Tory Glastonbury: it sounds appalling. Two concepts that should never be put together. For the enthusiastic Conservative MP George Freeman, however, ridicule was a risk worth taking. There was a bigger issue at stake: his party’s future.
Just two years ago, it was all going so well. The Tories were celebrating their first working majority in the House of Commons for 23 years. Their leader David Cameron was popular and the organisation that sees itself as the natural party of government appeared unassailable. Yet by this summer, its fortunes had been dramatically reversed.
The fateful decision to hold a referendum on EU membership unleashed the demons of populism, pushing the Tories into a self-induced nervous breakdown. Day by day, week by week, calamities continue to unfurl in front of the country’s increasingly weary gaze: the decision to begin the process of leaving the EU without a clear distinction, the misjudged snap election last summer, the incessant bickering about leadership, the lack of an intelligible domestic agenda.
For Freeman, the challenges go on. “Our membership is shrinking. Managing the public finances and Brexit [is] leaving very little room for us to nurture and demonstrate the richness of the Conservative value set. With each passing year, the danger is that we look like a small power elite playing parlour games with Brexit while a growing proportion of the electorate sees us as divorced from their interests.”
Fed up with the “detached from reality” traditional party conferences, the 50-year-old former biotech entrepreneur was so convinced of the need for change that he came up with the idea of the Big Tent Ideas Festival where people of a centre-right persuasion — small business owners, MPs, charity workers — could think about the future. It was palpably more Tory than Glastonbury: bunting hung between the “Economy” and “Society” tents, and someone called Jeff kicking off the evening with a Bach étude.
But when the lights went down, proceedings became more festival-like. I chatted to Dame Shirley Bassey’s former music director about arts funding, while another Big Tenter explained how he made a million pounds last year from tonic water. Much to my surprise, the event worked.
Yet the festival itself spoke to a much bigger need: the appetite for renewal. The Conservative party has not convincingly won an election since the late 1980s. An astounding level of energy in the corridors of Westminster is devoted to gossiping about when Theresa May will fall and who might replace her.
“The next Tory leader will be the person who has had the best six months before the contest,” says one party grandee. “So unless you know the date of the contest, it is hard to say who it is going to be.” Given that we do not, it makes sense to forget the who. Answering what comes next is much more crucial. Can the Conservatives reinvent themselves again?
This crisis in Britain’s centre right came to the fore after June’s snap general election. The Tories garnered their highest percentage of the vote in 30 years but they lost their majority, significantly underperforming compared to Theresa May’s 23-point polling lead when they decided to go to the country.
May’s team had wagered that middle-England voters would flock to their camp, attracted by the prime minister’s calm pragmatism and turned off by the radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. Yet not only did a large group of voters opt for shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s “ socialism with an iPad”, but the Conservative party lost swathes of 35- to 45-year-olds who might have been expected to flirt with the Tories. In one prominent investment bank in the City of London, nearly every trader under 30 rallied behind Corbyn, according to a financier who did not wish to be named. To have even the slightest chance of winning the next general election, nominally set to take place in 2022, the Tories need to go back to basics.
First, why would anyone vote Conservative? Aside from the argument that they are competent administrators — which is diminishing almost by the day — there have historically been reliable pillars of conservatism. Yet today, each pillar — from building a career, to buying a home, to marriage and children, to reaching pension age — has been weakened or entirely eroded.
The rise of the gig economy and zero-hours contracts has obstructed traditional careers. Home ownership in England has reached a 30-year low, exacerbated for younger voters by the government’s failure to increase the property stock. Marriage rates in England and Wales have been falling since 1990 and just over half of children are now born within the framework of marriage. Meanwhile pensions are a pipe dream for many entering the workplace after the financial crash.
Then there is Brexit. For many Conservatives, the quest for individual liberty, a small state and the allure of national sovereignty makes the disruption worth it in the long run. For other voters, however, the regulatory and economic cohesion that has developed between the UK and the EU — and the risk of tarnishing economic growth by jettisoning it — makes the schism a very un-Toryish prospect.
As Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher, wrote in his 1956 essay On Being Conservative, to be conservative “is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss”.
Even if the utopian bliss of Brexit Britain is achievable, it is not a concept my millennial generation believes in. They overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU, and there is a risk that Brexit will do for them what Section 28 — which banned local councils from promoting homosexuality — did for the blue vote among social liberals 30 years ago (it was overturned in 2003).
“The Conservative party is seen as the Brexit party, an issue many young professionals fundamentally disagree with,” says Sam Gyimah, MP for East Surrey and a junior minister at the justice department. “If we don’t offer a vision beyond leaving the EU that delivers on their hopes and aspirations, our appeal will be like a jammed radio signal. They will change the station.”
