It’s an odd accusation to levy at Boris Johnson’s government, but the Conservative party feels grey. Flights of fancy suggesting a bridge to Northern Ireland or – a thought to make 19th century Royal Navy strategists shudder – to France have given way to a carousel of scandals and disappointments. The former is cheap or cruel; the latter marked mostly by their predictability.
This week confirmed a suspicion I’ve held for a while; the Conservative party, being neither meaningfully socially conservative nor particularly interested in using an 80 seat majority, exists for the sole purpose of keeping Labour out of office.
It doesn’t conserve; despite repeated pledges, immigration never came close to the promised tens of thousands until the intervention of a pandemic and Conservative MPs are mostly to the left of Labour voters on social issues. It doesn’t reverse; despite moaning in public about New Labour’s legislative legacy, very little is done to undo it. Even the Great Repeal Act, releasing Britain from the burden of EU legislation, acted mostly to preserve it by transposing European regulations directly into British law.
The Conservative party in the 21st century is the closest thing to a purely Downsian party that Britain has ever seen. Its aim is to win elections to hold power, not to exercise it to achieve a goal. Labour, for its many faults, does at least have some idea of what the country should be and is accordingly bounded in what it can offer the electorate. Constantly pandering to short-run electoral incentives in a voting population skewed towards the elderly means sacrificing the future, a step many would be unwilling to take.
The Conservatives, uninhibited by ideology or values, can adopt pretty much any combination of policies they view as potentially electorally successful. This is why the same party can win five years of government pledging austerity, then secure another five undoing their cuts.
That Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak can be fined for breaking the rules they imposed on everyone else and offer nothing but mealy-mouthed apologies is not a new low. It’s exactly in line with everything that’s gone before it. It’s also far less important than their party’s repeated failure to use its time in office to achieve anything meaningful.
When the cost of living spirals and the Chancellor has nothing to offer beyond tax rises, it’s hard to muster any real sense of shock. When after 12 years in office the achievements of the Conservative party amount to going with the left-wing flow on cultural trends, while failing utterly on their pledge of national prosperity, it’s all but expected. Productivity, wages, and per capita output have been stagnant. The only things showing meaningful signs of growth are prices and the tax burden – set to rise to its highest level since the 1940s.
All the Conservatives have to offer you is managed decline and the threat that the other side would actively accelerate it. There is no vision for restoring Britain, for making it a better place to live. We are expected to be satisfied with living in a combination of Covid prison and retirement home.
What’s truly disappointing is how low-rent it all is. Decline would be a great deal easier to live with if it came in the form of gilded decadence and debauchery. Instead, we get a slow crumbling of national infrastructure and a series of scandals that veer between the tawdry and the criminal.
The lack of vision and ambition displayed in policy extends even here. If you’re going to be marked by scandal, at least make an effort. Rotten boroughs, armies sent overseas without adequate equipment because some minor noble has run away with the funds (rather than because the Ministry of Defence can’t find its behind with both hands), Dukes promoting officers based on bribes to their mistresses.
At least that would show a degree of character. Instead, all we get is failure on policy, failure in integrity, and failure to entertain. A party grey throughout.
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