What one Butskellite tweet reveals about a party that has lost its way.
The Conservative Party this week decided to tweet out a new viral* campaign graphic. This down-with-the-kids post came in the style of the popular ‘Spotify Wrapped’ campaign, which at the end of each year lists users’ most listened-to music.
*(By viral I mean it got just over 500 likes. That represents 0.08% of its followers on Twitter, and 0.004% of the number of people who voted for the party at the last general election. But I digress…)
Just as Spotify lists “top artists” or “top songs”, the digital gurus at the Conservative Party had the bright idea to list what they describe as the party’s “top achievements” over the twelve months in power. A brave move, perhaps, given that 2022 was the year the party somehow managed to defenestrate not one but two sitting Prime Ministers, and fall from level pegging in the polls to this week seeing MRP predictions of near total electoral wipeout.
In any case, the Conservative Party’s self-selected “top achievements” went as follows:
£900 off household energy bills
Backing Ukraine’s fight with £2.3 billion
£4bn funding boost for schools
Record NHS staff levels
New nuclear power station backed
Whist the digital team at Conservative Campaign Headquarters might have been pleased with the presentation of their neat new graphic, the content is profoundly jarring. Why? Remember this is supposedly the list of the top five things the Conservative government has achieved - and yet not a single item on it differentiates the Conservatives from the Labour Party.
On every one of the points listed, there is near complete political consensus.
Now, in my view it is probably a good thing that we as a country have achieved mainstream consensus over standing up to Putin and the obvious need for new nuclear power. Thank goodness that the leadership of the Labour Party no longer flirts with foreign policy stances sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, or goes wandering down the troubled lane of anti-nuclear eco-conspiracy. But given that the Labour Party is less abjectly mad than it was in 2019, there seems to be a more pressing urgency for the Conservatives to be clearer about what they stand for. And instead, they have regressed.
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There is not one uniquely pro-market point to be proud of on that list. Nothing uniquely conservative either.
You can for example imagine a Truss administration boasting of making pro-market strides towards energy security - with its twin legalisation of onshore wind and shale gas extraction. Yet Rishi can hardly boast of belatedly allowing onshore wind again after one of his first acts as Prime Minister was reimposing the effective ban.
You can imagine Truss boasting of economy boosting measures from investment zones to tax cuts. Childcare, migration, and even planning reform.
You could also imagine a more populist conservative government boasting about radical action to stop illegal immigration. Instead this week’s announcement from the government - a rehashed deal with Albania and extra asylum caseworkers to fast track ‘safe country’ applicants - is practically indistinguishable from what the Labour Party has recently said on the issue.
In fact, remarkably for an administration that came into being on the promise of tightening the nation’s collective belt, every single policy boast is about spending. Far from the party making a virtue of restricting inflation, which seems to be Rishi Sunak’s only genuine calling in this job, the list instead celebrates splurging cash.
The list might as well have read:
And herein lies the problem. If the public wants a government that will only boast about spending more money on things, it can always choose the Labour Party. In fact it is all too easy to imagine Keir Starmer’s Labour Party churning out precisely the same campaign graphic. Perhaps they should steal the idea for 2025.
The reason, I think, this particular tweet has been pinging around my head for the last couple of days is that it is such a clear example of how we as a country have returned to 1950s Butskellism - the era when Tory Chancellor Rab Butler and his shadow Hugh Gaitskell agreed on so much that The Economist magazine described a new political character, “Mr. Butskell”.
I’m not sure if the the magnitude of Jeremy Hunt or Rachel Reeves (Runtism? Heeves?) is anywhere nearly close enough to their political heavyweight consensus forebears to deserve a portmanteau. But their parties are certainly close enough to warrant it.
In any case, focusing on Chancellors would be to take away much-craved limelight from the ever growing ‘Brand Rishi’…
Devoid of much differentiating policy to be proud of, the Conservative party has instead reverted building a new personality cult. It has been little noticed, but the Tories have started branding themselves online as “Rishi’s team”, a form of words that is hauntingly evocative of the ill fated “Theresa May’s Team” rebrand of the Conservative Party at the start of the 2017 election. And didn’t that go well.
By attempting to become a personality cult, the party lives and dies on the fragile popularity of an individual. And recent history should serve to show why that isn’t always the wisest idea. While some elements of the Boris Johnson operation could be characterised as becoming personality cult-like, the 2019 election was not. The message instead focussed overwhelmingly on one clear policy: “Get Brexit Done”. Something to vote for.
Sadly in 2022, the Conservative Party isn’t offering anything to vote for. It doesn’t know what it wants itself to be.
Rishi Sunak faces rebellious MPs pulling in both directions from energy policy to housing. He couldn’t decide whether or not to go to COP27. He says he’s a Thatcherite but all anyone knows him for are income tax rises, windfall taxes, and not one but two furlough-scale cash handouts.
If there is a vision there it’s a mightily confused one.
People around the Prime Minister continually say they want things to settle down before Christmas. They say, not incorrectly, that things have been too crazy for too long. That their job is to calm things down.
And they may well be right, but settling things down when a party is twenty points behind in the polls doth butter no Christmas parsnips. If the Conservative Party wants to turn things around they will have to do more than settle things down. They will have to find points of differentiation compared to the Labour Party.
Currently it is pretty much only Non-Dom tax status and whether or not private school fees are subject to VAT that separates His Majesty’s Government from His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.
And that means we’re not facing a battle of ideas. We’re instead facing a management competition. Not who has the vision for the future, but instead is the Blue Team or the Red Team better at implementing what is pretty much the same policy prospectus. Perhaps it’s no wonder Labour are twenty points ahead.
And yet, a new year represents a new opportunity. To discover points of differentiation. To stop acting as we are living through another hung parliament. To salvage much of the supply side reform agenda that was all to hastily thrown out along with the rest of Truss policy.
Put simply, without a genuine growth plan, and consequently without a positive vision for the future, all the Tories have to take to the electorate are an array of spending commitments that only serve to paint a pale imitation of the benches opposite.