Bridging these ideological divides is tough but not impossible. “Midterms are never an easy place to be. If somebody had an easy solution for renewal while in government, they’d be in power for ever,” says Kemi Badenoch, one of the new MPs elected in June. The Conservative pillars need to be reconstructed and Britons want a prospectus that gives them a stake in society — a sense of belonging that is evaporating from the increasingly bitter political discourse.
Enter the group we might call the New Modernisers: an informal bunch of MPs who are determined not to see their party slide into irrelevance. The 2015 and 2017 general elections brought 103 new Tory MPs into the House of Commons, making up a third of the parliamentary party. These politicians are David Cameron’s children, broadly raised in the former prime minister’s liberal conservative principles. They are diverse in sex, ethnicity, age and pre-political careers. Unlike much of the cabinet, they look and sound like everyday Britons.
These MPs see this parliament as an existential moment for the party. “If we get it right, we will be able to tell our grandchildren, ‘[We were] there for one of the most exciting decades in our history,’” says Freeman. “But if we get it wrong, I fear we’ll become an isolated old people’s home off the coast of Europe.” Instead of immediately seeking ministerial office, the New Modernisers are beavering away on ideas to counter the ruination of conservativism’s pillars. They see themselves as acting as a doughnut of thinkers and campaigners around the weary May government, and eventually hope to present themselves as a new party within a party — much as Corbyn did with Labour.
One of the central figures in this new generation is Neil O’Brien. The softly spoken 39-year-old has led the Policy Exchange think-tank and advised both George Osborne, the former Conservative chancellor, and Theresa May. Now the MP for Harborough in Leicestershire, he is the closest thing to a ringleader for the renewal push. Like many of his colleagues, he was inspired by the success of Emmanuel Macron to inject some passion into centrist politics. The UK does not yet have an obvious charismatic leader in the vein of the French president, so O’Brien is focusing on the policy areas he judges to be fundamental to keeping the Tories in power.
“One thrust is education and skills,” he says. “For 30 years, politicians have talked about globalisation and technological change. But there isn’t a big offer for the existing workforce. We should test some ambitious things for lifelong learning.” The second area is science and industry. “Britain is not going to have an economic future unless we get better at converting our science and academic strengths into industrial strength…we need to create that pipeline from idea to product.”
The third, more delicate area is social integration. “One big idea could be to try and get everyone in Britain up to a really good standard of English. It is so detrimental to your ability to participate in the economy or our wider society if you can’t properly engage.”
The biggest policy challenge, however, is housing. If a property-owning democracy is the bulwark against socialism, the buttresses are under a lot of strain. All Conservatives acknowledge that if the UK’s declining home-ownership rates are not reversed, the party will be out on its ear. Hence the bold move to abolish stamp duty in last month’s Budget. O’Brien thinks it is “stupid framing” to say nothing can be done without concreting over the greenbelt (protected areas of land). “We need to make it possible to simultaneously have more development — but in places and under the conditions that are acceptable. We must be smarter about making sure development brings real benefits to the local community.”
Renewal is also needed in foreign policy. Tom Tugendhat, the MP for Tonbridge and Malling from the 2015 intake, has stepped into the spotlight as chair of the influential foreign affairs select committee. Like other New Modernisers, he accepts that the Brexit train is leaving the station and is determined to develop ideas for what Britain’s role in the world could be on the other side. Addressing the vacuum of policy in the Foreign Office thanks to Boris Johnson’s underwhelming stewardship, Tugendhat plans to use his committee to answer what “Global Britain” means.
“We’ve heard it a lot from various people but we really need to understand it in detail. Does it mean investing more heavily in missions in Europe, investing more heavily in missions in the United States and the Commonwealth countries? Or does it mean having a much shallower but much broader diplomatic network? This is what we need to hammer out to see where the real successes and real opportunities for the UK lie.”
Some of the party’s key modernisers
The New Modernisers are learning from the original modernisers. Nick Boles, MP for Grantham and Stamford, was a thinker in the Cameron project and is now aiding his younger colleagues by tackling the apparent confidence crisis in capitalism. His somewhat surprising lodestar is former American President Teddy Roosevelt.
“Roosevelt’s key insight was that capitalism in the 1890s in the US was becoming its own worst enemy,” he says. “It had been captured by robber barons and monopolistic groups. It was destroying the interests of the small businessman, the small farmer and the consumer. He worked out that if those who believed in capitalism didn’t reform it, then the populists would sweep it away.”
Boles boils the challenge down to crafting “a collection of policies that will ensure people are receiving real wage increases. The answer is not to sweep the system away and replace it with a state-directed, top-down nationalised approach,” he adds. “It is to think in detail about the reasons why capitalism is failing to deliver and then intervening in a targeted way. We need to think seriously about how we help people get on the housing ladder, earn a reasonable average salary, prepare for the coming tide of change in the job market and work out a square deal on care in old age.”
