Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party.
Ejected from government by the current machiavellian parliamentary manoeuvring of Pedro Sanchez, the Prime Minister, Spain’s conservative Partido Popular (PP), embarked on an experiment.
For the first time since democracy was restored to Spain, the party made a bet that the country had shifted decisively to the right. The young new leader, Pablo Casado, promised conservatism “without complexes.” Its record was mixed, and he was replaced in April by the Galician regional president, Alberto Nuñez Feijó, who has taken the party back to the centre.
If the PP’s performance at the last regional election in Andalucía in 2018 showed the potential of Casado’s hard-right strategy, and its anti-lockdown success in Madrid, under Isabel Díaz Ayuso (often labeled ‘Madrid’s Thatcher’) was its apogee, Feijóo’s decisive victory last Sunday in the latest regional election exposed its eclipse.
The PP’s varied fate contains lessons about the circumstances under which a culture war strategy is likely to work, and when it’s likely to backfire that should concentrate minds in Downing Street.
Casado’s conservatism without complexes made much of the unity of Spain (against Catalan separatists) worries about immigration through North Africa, and the refulgent Marxism of Sanchez’s coalition partners Podemos (the party is so left-wing that its members held a vote on whether its leader and his partner could keep a house that they had bought with their own money).
It weathered the challenge posed by the liberal Ciudadanos party, which copied Casado’s move to the right, thereby losing the left-leaning half of its voter base, but at the same time legitimised Vox.
Vox, a sort of Spanish Ukip, took Casado’s culture war further, attacking Spain’s burgeoning feminist movement, staging protests in defence of bullfighting and bigging-up nostalgia for Spain’s long vanished Latin American empire.
Vox’s performance began to cause alarm inside the PP. By March, it had closed to within two points of the PP’s 22 per cent. Casado having legitimised hardline views, voters had started to abandon him for the ‘real thing’. Sanchez’s PSOE, the main party of the left, had begun to open up a lead again. Conservatism without complexes was turning into Conservatism without votes.
At the same time, the Catalan conflict had begun to cool down. The fact that Sanchez’ government had to make deals with more moderate Catalan nationalists didn’t inspire the outrage it once had. Podemos, which has once threatened to seize leadership of the left from PSOE, had fallen back to the ten per cent that has been usual for the Spanish far left. Though Spain has a proportional electoral system, parties that poll less than about 12 per cent are heavily penalised. The threat from the extreme left has receded.
In Galicia, and in defiance of his national leader, Feijóo stuck firmly to the centre. That he delivered successive election victories was enough for him to replace Casado in April.
But Galicia had always been an unusual place home to moderates like the former Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and even, relative to the politics of the time, Manuel Fraga. Fraga was Franco’s Ambassador to the UK, and led the moderates of the old dictatorship into democratic politics.
The PPs victory in Andalucía, traditionally a left-leaning region, that showed that moderate, even boring, conservatism, focused on sound economic management could attract enough converts from the left to win even in its traditional stronghold.
Where Casado’s culture war had alarmed them, Feijóo’s centrism reassured them. But what is especially interesting is that Feijóo’s move to the centre caused the Vox vote to collapse. Even voters who preferred the “real” right-wing populism to its imitation preferred centrist conservatism to both.
Absent a strong hard-left bogeyman, and amid worsening economic circumstances, Vox’s culture war appeared an irrelevance. Jobs in modern industry, not in ‘tauromachy’ (as bullfighting is known by the pretentious), were at the top of voters’ minds.
As inflation rises in the UK, the Conservatives would be wise to heed Andalucía’s example. Voters want the government to focus on reducing the cost of living, keeping a lid on the wage-price spiral, and, because of the war, national security.
They are instead being treated to performative bills on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Human Rights Act that might satisfy the party’s own ‘Vox’ wing, but will bog the government down in parliamentary guerrilla war voters don’t care about. Right now, its overriding domestic policy tasks should be to put a lid on inflation and draw the sting from a wave of strikes that appears to enjoy broad popular support.
The lesson from Andalucía is not (as much as I might like it to be) that a culture war cannot deliver victory for the right. Indeed, it had some purchase, even in this left-leaning region of Spain, but that victory goes to the side that is relatively less extreme.
Like Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn left the Conservatives with plenty of space to engage in a grown-up form of student politics. But in the middle of a European war and with inflation reaching double digits, it is an indulgence neither the party nor the country can afford.