Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.
Party Conference this year has been rather flat. In large part this is because though there is a great deal of personal respect for Theresa May carrying on in difficult circumstances, I have yet to meet a single person who is privately enthused by the idea of May remaining on into 2022.
I hope that her speech today does focus on Brexit and broad Conservative themes, and does not try to reprise ‘Mayism’. The 2017 Manifesto was responsible for the loss of the majority. I have never seen a document fail to enthuse and actively repel so many voters – it cut the Conservative lead in half, damaged May’s standing and blew apart the entire ‘Strong and Stable’ narrative, and from there on the campaign was in freefall.
You can argue May could have attended the debates or improved her speaking style, but ultimately the Manifesto and then the social care u-turn and loss of confidence were what blew it. As a policy wonk it was nice to see the cynical view that policy does not matter proved wrong, but rather unfortunate we had to lose our majority in order to prove it.
In praise of practical ideology
In the medium term, the Conservatives need intellectual renewal. Indeed, I would argue that ultimately you need ‘practical ideology’ to win and maintain power. That consists of two elements. Firstly, you need a set of guiding ideas and principles, an ideology. Secondly, you need actual and practical policies that implement this ideology and make it concrete and tangible, as well as competent administration of these policies.
For example, the 1945 Labour Government’s Socialist ideology had the NHS, nationalisation, effectively seizing control of the land market, and (unpopular) rationing of consumer goods. The 1979 Thatcher Government had privatisation, restoring the rule of law with the unions, home ownership, a strong national identity and tax cuts – creating a successful ideology blending conservative and liberal ideas into ‘Thatcherism’, until a slowing economy and pro-European Cabinet colleagues brought Thatcher down.
It is impossible to say what May’s practical ideology is, and therefore at present, what our party’s is. The 2017 Manifesto was not just about social care – but the reason that social care got so much attention was because other than Brexit, some rather aggressive broadsides at the libertarian faction of our party, and some interesting points about technical education, there was little else concrete within it.
So much of political journalism is effectively playground gossip – fascinating but ultimately almost entirely pointless. The arguments about our great party deserve to be more than Ruth Davidson ‘slapping down’ Boris Johnson or speculation about David Davis’ retirement date. We need a practical ideology that can win over people and guide our Government.
We praise capitalism without even understanding it
Indeed, so weak is much of our political classes’ interest in ideas and practical ideology that possibly one of the greatest ironies of May’s premiership passed unnoticed. Theresa May went to the Bank of England to make a speech praising capitalism. The Bank of England, through a group of bureaucrats centrally plans and decides what the rate of interest, otherwise known as the price of capital, should be. You can argue how this works or if it is compatible with wider capitalism, but you cannot argue it is capitalist.
Indeed, I would go further and argue since the abandonment of monetarism in the mid 1980s, this determination has been done without any reference to the supply or demand for money but instead rather nebulous and vague theories about the level of demand that Government can induce in an economy to create growth. You might as well make a speech about the joy of sex in a nunnery.
Yet this went completely unremarked, despite the fact that monetary policy has a key part to play in issues from collapsing pensions to high house prices. We need to do better and think harder if we are to win the battle of ideas and so hearts and minds.
We need a long leadership campaign where candidates’ practical ideology is tested
Corbyn may have a vast array of failings, but he understands socialism as a practical ideology and he is marching forward with both an ideological framework and a set of popular retail policies that connect. Simply banging on about the socialist 1970s, when by 2022 you would have to be 60 or so to even have voted in 1979, will not cut it. We need our own vision.
When May does stand down, hopefully having done her party and country a great service by getting Brexit on the right track, we need to have a decent leadership campaign. In the panic that followed David Cameron’s resignation, a campaign from nowhere that lasted for just over a week sufficed to leave Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May standing. This was absurd. Great drama, awful way to select a Prime Minister.
By contrast, the two most successful leaders of our party in recent decades, David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher, both won in elections which took months. In Government this is difficult, but we at least need three weeks among MPs and three weeks in the country to test our candidate’s practical ideology. We must not elect in haste to repent at leisure.
Housing, Housing, Housing
That said, the one area where May must act now is housing. I remember being practically booed in 2011 on panels when I argued if the Tory party did not build a great many more homes it would unelectable within a decade. Nick Boles was similarly vilified but proved right by events and deserves credit for his stand.
Now everyone is – at least in theory – behind more homes. May needs to make this a reality and actually implement critical policies around the delivery test and intervention to grant permissions in local authorities failing to deliver sufficient homes. She must not be distracted by second order policies and she must get the politics right on intervention.
In addition, I would argue there has been a great mistake in housing policy by Government moving away from the shared ownership model – whereby younger people own a stake in a home that they can increase over time. Even if house prices stabilise or even fall slightly it will take years in much of the country for outright ownership to be realistic. But shared ownership and other policies like Right to Buy (with receipts recycled to more homes) can both help boost ownership now and signal the final destination.
Medium term, I believe that before the next election we can and must still rebuild a practical ideology that reaches out and connects with enough of the British public to win. With Corbyn as our opponent, the stakes could not be higher.