David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
My previous ConservativeHome column discussed the immediate aftershocks of Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini-Budget”, when matters were already looking very grim for the Government. Since then, to paraphrase Emperor Hirohito, the political situation has developed not necessarily to the Conservative Party’s advantage.
Labour had its best conference since the days of Tony Blair. The Conservative Party had a worse conference than even during the days of Tony Blair. The headline announcement from Kwarteng’s statement was dropped to avoid a Parliamentary defeat, Ministerial discipline broke down, the Bank of England was forced to intervene to protect pension funds and the opinion polls show Labour leads that would result in an electoral wipe out for the Tories.
A Conservative optimist could legitimately argue that the markets have stabilised, and that mid-term opinion polls are snapshots not predictions. We are the stage in the Parliament when polls constitute a referendum on the popularity of the Government not a choice between two options. There is nothing like the excitement today about the prospect of a Labour government that there was in the mid-1990s, so there is an opportunity for the gap to close.
A Conservative pessimist, however, can make at least seven points in response.
There is, of course, a lot that can happen in the next two years before we have an election (this time last year most people – myself included – expected Boris Johnson to win the 2024 contest, possibly with an increased majority). It is, however, perfectly plausible to believe that the Conservatives will suffer a defeat on a par – or worse – than 1997. If so, what would that mean for our politics?
The 1997 election condemned the Conservative Party to a period of irrelevance. The media was only interested in it as a source of mockery. The Labour Government did not have to worry about the Opposition either in Parliament or the country.
The Conservative Party may have been eclipsed but the values of the centre right remained influential, largely because the then Prime Minister shared many of them. The centre right usually favours the internationally mobile coming and staying in the UK, which means not making the tax environment hostile. Blair agreed. The centre right tends to take an unsentimental approach to the economy in terms of being willing to embrace new technologies and new sectors, not throw money at protecting traditional industries. Blair agreed. And the centre right prioritises the consumers of public services over the producers and would accompany additional funding with reform. Blair agreed.
That is not to say that Blair was a Conservative, but that the Blair landslides were not complete repudiations of mainstream centre-right thinking. The very sensible supply side reforms of the Thatcher and Major years (such as trade union reform) remained in place, not because it was too difficult to reverse them but because Blair genuinely believed in them.
“We were elected as New Labour, and we will govern as New Labour”, Blair told the nation after his first landslide. He was true to his word, making it harder for the Conservatives to find a purpose but also ensuring that his Government did not run into the usual economic crises that rapidly occurred for all his Labour predecessors.
Keir Starmer is a different figure. He has clearly moved the Labour Party a long way from the Corbyn years, but is there a passionate commitment to an open and competitive economy, a willingness to embrace our economic strengths over nostalgia, and a belief that the interests of consumers, rather producers, are paramount? The evidence is mixed but, if he had a large majority and the Conservative Party was on its knees, it is not clear that Starmer would or could resist the temptation to govern as old Labour. His instincts appear to be well to the left of Blair.
Labour won comprehensively in 1997 because it accepted many of the economic arguments of the centre right. Starmer is both less inclined to do so and may feel he has less need. This makes the prospect of a Labour landslide in two years potentially a more crushing defeat than 1997 in that the country would be led from the left, not the centre.
The paradox here is that by attempting to move in a more free market direction – but doing so in such a tactically inept way – Truss has substantially increased the chances of the country moving in a much more left wing direction. By overreaching on lower taxes and spending and taking a dogmatic position on the role of the state (are we really not going to have a public information campaign encouraging efficient use of energy?) mainstream centre-right values – associated with a deeply unpopular Conservative Party – become tarnished. Rather than providing a means of implementing centre right values, the current Government is now contaminating them.