Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.
The Conservative Party has a reputation for ruthlessly despatching unpopular leaders in order to maintain power. After Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, the defenestration of Boris Johnson adds another data point to the trend.
But removing an unpopular leader is just one half the challenge. The other is finding a replacement capable of reviving the party’s fortunes and, in today’s contest, securing an unprecedented fifth consecutive term in power.
If they are going to succeed, MPs need to understand the voting coalition the next leader will inherit, and the electorate they will be pitching to in eighteen months’ time. It is far from clear that many MPs or leadership hopefuls are yet engaging with this question.
The Conservatives emerged from the 2019 general election as the party of less educated working-class voters and low-paid places. The party won 51 per cent of skilled working-class voters and led Labour by 37 points among voters with no qualifications. Among seats the Conservatives gained in 2019, average earnings and house prices are five per cent and 33 per cent lower than in Labour seats, respectively.
The new Conservative coalition is more geographically dispersed and considerably less urban than before. The average longitude and latitude of Conservative 2019 gains was Sheffield, 100 miles to the north of the pre-2019 centre of gravity in Buckingham. Post-2019, two thirds (67 per cent) of Tory voters live either in villages (24 per cent) or on the edge of towns (43 per cent).
Partly as a result, Conservative voters have markedly different values and priorities than they did in the past – and which are being presented in this contest.
In Onward’s eve-of-election 2019 poll, for example, 59 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters agreed that the government should “prioritise spending for schools, hospitals and social care” over “cutting income tax”. And when asked to choose between “lower taxes, smaller government and less spending on public services”, and “increased taxation, bigger government and more spending”, only 56 per cent supported the former and 44 per cent supported the latter.
This was three years ago and things may have changed. But the evidence suggests not: the latest British Social Attitudes survey data suggests that three times as many people want to increase taxes and spend more on public services than want to reduce taxes and spend less.
The popularity of furlough and government loans and the continued salience of NHS spending provide further evidence that voters, including Tory members, are more willing to contemplate higher taxes than worse services and greater insecurity. We have even found evidence that voters are willing to pay higher taxes to deliver net zero.
The leadership contest has so far openly defied this reality. Candidates have tripped over themselves to offer ever greater tax cuts but there has been little talk of public services. Some candidates have pledged swingeing cuts to departmental budgets, while others have pledged to abolish the Health and Social Care Levy – a policy which given it is tied in law to health and care spending would surely be branded as “defunding the NHS” by Labour.
The explanation for this dissonance can be found in a fascinating study by Alan Wager, Tim Bale and Philip Cowley on the divergence of values between different parties’ MPs, members and voters after the 2019 election.
On a standard left-right economic scale, they find that Conservative MPs are twice as right wing on the economy as Conservative members, and hold markedly different views on the economy to the average voter. For example, when asked whether they agree with the statement “there is one law for the rich and another for the poor”, only five per cent of Conservative MPs agree, compared to 22 per cent of Members and 72 per cent of the public.
In fact Labour MPs’ economic values are much closer to voters’. On four of the five questions used to measure left-right economic preference, Conservative 2019 voters had more in common with Labour MPs, activists and members than they do with Conservative equivalents. This is clearly not comfortable for Conservatives, but it is the electoral reality.
This is not to say that voters are locked into a big-state economic viewpoint. Voters’ views on tax and spend are cyclical. Politicians can and should persuade. And economic conditions play a considerable role in shaping voters’ views. But for now, it is likely that the conveyor belt of tax cuts being offered so far will fall on deaf ears and backfire.
As David Willetts once wrote, “in order to reduce the supply of the state, you first need to reduce demand for the state.” Instead of competing on tax cuts today, leadership contenders should be more focused on ending the siren calls for more spending tomorrow.