What will the Tories fight about now?

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

Now that Britain is out of the European Union, it will be very hard to go back in. In the 2016 referendum campaign, one of the things that Vote Leave did most effectively was point out that because the EU was constantly evolving, no one could be confident that a vote for Remain was a vote for the status quo. And now Rejoin campaigners will be the ones who want to rip up current arrangements. There is no certainty about the terms on which the country could rejoin. Would the UK, for instance, be expected to commit to ‘ever closer union’ if in the future it were to return to the fold?

Even if, say, a party were to win an election on a Rejoin platform, that would not be sufficient for Britain to actually rejoin. The view in Brussels is that there would be no point in readmitting the UK unless there was a broad, cross-party consensus in favour. There is no desire to have countries coming and going at regular intervals, depending on who wins an election. This means that the Tories will, in effect, have a veto over whether to go back in or not.

Historically, it was Labour that was split over whether or not Britain should join the European project in the first place, but in recent decades the European question became the fault line in the Tory party. Since Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech, any Tory’s stance on Europe said more about their position in the party than anything else. Europe is the issue that ended the careers of the last four Tory prime ministers.

But now Boris Johnson has transformed the Tories into a Leave party, kicking out the grandees who could not accept that. The Tory civil war over Europe is over. What, then, will the Tories fight about now?

A few years ago, one might have thought that the answer to that question could be climate change. But the Tories have now reached a shared position on the issue. Few Conservatives doubt that human activity is contributing to climate change, but they do not want to don the Thunbergian hairshirt. Instead, they see technology and innovation as the solution to the problem: not to stop flying but to have battery–powered planes, for example. This means the Tories’ post-election unity need not be spoilt by awkward issues such as the drive to reduce emissions.

Immigration will also be far less of an issue for the Tories after Brexit. Free movement created a warped policy. Unable to control the flow of EU migrants, the UK created draconian rules for those coming from the rest of the world. This government is already developing a sensible approach which is more open to highly skilled immigration but will attempt to control immigration at the lower end of the wage scale. This will become the new Conservative orthodoxy.

The Tories may find that while the issue of Europe no longer splits the party, it could be superseded by an even older Tory fault-line: free trade. Brexit means that the UK will once again be in control of its own tariff schedule. This means that the party will have to decide whether to prioritise protecting the agricultural interest or lowering food prices — the issue that split the Tories in the mid-19th century.

In this new parliament, expect rows between Tory MPs who will argue that any trade deal must protect the UK’s farming sector and ensure that it is not subject to competition from countries with lower welfare standards, and those who argue that lowering prices for consumers should be the priority and opening up the agricultural sector is a price worth paying for expanding the UK’s access to other countries’ services markets. Tory MPs with rural seats — who would instinctively describe themselves as free traders — are already quick to claim that agriculture is a special case.

Johnson utters the usual Tory pieties on free trade. Yet his overall economic approach is very different from past Conservative governments. He is trying to create a new Tory political economy which involves a large amount of state investment in research and infrastructure. He is unbothered about balanced budgets and is keen to stimulate the economy at every opportunity. This is a big move away from Thatcherism, Alec Douglas–Home’s matchstick economics and George Osborne’s desire to make deficit the great dividing line of British politics. If the economy hits a rough patch in the next few years, expect a Tory backlash to Johnson’s approach.

This week has emphasised another large Tory schism: China. Perhaps the greatest difference between the Cameron and May premierships was in their attitudes to China. Cameron and Osborne thought that being Beijing’s best friend in the West could earn the UK another half-century at the global top table. May, with her Home Office background, was far more wary of the Chinese, worried by their intellectual property theft and other espionage activities. Johnson’s decision to continue to allow Huawei to be involved in the UK’s 5G network, albeit with restrictions, suggests he is trying to chart a course between these two positions. The Tory party, however, has become much more Sinosceptic than it was during the Cameron years. It is striking how much opposition there is to Johnson’s Huawei decision and how little support for it there is in the parliamentary party.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Tories, though, is that this new parliament has given them an electoral coalition that spans the Cities of London and Westminster — where more than half of the constituents have a degree and the average house price is over three quarters of a million — and Bishop Auckland — where only one in five have been to university and the average house price is £110,000. Keeping both of these constituencies happy isn’t just an economic challenge; it is also a cultural one.


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