Regardless of Johnson’s Fate, a Conservative Civil War is Coming
By SCOTT CRESSWELL
The Conservatives are, and always have been, the party of the economy.
Leaders such as Benjamin Disraeli and Margaret Thatcher defined British economics in government for generations. The party prides itself on economic strength, today through monetarism. That is why Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent announcements to tackle the cost-of-living crisis have sparked huge divisions in the Tory party.
For years, Europe had divided the Conservatives. But now it is the economy. For months, Sunak and his gang derided Labour proposals for a windfall tax. And what happens next? Sunak announced a windfall tax to raise £5 billion to provide relief for the inflation crisis.
Guardian columnist John Hutton declared that “we’re all social democrats now”, but the Tory party is certainly not going to accept that judgement. The last time the Tories put up taxes significantly was in 1993 when then-Chancellor Norman Lamont was forced to increase VAT in the aftermath of Black Wednesday.
It took twenty-two years afterwards for the Tories to return to government with a majority. Like then, a civil war within the Conservatives is beginning.
However, tax rises are not the only problem for the Conservatives. Grandees such as Iain Duncan-Smith believe that Johnson’s tax hikes and his levelling up agenda are trashing the Tory image. Providing local authorities more power over levelling up decision-making is certainly a conservative, anti-federalist idea. But, of course, the core idea of levelling up points towards progressive politics; that isn’t the modern Tory party.
Thatcher would be rolling in her grave at the very thought of a Tory Chancellor raising taxes; she’d give more credit to the entrepreneurship of the chap selling eggs for those wishing to desecrate her statue.
Johnson may plead to be “rolling back the state” by sacking civil servants, but this move is a spasm of nerves in an attempt to provide red meat to the hardcore monetarists of the right. Johnson’s high-tax proposals have already done their internal damage. That classic battle between Keynesianism and Friedman’s monetarism is manifesting itself in the Tory party like cancer.
This battle will outlast Johnson; his days as the leader may be numbered, but his aim to win over those Red Wall voters will remain, and will bitterly confuse the Conservatives in finding a successful identity.
An idea suggested by some Tories is that defeat at the next election may be a blessing in disguise. They hope that the cost-of-living crisis will get worse under a Labour government and that the Conservatives will be ushered in with open arms shortly afterwards. This idea is complete fantasy.
The enduring constant for the Tories in opposition is simply division. When the party loses their credibility for economic competence, as it did under Harold Macmillan and John Major, they simply transform into what Theresa May once referred to as “the nasty party.”
In nearly all historical cases, the Conservatives return to office from opposition not from a landslide victory stemming from huge popularity, but desperation after a failed Labour government.
There was little hope in 1931 when Labour was ejected from power by a Conservative-dominated coalition. Winston Churchill returned mainly due to slow progress to remove rationing by 1951. Edward Heath and the Tories beat Harold Wilson in 1970 partly because of economic failure on the government’s part, but it was Enoch Powell, a monetarist outsider, hated by Heath, who won the Tories that victory.
Many would argue that Thatcher is an exception to this rule, but even her electoral success in 1979 was treated with jest. “I know we’ll be back”, Labour’s Denis Healey said the day after the election. Although Labour was to remain out of office for nearly two decades, there was no immediate sign that Thatcher would resolve the stark problem of stagflation.
When David Cameron entered Number 10, he had to depend on the Liberal Democrats after thirteen years in the wilderness. The Conservatives may be the natural party of government, but not of opposition. The Tories can be just as dysfunctional in opposition as Labour.
“We have our agreements in public and our disagreements in private”, said then-Prime Minister John Major in 1993 of the Conservative Party. It was a bare-faced lie, and he knew it. He led the party during one of its most inharmonious periods; he infamously referred to the Eurosceptics as “bastards” the same year.
Little or no progress has historically been made by the Tories in opposition. Particularly from their electoral disaster in 1997 to the election of Cameron as the leader in 2005, they wasted what was left of any fighting energy on themselves over Europe.
In short, opposition is a grave idea for the Conservatives. Naturally, they will return there in the future, perhaps very soon, but all parties divide in opposition. The Tories are no exception. Those who believe that a party can, on purpose, lose an election in order to win another are simply delirious.
However, the victory of such a Tory civil war depends on one crucial detail: is there really a political realignment forming under the Leviathan?
Strangely, recent events have proved some form of consensus, albeit a grudging one of all sides. As the Conservatives effectively condone and pledge to implement a Labour idea, if attitudes to Thatcherism continue to shift, then a realignment may be on the agenda.
However, the Tories are in an entirely unenviable position. They are damned by their own members if they implement the cost-of-living and levelling up measures, and damned by the electorate if they don’t.
Regardless, this current neo-liberal consensus may be dying, but it is worth recalling how it began.
As inflation soared in 1976, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan said that “the cosy world” of Keynesian economics “no longer exists.” He bitterly swallowed monetarist doctrine. It took Labour two decades to return to office. As Johnson aims to apply social democratic economics, will the same happen to his party?
Image: Flickr/ HM Treasury