Voices: Does the Conservative Party make sense any more?

Sometimes you need an academic’s longer perspective to make sense of what is happening in the here and now. The cover of Prof Tim Bale’s new book The Conservative Party After Brexit makes the point visually, with the faces of the four prime ministers since the EU referendum across the top: May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak.

The story of those four faces is told in full inside, but a glance at the cover gives it in condensed form: deadlock, chaos, unreality and calm. The subtitle of the book is Turmoil and Transformation, but the startling conclusion is that it is fundamentally unclear what the Tory party has transformed itself into.

When I spoke to Bale he pointed out that, since the referendum, the party has increasingly taken to posing as the defender of “the people” against the elites. However, at the same time it has tried to avoid the “logical correlative” of such a strategy, “namely, a more redistributive economic nationalism”.

The party’s electoral base has become more working class since the Brexit vote, while Labour has become more middle class, as the party of graduate Remainers. Theresa May and Boris Johnson tried to fit the party’s rhetoric to this change: she went to battle on behalf of the “just about managing”, while his “levelling-up” slogan allowed him to be lionised by engineering workers in Middlesbrough.

But now the message is confused. Sunak is “a super-rich, super-educated member of the global elite”, as Bale puts it in the book, “exactly the kind of green-card-holding, Atlantic-hopping hedge fund manager whom Theresa May might have labelled a ‘citizen of nowhere’ back in 2016”. He sometimes strikes some of the poses of anti-elitism, but he does it with less brio than Johnson, ending up sounding inauthentic, such as when he called Keir Starmer “another lefty lawyer standing in our way” this week.

Bale’s book is a rattling good read through seven years of turmoil, full of sharp observations and telling details. I had forgotten, for instance, that the first opinion poll of Conservative Party members after the referendum in June 2016 put May ahead of Johnson by 55 per cent to 38 per cent in a theoretical run-off between the two. That does help to explain why Johnson pulled out of the contest so quickly when Michael Gove announced he was running against him.

Johnson has never been as popular, even with Tory members, as his personal myth pretends. The party really did turn to him in 2019 only out of desperation, and as soon as he had “got Brexit done” in the sense of extricating Britain from the EU single market, it had no real loyalty to him or to his ill-defined vision.

Bale’s previous volume, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, is a coherent story of the party’s attempt to come to terms with the historic success of Margaret Thatcher. It was resolved in the end by David Cameron, who was able to blend economic liberalism, as modified by New Labour’s emphasis on public services, with social liberalism. But that resolution lasted only six years before it was blown up by the EU referendum.

Since then, the party has struggled to make sense of itself. Bale notes in passing the eclipse of Cameron’s reputation, saying it was “possibly” a tribute to Johnson’s success in presenting his government as a “clean break from the administrations that had run the country for the last decade” that the party suffered little damage from the revelations about Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill.

But the collapse of Johnson’s premiership has rendered the party’s central purpose even more incoherent than before. Johnson was able, like Walt Whitman, to contain multitudes – through force of personality, he could pursue a pro-working-class economic policy at the same time as claiming to be in favour of tax cuts. The furlough scheme was the biggest redistributive state intervention since the war, and yet Johnson somehow managed to avoid being identified with the tax rises needed to pay for it.

After the revolt of the party membership against high taxes that powered Liz Truss’s seven-week interregnum, the party is left thoroughly unclear as to what it stands for. Sunak’s calm reasonableness and his attention to managerial detail have provided a welcome respite for the party from the turmoil, but he has failed to resolve any of the contradictions.

In the end, Bale hedges his bets, saying this may not matter. “If the Conservatives post-Brexit really have slipped their moorings as a mainstream centre-right party, that need not mean they are doomed to go down to defeat – either in the short or the long term.”

He quotes Enoch Powell (“perhaps the ultimate neoliberal populist”) who said in 1981: “There is one thing you can be sure of with the Conservative Party, before anything else – they have a grand sense of where the votes are.”

But if Bale’s book tells us one thing, it is what an extraordinary achievement it would be if Sunak were to find where those votes are in time for an election in October next year.