David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
British politics is realigning and, as a consequence, the Conservative Party is fundamentally changing. Many white working class voters who previously supported Labour believed that their cultural values were no longer represented (or even respected) by their traditional party. By recognising and responding to this phenomenon, the Conservatives have been able to win over these voters by becoming more socially conservative, nationalist, populist and economically interventionist. In broad terms, it has moved to the right culturally and to the left economically.
This interpretation of our politics is now fairly commonplace. It is certainly a view that I have previously set out on this site, adding that I thought the forces driving this are so strong that the Conservative Party is unlikely to change course any time soon.
This means that those expect that the Conservatives will embrace the free market or become more socially liberal and internationalist (amongst whom are many good friends whose opinions I respect) are, sadly, likely to be disappointed.
Having made bold predictions in the past about the trajectory of the Conservative Party, now seems as good a time as any to assess the current situation. The Conservatives have just held their conference and although the week was almost entirely without policy announcements, the tone and attitudes of the Party were on full display. To what extent is this a Party that has changed to reflect a new realignment?
The most compelling evidence is in respect of the big issue of the week (and probably of the autumn) which is shortages in the labour supply caused (or at least exacerbated) by Brexit and the ending of freedom of movement.
No one would have expected Boris Johnson to be in any way apologetic for the petrol shortages. He might have been expected to dismiss any link with Brexit, which was broadly the line last weekend. But he went further – arguing that this was the plan all along, that ending the flow of ‘cheap labour’ from the EU would be good news for British workers who would now get higher pay and that, if there were problems, the fault lay with under-paying employers. There might be a few difficulties, but this was a price worth paying as we move to a higher paying economy.
As an argument, it ticks almost every realignment box. It is uncompromisingly pro-Brexit. It is resolutely sceptical about immigration. It is proudly for the low skilled British worker and the case for them to receive more pay and against businesses that are portrayed as letting down British workers by relying on foreigners. It is an argument that is in part left wing and in part right wing, and that is likely to appeal to those new, target voters. (It is also an argument that is embarrassingly economically illiterate, but I will not dwell on that here.)
The second piece of evidence favouring the realignment thesis also relates to Brexit – the approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Northern Ireland was always the hardest issue to address in our departure from the EU (as Gavin Barwell sets out in his excellent account of his time as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff).
The Conservative Party fought a general election on the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement which it described as an ‘oven-ready’ deal, rushed it through Parliament, confirmed the contents of the deal in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement which was – again – rushed through Parliament, and hailed as a triumph. If it wanted to, the Government could downplay the problems with the Protocol, quietly and constructively try to make it work, build up a relationship of trust with the EU, and move on.
Instead, we see Lord Frost – the very person who negotiated the Withdrawal Agreement and Trade and Cooperation Agreement – become increasingly strident in demanding that these agreements be re-opened. This may all get very difficult very soon but, for the purposes of this article, the point I simply want to make is that the attitude to the Northern Ireland Protocol suggests that the political strategy of the Government is not to put Brexit behind us. An antagonistic relationship with the EU appears to be a deliberate political choice for a Government that wants to keep hold of Leave voters at the next general election.
The third example of the politics of realignment influencing Government policy is the surprising appointment of Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary. When Nadine entered Parliament part of the 2005 intake (of which I was also part), it was not obvious that she would one day join the Cabinet. To some extent, she embodies the new Conservative voters – northern, working-class and socially conservative and is a natural culture warrior. It is surely likely that the Prime Minister, in making this appointment, looked forward to her upsetting all the right people. So far, she is doing exactly that.
There is evidence, however, that suggests that the move to a new party that is abandoning all recent Conservative traditions is not quite so straightforward. The Government’s social care plan could be used to support the view that the Conservative party is moving to the left economically.
There is something in this – higher spending and higher taxes – but this is a little more complex. At the heart of the policy is a cap on care costs – which will benefit the propertied classes most. As for the increase in taxes, if spending increases are inevitable, there is nothing un-conservative in paying for it.
Listening to Rishi Sunak’s conference speech, I was struck by how much of it could have been said by George Osborne in setting out why we needed to get the public finances on a sound footing following the Global Financial Crisis.
If we go back to the approach to the public finances that we saw in Sunak’s first Budget in March 2020 (which was largely devised pre-pandemic and turned on the spending taps), and where we are now, the Government is more fiscally conservative than I had expected. The Treasury has dug in on some spending demands and, when it has agreed to more spending (on the NHS and social care), it has done so on the basis that these will be funded by tax increases. Whether the Prime Minister can be convinced to stay this course remains to be seen but the Chancellor’s caution with the public finances (in contrast, apparently, to Liz Truss) is currently winning the day.
A further area where the Government is a little more hesitant in fully embracing realignment is that it is now more conscious of the sensitivities of the Home Counties. For good or ill, planning reform appears to have been dumped, and levelling up appears to be less focused on geographical disparities (what it is focused on is less clear). The Chesham & Amersham by-election has obviously spooked many in the Party.
It should be no surprise that there is an element of cakeism to the Conservatives approach – for the north and the south, for traditional supporters and new supporters. (There is nothing wrong with wanting a broad coalition, of course.) But even if there is not the strategic coherence and ruthlessness that we saw in 2019 to adapt to our realigned politics, the balance of evidence suggests that the process of Conservative transformation is continuing as it seeks to maintain the support of Red Wall voters. Leftwards economically, rightwards culturally – and, for the moment, electorally dominant.