OPINION - The Tories should beware a country that craves a big state

·3-min read
 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

A week today, unless all the opinion polls are dead wrong, Liz Truss will be installed in Number 10, forming a new government, and getting stuck into the most daunting in-tray to face an incoming prime minister since at least 1979.

Indeed, to read the headlines, Truss must surely be the first contender for the top job who has faced rumblings about a confidence vote before even taking office.

This is the seventh such Conservative leadership race I have covered since 1995 and is much the nastiest. At least, say the dwindling cohort of Tory optimists, the announcement of Boris Johnson’s successor on September 5 will bring the summer-long slanging match to a close.

Well, perhaps. But the principal question facing the Conservative Party is not one of political decorum, or even the identity of the likely next prime minister and her presumed shortcomings. It is much more serious than that.

A big clue was to be found in yesterday’s YouGov poll for The Times, which suggested that almost half of Tory voters now support returning the energy companies to public ownership, with only 28 per cent opposed. The prospect of such a dramatic act of nationalisation is, for now, small. But the sentiment reflected in the poll is significant: a call for radical statist intervention, at a time of emergency, by voters instinctively opposed to such measures.

To the cost-of-living crisis, add the sense of structural doom gripping the nation’s public services. Two former Conservative education secretaries, Lord Baker and Justine Greening, are calling for urgent cash assistance for schools. Jeremy Hunt, the former Conservative health and social care secretary, warns that the new PM “will inherit an NHS facing the most serious crisis in its history. A&Es, ambulances, general practice and social care are in serious peril across the country.”

Yes, the clash between Truss and Rishi Sunak has been ferocious. But its ferocity reflects what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences”. Both believe in rolling back the frontiers of the state, cutting taxes (the row being over timing rather than principle) and the politics of aspiration. They have competed manically to be identified as the true heir of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet this brand of Conservatism —precisely what was needed in 1979 — is no longer fit for purpose. Voters in 2022 crave security from the state much more than they yearn for liberation from its grip. They want immediate assistance with their bills, not a VAT cut that, by definition, won’t affect the cost of their food shop. They demand a massive programme of help with their energy bills, and public services that do not teeter on the brink of collapse like a Jenga tower.

It is easy to row over tax cuts but much harder to rethink the relationship between citizen and government. At every level, and more clearly than for more than 40 years, the Tories need a new philosophy of the state. All the strategic challenges ahead of this country will involve more government, not less: climate emergency, pandemic planning, strengthened defence, intergenerational justice, and the regulation of technology. Tax cuts, Jacob Rees-Mogg selling off civil service offices and lectures about British laziness just aren’t going to cut it.

This is a pragmatic rather than an ideological mission: historically, it has been the great talent of British Conservatism to think afresh when the facts change. But talents have a terrible way of fading; and there is no sign that, starting next week, the new prime minister intends to honour this tradition.