David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
From a liberal centre-right perspective, there is more than one way of looking at Rishi Sunak’s announcement on green policies. The generous or optimistic view is that this was driven by a careful and realistic assessment of the economic costs of previous targets and the electorate’s willingness to bear them. The Prime Minister is, after all, right to argue that governments have to keep the public with them.
The less generous, more pessimistic view is that this is a sign that the Conservatives no longer care about the environment (or, at least, not enough to do anything that challenges those voters who do not care) and this is all about shoring up the red wall. It is a political manoeuvre that creates opportunities for dividing lines with Labour but demonstrates little interest in solving a vital long term issue. Nor is the uncertainty created good for business.
It is, of course, possible that there is some truth to both interpretations. Sunak is, I am sure, sincere in his belief that some of the previous targets were disproportionately costly. But he also has in mind the voter who thinks that all this climate change stuff is a bit overblown, a metropolitan preoccupation of those comfortably off enough to make sacrifices. His speech suggests that the younger, graduate voter more inclined to be concerned about climate change is much less of a priority for him.
This is just one issue where the Conservative coalition is under strain. There is a risk of over-simplification (polling shows that red wall voters care about climate change; experience suggests that blue wall voters will dislike having additional costs imposed upon them) but Sunak’s move on the environment can be seen as a continuation of the long-term change in the direction of the Conservative Party and its electoral base.
Whereas once a Tory voter was largely defined by economic security, it is increasingly the case that cultural values are pre-eminent. The trend in recent general elections is that Conservative voters are becoming poorer, less educated and more socially authoritarian. In 2019, this worked very well for the Tories, capturing the red wall but still holding on to many economically secure and socially moderate voters. Boris Johnson appealed to the red wall; Jeremy Corbyn scared the blue wall sufficiently to keep them voting Conservative.
Whether that realignment in British politics will continue must be open to question. Leaving the EU accelerated a process that was already underway, but many Leave voters have lost their enthusiasm for Brexit. Instead, the focus is on a cost of living crisis and struggling public services – difficult topics for a longstanding Conservative Government. Corbyn has gone, and Sir Keir Starmer has focused relentlessly on those who switched to the Conservatives in 2019. Polling suggests that all the 2019 gains will be lost. Meanwhile, the Conservatives continue to lose support amongst younger, better educated voters. There is every chance that the Tories will be squeezed at both ends of their coalition at the next election.
This raises big questions for the future of the Conservative Party and, more broadly, the centre right in the UK.
There is no shortage of voices calling for the Tories to embrace the realignment, appeal to a new political base of working class voters, stand up to the woke metropolitan elite, campaign for “a proper Brexit”, reduce immigration, punish criminals more severely and encourage traditional family values. And there is, in all fairness, demand for this from an element of the electorate.
This would come, however, at a cost. Most obviously, this would accelerate the retreat from a large part of the Conservatives’ traditional voting base in prosperous but mildly liberal parts of the country. It is not an agenda that will hold onto many seats in, for example, Surrey, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, let alone London. The longer-term prospects without a course correction are even more worrying from a Conservative standpoint. Relying on non-graduate voters born before 1960 is not a sustainable strategy for the 2030s and beyond.
More importantly, the move towards populism which peaked (for now) with Boris Johnson did not deliver good and coherent government. Promises were made but little was delivered. Short termism prevailed. The contradictions of promising higher spending and keeping down taxes were soon exposed. The policy most important in winning over new voters – getting Brexit done – has proven to make us poorer than we would otherwise be. Nor was it a period when Ministers were chosen on the basis of ability but loyalty. In other words, the experience of embracing the realignment – in terms of personnel and policy – has been a bad one if one cares about competent government.
Sunak is undoubtedly a big improvement on his two predecessors, but he is still operating in a context where much of the focus is on keeping the party together and the target voter is the recent red wall convert. An election defeat followed by a leadership contest decided by the party membership could easily see the Tories adopting an even more populist agenda that incorporates the worst aspects of the Johnson and Truss administrations. It is in the context that I have edited The Case for the Centre Right, which is being published on Friday.
The book explores the way our politics has changed (Andrew Cooper on the political realignment; Rory Stewart on populism), the nature of the centre right (Danny Finkelstein) and the importance of the rule of law (Dominic Grieve). It sets out distinctly liberal centre right positions on the economy (Tim Pitt), science and technology (Sam Gyimah), healthcare (Anne Milton) and, rather topically, energy and climate change (Amber Rudd). Gavin Barwell discusses our relationship with Europe, as does Michael Heseltine, who sets out an agenda for the centre right focused on repairing European relations and delivering greater devolution.
The purpose of the book is to set out an alternative future for the centre right in the UK that does not depend upon populism, but can appeal to an electorate that is becoming better educated and more socially liberal. We argue that the centre right has a vital role to play in our politics by being sceptical of utopianism and the belief that the state can solve every problem; willing to embrace the private sector in the delivery of public services; upholding institutions like an independent judiciary; fiscally responsible; and ambitious in creating a pro-business environment.
In contrast to much of the last few years, the centre right is at its best when it pragmatically seeks to solve problems. This means, for example, to engage positively with our international allies, recognising that some issues are best dealt with at a multinational level.
The contributions are often punchy and provocative (Johnson and Truss enthusiasts will find parts of it an uncomfortable read) but also thoughtful and forward-looking. This is not a party manifesto and not every contributor will agree with every word written by other contributors. But every essay, I believe, makes an important contribution to a growing debate about the future of centre right politics.
The liberal end of the broad Conservative coalition has not been forthright or strong enough in recent years. I hope that the publication of The Case for the Centre Right is a signal that this is about to change.