compromise will be with young voters — and yes, they do vote. They turned out for a man who looked like he understood their anger over housing, education and the future. Mr Corbyn’s answers may not be the right ones but he asked the right questions. To survive the coming months and years, Tories need to think harder and more boldly about home ownership, the labour market and a tax-and-welfare system that still transfers too much from the young to the old.
The same goes for Brexit and immigration. The pre-election belief that we must leave the single market in order to cut immigration substantially is now in question. Voters are clearly open to compromise here, as recent SMF research has suggested.
There may be Tories who continue to press for the hardest of Brexits. Perhaps they think this result will strengthen their hand. They should realise that’s not so. The DUP will demand compromise from any Tory PM and so will Labour MPs. Without the DUP and a degree of cooperation with sensible, moderate Labour MPs, any minority Tory government is impotent and possibly doomed.
In short, whoever leads it, to stay in power and govern, the Conservative party will have to accept things on Brexit and the economy that it may find uncomfortable. Because that is the only way to govern for any period of time.
And make no mistake, that should be the objective for any self-preserving Conservative party. Of course, some Tories will argue for another early election where they’ll claim that they can win a clear mandate for their agenda. The past 24 hours proves beyond doubt that seeking such an election would be nothing less than insanity.