A cursory glance through the Tory manifesto would suggest a party bereft of ideas, with little meaningful or relevant to say about the challenges confronting a crisis-stricken society. “Get Brexit done” is their battle cry, so that we can finally talk about the issues that really matter – all the while gliding over the pesky minor detail that it is their leader who has played a pivotal role in making Brexit the issue sucking oxygen out of our political realm. The main parties’ manifestos, up against one another, is surely compelling evidence that – unlike in the 1980s – the left is bubbling with ideas and the Tories are in ideological retreat, sustained only by a wave of rightwing populism and the political polarisation delivered by the 2016 referendum.
But it is the emptiness of the Tories’ flimsy document that should alarm us. It is a sign that the Tory right is in the ascendancy, and those deemed “moderate” (so even-handed and sensible that they will happily strip disabled people of their benefits) have been purged. The document gives them free rein to ride roughshod over Britain’s poorest people. Yet the Tories insist that this is all a conspiracy. We are invited to believe that, granted a parliamentary majority, rightwing politicians defined by their ideological fervour will skip a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to implement their lifelong, defining beliefs.
This deceit is nothing new for British Conservatism. Let us recall the 1979 Tory manifesto: surely here was the founding ideological document of Thatcherism, setting out the party’s grand masterplan to refashion British society and overturn the postwar consensus established by the 1945 Labour government. It was no such thing. As one political academic puts it, Thatcher’s “government either cleverly concealed the true extent of its liberalising intentions or – more likely – only gained full confidence in the idea of unleashing ‘market forces’ once safely installed at No 10”. Another suggests its commitments were largely “compatible with other postwar Conservative manifestos”, and attempted to counter Labour’s attempts “to portray Mrs Thatcher as a dangerous extremist”.
And what about now? Let us consider Dominic Raab, whose rightwing views frighten some of his own colleagues. Here is a man who co-authored a pamphlet arguing that the “current monolith” of the NHS should be “broken up”, while “new nonprofit and private operators should be allowed into the service, and, indeed should compete on price”. Translated into non-wonk speak, this is privatisation. The foreign secretary has also denounced British employment legislation as a “straitjacket” for the economy, favouring instead hire-and-fire rules. And again, another book he co-authored – Raab is nothing if not prolific – alongside fellow cabinet ministers Priti Patel and Liz Truss, denounced British workers as “the worst idlers in the world” and proposed scrapping workers’ rights.
As Maya Angelou once said: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” Brexit, for them, is not principally about reconfiguring Britain’s relationship with the EU, but rather scrapping what they call red tape and we call workers’ rights and environmental protections. The same applies to Boris Johnson, who once lambasted the NHS as “top-down monopolistic healthcare” and advocated introducing charges for NHS services. We should heed the words of ex-Conservative prime minister John Major, who declared that “the NHS is about as safe” with Johnson and his colleagues as a “pet hamster would be with a hungry python”. Michael Gove, he suggested, desired to privatise the NHS: and indeed the cabinet minister is the co-author of a book that described the NHS as “no longer relevant in the 21st century”, instead arguing that Britain’s most important institution should be replaced by private healthcare companies.
The Tory party should not be accused of a scarcity of ideas, but rather of being dishonest about its intentions. Johnson and his allies know their heartfelt beliefs are not popular with the general public; they are also aware that Labour’s domestic policies on public ownership and raising taxes for the rich enjoy widespread support. It is for this purpose that they deploy Brexit as a distraction and so run down the clock with stunts such as picking fights with Channel 4 News. They will do anything to deflect from Labour’s programme and the failure to state their own in detail.
There are fundamental differences with 1980s Thatcherism, of course. Back then, the Tories intended to embed a new political consensus by granting a short-term boost to the living standards of a layer of the population, principally through right-to-buy and share ownership. But this was an unsustainable bubble; one that built a new social order that condemned the next generation to insecurity and stagnating living standards. It’s a phenomenon I encountered in Stoke-on-Trent at the weekend: a middle-aged woman confessed she had done rather well out of Thatcher, mainly because of right-to-buy. But she spoke of her son, unable to afford to buy his own home, instead paying through his nose to a private landlord; and of his girlfriend, who studied for a university degree and has the vast debt to show for it, and is now stuck in a low-paid, low-skilled job. It is the experience of her son’s generation that explains why Tory support has imploded among the young.
This time around, there is nothing left to sell, no meaningful short-term bungs to offer. Instead, the Tories rely on an authoritarian rightwing populism to fill the vacuum. Their hope is that this will appeal to working-class voters in Stoke-on-Trent, Doncaster and Bolton whose economic views are rooted firmly on the left. They make sure to keep shtum about their true intentions, believing Brexit demagoguery is a means to deflect from policies that threaten the living standards and rights of leave-supporting voters in the small towns of the Midlands, the north and Wales.
And so here is a warning. The Tory manifesto is a blank cheque, not an empty sheet. The Tory rightwingers are ravenous vultures circling over the remnants of Britain’s creaking public realm and hard-won social rights. Their ambitions are not lacking, merely disguised. And if they secure the majority they crave, soon there will be nothing worthwhile left of Britain for them to feast on.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist