Hugo Rifkind

The Conservatives’ real problem? It’s that the electorate now sees them as reckless

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

17 June 2017

9:00 AM

The opposition wants to raze your house to the ground. No, bear with me. Analogy. They say they’ll pull it down, and build a new one with, I don’t know, walls of gold, and hot and cold running unicorns. ‘You can’t trust them,’ says the government, ‘because they want to knock your house down!’ And normally, normally, this would be quite an effective message. Only this time it is delivered from inside the cab of a JCB by a government that also wants to knock down your house, and has already demolished your garden wall.

‘Honk honk!’ they’re going, on that pull-down-horn thing, with eyes gleaming like those of actual maniacs. ‘Those guys are crazy!’ they’re saying, with foam frothing from their own lips. ‘They’ll make you poorer!’ they’ll say, as the caterpillar tracks crunch over your bird table and garden gnome. And all the while, they genuinely do not understand why their message of stability is not getting across.

They don’t get it. A week after an election which saw the Conservative majority recede like an alarmed turtle’s head, they are not even close to getting it. They think, I think, that it was all to do with Jeremy Corbyn being unexpectedly charming, or Theresa May being unexpectedly like a malfunctioning android, or Nick Timothy accidentally greenlighting a manifesto with an actual policy in it. Whereas, truthfully, the Tories’ real problem was that they went into this election entirely bereft of their usual Unique Selling Point. The Conservatives were not conservative. They were not a safe pair of hands. That normal vibe the Tories exude of ‘you don’t need to love us, but at least we can hold stuff together’ was missing the entire last part. They were not, in a nutshell, a safe and lazy vote for the risk-averse. Nobody was. And thus, in an election with only mad, risky shit on offer, there was simply no particular reason for the electorate to choose the particular mad, risky shit that was wearing a blue rosette.

To grasp this, you do not need to believe that Brexit will inevitably be a disaster. Even I don’t believe that Brexit will inevitably be a disaster. (Only probably.) You simply need to accept that there’s a risk it might be. That we are in uncharted territory, that the kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, and before they settle we must reorder this world around us. For me, personally, this is why I was against it. Like independence for Scotland, it seemed to me to be a major, apocalyptic act of political irresponsibility. Worse than that, an act of political callousness — a risky gamble made by people who can afford to lose, but with the costs to be borne by people who cannot. Only it happened anyway, and that’s it. We’re gambling now. And since the wheel is already spinning, there’s no particular reason to think you’ll be safer on blue than on red.

The Tory division on Europe is not just a division about Europe. It is also a division between ideologues and technocrats, flair and prudence, headbangers and bean-counters. During the referendum, it was startling to see Conservatives whom I had always regarded as solid to the point of tedium — people who had always claimed that their economic beliefs were to do with prudent economic stability, and their foreign policy beliefs were to do with prudent diplomatic stability — suddenly hurl all of that out of the window and run helter-skelter towards Brexit. It was like they’d been pretending all along; like rebellious senators with swords under their togas, hiding out as a secret fraternity among Conservatives who called themselves conservative and meant it. Then they won, and the party became their party, and Theresa May became their creature. Yet somehow they expect the electorate to regard them as every bit as prudent, cautious and safe as the people they’ve overthrown. Even though, if they were, they wouldn’t have overthrown them in the first place.

Pre-referendum, David Cameron would have been able to defeat Jeremy Corbyn with little more than a raised eyebrow of disdain. ‘Don’t rock the boat!’ he’d have said, which wasn’t an option for Theresa May, because she’s about to scuttle it, anyway. Were Labour’s flagship policies of free university education, more NHS funding, more infrastructure spending and a higher minimum wage reliably costed? Nope. But then neither is leaving the EU, because we don’t know what terms we’ll be leaving on. Everything is levelled. We are at the Ground Zero of political credibility. The election was a choice between Blue Sky Fantasy Politics 1.0 and Blue Sky Fantasy Politics 2.0. And given a choice between someone offering you £50 and someone offering £100, when you don’t believe either of them, why not take the latter?

It may be years before the Tories grasp just how cheaply their intrinsic advantageous edge — of economic deference, of that firm handshake with the bank manager — was squandered on the side of a bus. On any sane metric, a vote for Corbyn should have felt horrifyingly risky. He’s eye-bleedingly cavalier about our economy, he’s utterly uncommitted to our oldest, firmest diplomatic alliances, and he shows no sign of actually being up to the task of running anything so complex as a whelk stall. Remind you of anyone? No, I don’t think they get it. But they will.

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