This decade is only nine years old. When it ends there will be many different ways of assessing it. But one aspect is already clear to those who follow British politics.
This has been a decade dominated domestically by the Tory Party. First, it rode the first big wave – namely “austerity”, the attempt to restore the status quo pre-the financial crash. Then, just as that wave exhausted itself, it leaped to board the second one: “anti-austerity”. Labour never got a look in.
Let us explain – with a hat-tip, and more, to Larry Elliott of the Guardian.
The 2010 election was a debate about which party would best restore the status quo ante – that’s to say, the political and economic model founded by Margaret Thatcher and reinforced by Tony Blair. This was based on London, finance, services, the South, high migration (at least under Blair), a strong pound, relatively cheap foreign labour, law, traditional media and rising house prices.
The voters were not quite willing to entrust the task to David Cameron. So he formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. As Chancellor, George Osborne then got on top of the worst of Labour’s debt and deficit, and salvaged the economy – though it remained a high immigration, low productivity, southern-based model.
In 2015, the middle of the decade, the Liberal Democrats were punished for entering the coalition, and the Conservatives reaped the political gain of restoring the Thatcher/Blair model to near normality. Their vote inched up to 37 per cent; Ed Miliband failed to persuade the people that he would deliver a convincing alternative, and the LibDem implosion delivered Cameron a small overall majority.
So the first half of the decade had produced a pro-austerity Tory majority. Cameron then had little alternative but to deliver the referendum he had promised on Britain’s EU referendum. This had nightmare consequences for him.
Ultimately, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling suggests, the referendum decision was about self-government. But there was a lot more to it than that. Those who did well out of the system tended to vote Remain. Which is why London and much of its hinterland plumped to stay. (Scotland and Northern Ireland were special cases.)
Most of provincial England, however, didn’t feel it was gaining from the Thatcher / Blair settlement – from the trend to services, finance, the capital and especially high migration. Lord Ashcroft’s research confirms that the last was the second big factor at play in delivering the referendum result. When push came to shove, the voters, faced with a binary choice shorn of party politics, voted against the status quo.
And so it was that the cause of Remain, fronted by Cameron and George Osborne, lost out to that of Leave, led by…Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The referendum became a blue-on-blue conflict. Jeremy Corbyn’s position was ambigious and Labour made little impact.
Out went Cameron and in came…Theresa May, after Gove and Johnson fell out. For a while, she looked like the perfect solution to the Brexit conundrum: a former Remainer who would deliver Leave, and grasped the difference between the Somewheres, with their rooted attachment to place and nation, and the Nowheres, with their lack of commitment to either.
Then came the disaster of the 2017 election. May over-reached by seeking a mandate both for Brexit and reform. This reminded non-Conservative Leave voters that the Tories were the party of austerity – a cause that the latter had formally given up on arguing for anyway.
May lost her majority, scraped back into government…and saw her administration vanish into a dispute between Conservatives who ultimately were prepared to leave the EU without a deal and those who would not. Boris Johnson resigned over Chequers, in the wake of David Davis, and became the de facto leader of the former.
Once again, the main political action was blue-on-blue, with Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve in one corner, and Johnson and the Spartans in another. The Party lost 42 Ministers to Brexit, including Steve Baker, Sam Gyimah, Dominic Raab, Jo Johnson, Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom and Rory Stewart. Labour took no clear position – and was sidelined again.
The rest is recent history. May was deposed, Johnson entered the consequent leadership election as front-runner, and defied precedent by winning. After a long series of defeats he then pulled off a near-landslide election victory, in which the Tories became Britain’s working-class party – a transformation that their 2017 wins in Mansfield, North East Derbyshire and Walsall North, inter alia, presaged.
Some will acknowledge these developments while disliking our description of them. What is “austerity” anyway, they will ask? – pointing out that public spending has risen year on year since 2010. (We add that most departmental spending was reduced during that period.)
In any event, Osborne was accused of easing up on deficit reduction many times: read this Andrew Gimson article, from 2014, and find a list of examples. The former Chancellor again took a path of least resistance in 2015, when he found £27 billion going spare down the back of the public expenditure sofa.
But you may insist that Osborne and austerity are synonymous. In which case, we refer you to Philip Hammond’s post-EU referendum autumn statement, in which he junked his predecessor’s fiscal rules. The new Chancellor promised instead to balance the budget “as soon as is practicable”. If John McDonnell had said so instead, there would have been a riot (at least in the Tory press).
This takes us to a core point about austerity: one can claim it never happened; or try to define it out of existence; but the word does describe a broad consensus for slowing the growth in public spending that preceded the Coalition. (Labour also pledged in 2010 to reduce the deficit, but to do so more slowly.)
In one sense, it is clearly outrageous for the Conservatives, having led the charge for public spending retrenchment, the Thatcher/Blair economic model and EU membership, to turn turtle and now push for still higher spending, regional growth and Brexit.
But that’s politics for you. Labour, torn between pro-Brexit majorities in most of its provincial seats and anti-Brexit passion in its north London fastnesses, was never able to take a clear position one way or the other. And its Blair/Brown era support for globalisation, and Miliband/Corbyn era unwillingness to renounce relatively high migration, did for it among a big swathe of the white working class.
So will Johnson now be able to finish what he is seeking to begin: the transformation of the Conservatives into a more regional, less London-centric, pro-manufacturing, lower migration, weaker pound, and more-slowly-rising-house-prices party? ConservativeHome will let you into a secret. We have absolutely no idea.