When the sun sets on May’s premiership, the New Modernisers hope to have a policy platform that looks beyond Brexit. Along with Freeman, O’Brien and Tugendhat, MPs such as Rishi Sunak, Johnny Mercer, James Cleverly and Victoria Atkins are likely to play significant roles in the party’s future. For many Tories though, it is Ruth Davidson who embodies what should come next. If anyone in British politics can pull off a Macron-esque insurgency, it is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.
A pugnacious, proven winner, her success in increasing the number of Tory MPs north of the River Tweed from one to 13 (allowing May to form a government) has won her many plaudits. A self-described kickboxing “shovel-faced lesbian” who served in the Territorial Army, Davidson defies the public-schoolboy stereotype that plagues the Conservatives. She also provides something Conservatives yearn for: reasons to feel good about themselves.
Davidson’s analysis of the party’s problems chimes with the New Modernisers’ thinking. “A lot of people feel that government doesn’t work for them, they don’t have the opportunity for a better life,” she explains. “The UK might be less unequal than at any time since the mid 1980s, but it doesn’t feel that way if you’re in a minimum-wage job watching some Premiership footballers swanking around in gold-plated Bentleys. It doesn’t feel like a fair world. Look at the Paradise Papers: rich people are getting an advantage poorer people don’t [get].”
Like many of the party’s next generation, Davidson’s personality and background do not obviously make her a Conservative. She chose to be a Tory, inspired by David Cameron’s call for fresh blood. “I believe in people, not the state, fundamentally. I believe the pound earned in someone’s pocket is better spent by them, not some bureaucrat. I grew up in a part of the world where people were told by the authorities which house to live in, which school they had to go to. It limited ambition.”
To win over sceptical voters, Davidson thinks the Tories need to explain to voters the “why” of what they are doing, not just the “what”. “We used to be quite good at doing this in a single sentence: ‘We need to reduce the deficit so we don’t land the next generation with debt,’” she says. “We’re not telling people why we are doing it, we need to explain that austerity is not a choice. It’s about telling people why we need a healthy economy to pass on.”
Swathes of her party yearn for Davidson to come to Westminster and inject her energy into the party’s national fortunes. It is a pointless plea, at least for now. She is focusing on Scotland: to continue holding the Scottish nationalists to account, fighting for the sanctity of the United Kingdom and securing the return of the Scottish Tories as a serious political force.
Davidson will probably make a second bid for first minister in the 2021 Scottish parliamentary elections. If she trumps Nicola Sturgeon, she could become the first Conservative first minister of Scotland — an embodiment of what Tory modernisation can achieve outside the party’s natural territory. If she does not, she may well decide to try something new. Assuming the next general election is called in 2022, Davidson would have no problem finding a winnable constituency.
The Tories face more practical problems than finding the next generation of leaders. Compared to the might of Labour’s half-a-million-strong membership, the party’s campaign machine is increasingly feeble and creaky. It has no youthful grass-roots organisation to fight Labour on the ground. “Our party membership is about 100,000 and falling, with around just 10 per cent [as] active members. Frankly, the age of the party means that members can’t get out to be active any longer,” says John Strafford, the head of the Conservative Campaign for Democracy. “If the electorate can’t decide which party has the best policies, it goes to street-fighting politics. If that happens again, Labour would wipe out the Tories.”
“We need to make campaigning fun, cheap and easy,” says James Cleverly. “We also need to give people the ammunition to fight these fights on social media. We’ve made a big step in the right direction, but we need to produce much more compelling visuals. And if you’re not fighting the battle every day, then you’re not fighting the battle, so we should be producing fresh material all the time.”
Whoever leads the party next also needs to broker a new electoral coalition. Should the Tories strive to win back the cities they lost in June or try again to target provincial areas? Is it possible to split the difference and become a truly One Nation party again? As Britain evolves into a country increasingly divided between rural and urban areas, it becomes harder to speak to both. Different parts of Britain have different relationships with society, and so different voters will be open to different gateways to conservatism.
“The next leader will need to be a bridge between Battersea and Bishop Auckland. The results of the 2015 and 2017 elections showed that opting for a purely metropolitan or a nativist parochial strategy doesn’t work,” says one prominent member of the next generation. “The policies and personality of whoever comes next need to appeal to both parts of the country. They need to offer a vision that is aspirational, based on liberty and opportunity.”
Despite the strains of governing, the Tories have not collapsed in the opinion polls and are currently tied with Labour. Serious doubts remain, however, over their ability to avoid descending into full internecine warfare. Half of the party is devoted to a clean break with the EU — the other half is not. Economic growth and stability have traditionally been the most important commodities for Conservatives but Brexit has destroyed some of these instincts. And despite the optimism for a bright new future, the Tories have a long way to go to shake off their image as a party of the elite.
For all their efforts at renewal, the Conservatives may still prove to be their own worst enemies. Reinvention will be painful but the party should not be shying away from the argument. “What will you conserve?” Disraeli once wrote. It is over to the Tories to rediscover the answer.
Sebastian Payne is the FT’s political leader writer
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published