The British Conservative Party is in crisis. Brexit has torn the party apart and electoral annihilation looms. But the fault lines go much deeper, between on one side those who share May’s vision of society and on the other what is left of true conservatives in the party.
Theresa May launched her ‘Shared Society’ agenda in 2016, proposing that ‘it is the job of government to encourage and nurture the social and the cultural unions represented by families, communities, towns, cities, counties and nations’. With that she decisively broke with the party’s Thatcherite legacy – Lady Thatcher famously said that ‘there is no such thing as society’. This oft misinterpreted line was a criticism of an entitlement culture and a lack of individual responsibility, of always looking to the state for answers. Thatcher was telling us that society is not the state. For May, the state is society.
In between the torturous Brexit process, May’s government has been busy implementing her interventionist vision. Take the minimum wage, first introduced by the Blair government in 1999, which the Tory party long ago dropped opposition to. But now, Chancellor Philip Hammond, supposedly a member of the more free-market wing of the party, is considering hiking the minimum wage from 59% to 66% of median earnings, which would make it the highest in the world and mean that a quarter of British workers would be paid a government mandated wage.
And the list of paternalistic, Orwellian, interventionist and politically correct policies goes on and on. In 2017, Mrs. May introduced a government industrial strategy ‘underpinned by a new approach to government, not just stepping back but stepping up to a new, active role’, as she put it. In 2018, she called for increased policing of online hate speech, leading to multiple arrests and prosecutions for mere jokes and insults. A sugar tax was introduced in 2018, as was mandatory pay gap reporting for large companies. In 2019, a new law compelled the UK’s biggest companies to ‘disclose and explain their top bosses pay and the gap between that and their average workers’ and ‘to report on how their directors take employee and other stakeholder interests into account’. The government’s fracking tsar resigned in April after claiming that government policy was a de facto ban on fracking, driven by environmental campaign groups. In the summer of 2019, a new law will ban UK citizens accessing online porn without verifying their age. Keen on any chance of virtue signalling, the chancellor has hired an all-female diversity specialist to identify female candidates for the new Bank of England Governor. And of course, the Brexit process has culminated in cross-party talks with Labour, essentially giving the far left a sign-off on any Brexit deal.
What is left of conservative values in Parliament is now being kept on life support by the much maligned European Research Group, a group of MP’s led by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Their hard-line stance on Brexit has led them to be blamed for the failure to secure a deal, but in truth the group represents one of the few voices standing up for a Brexit that reflects traditional conservative values.
The rest of the supposedly Conservative Party has seemingly given up on these values, more concerned with virtue signalling and kowtowing to the latest politically correct fad. Even if they secretly wanted to, no-one in the leadership of the party dare present an alternative to the progressive, politically correct, social democratic vision of society for fear of being branded ‘nasty’, a moniker that has haunted the party for decades. No-one seems capable of articulating the positive case for free markets, small government and conservatism, the values that lay at the foundation of the party.
A drubbing in the forthcoming European elections, to add to the humiliation of well over a thousand lost seats in the recent local elections, is unfortunately unlikely to prompt a change in course. Mrs. May interpreted the local election results as an encouragement to pursue a Brexit deal with Corbyn’s hard-left Labour party. But what many conservative voters long for is of course not Brexit at any price, but a party that represents their values. British conservatism is not dead, but conservative voters can no longer bring themselves to vote for a party they no longer recognise. Until a new leader who understands this is installed, the bloodbath at the ballot box will continue. And it’s well deserved.