Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
So far, Rishi Sunak’s time as Prime Minister has gone through three phases:
The first was to undo the legacy of Liz Truss. The second, from the start of 2023 to the Uxbridge by-election, was to do almost nothing. The third, from the Uxbridge by-election to the present, was do lots of things, randomly.
The verdict is now in on phase 3. It hasn’t worked, the polls are still dreadful. We may yet see a phase 4 from Downing Street, but other Conservatives are now looking forward to phase five: how to rebuild the party after a shattering election defeat.
For instance, Liz Truss and her allies have launched the Growth Commission. David Gauke, Michael Heseltine and others have published a book of essays proposing a come-back for the Remain wing of the party. And then there’s the New Conservatives movement, the best of whose thinking can be found in Danny Kruger’s new book, Covenant. I guess I should also mention the vociferously pro-Boris Johnson Conservative Democratic Organisation, because I wouldn’t be surprised if their hero does a Michael Portillo and returns to Parliament in the next few years.
For its part, ConservativeHome is also looking ahead with its reducing the demand for government project, which seeks to find a way through the looming crisis in our public finances by strengthening the family, reviving civil society and overcoming the barriers to fulfilling work.
But today I want to focus on Onward’s Future of Conservatism project — and their first publication The Case for Conservatism — which is authored by Gavin Rice and Nick Timothy, with a foreword by Michael Gove.
In many ways, it’s the most radical of all the projects I’ve mentioned so far. Though Kruger offers the deepest philosophical case for true conservatism, I fear that the thinking of most of his colleagues is too shallow to be touched by it. Even if some passing backbencher were to take Kruger’s words to heart, it might take them years to fully work out the political implications.
Alternatively, they could save themselves the effort and turn to Rice and Timothy — who red-pill the reader with the cold, hard facts of our national situation.
There’s page after page of sobering statistics on issues including economic growth, wage levels, productivity, inequality, home ownership, demographics, under-investment, social mobility, the trade deficit, mass immigration, energy insecurity, the failures of multiculturalism, social fragmentation, and family breakdown. It’s impossible to read this analysis with an open mind and conclude that Britain isn’t broken, both economically and socially.
Furthermore, it’s hard to think of much that successive Prime Ministers have done to make things better. It is, for instance, truly astonishing that Rishi Sunak could have got through a conference speech without once mentioning the housing crisis. One would never guess that we used to be party of home ownership.
Getting the party — and ultimately the country — back on track will require a paradigm shift every bit as profound as that required to rescue conservatism after 1997. Indeed, it’s clear that the backward looking agendas that I mentioned above — i.e. rejoining the EU, revisiting Trussonomics or reviving the Boris personality cult — are wholly inadequate.
What is required is the intellectual renewal offered by Kruger combined with the hardheaded realism offered by Rice and Timothy.
But beyond the recognition of this country’s brokenness, what is it that the latter pair propose? Well, their Case for Conservatism is not about detailed policy prescriptions — those will come in future instalments of the Future of Conservatism project. What we do get in this instalment, however, are twelve “core elements” of a new Conservative platform designed to “command the support of a future voting coalition capable of delivering a strong parliamentary majority.”
Top of this list is “a state that is active, not absent.”
Never shy of taking on the party’s Tufton Street tendency, Rice and Timothy emphatically do not want a government that ‘gets out of the way’. Pointing to a shameful record of under-investment by both the public and private sectors, they want an entrepreneurial state leading the way on building the infrastructure, housing and other things this country needs to succeed in the twenty-first century. It’s an approach that owes much more to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew than to Ronald Reagan.
A lot of British Conservatives will have trouble with this particular pivot to Asia. Then again, when one thinks about the things that definitely should be done by the state (e.g. deport foreign extremists) and the inability of the British state to do them, it is clear that we need Singaporean levels of state competence.
Rice and Timothy have therefore got their priorities right: any restoration of conservatism in office has to begin with a governance revolution.
I don’t have the space to go through all the other “core elements”, but I was struck by number four on the list: rebalancing the country.
This calls for an “active regional policy” that is basically the levelling up agenda. But despite the fact that the the Secretary of State for Levelling Up wrote the foreword, Rice and Timothy don’t use the term. Perhaps that’s because Boris Johnson neglected the flagship policy of his 2019 manifesto, Truss ignored it and Sunak starved it of money.
A future Conservative government will therefore have to reboot this policy area from scratch because there’s so little to build on. In fact, as one wanders through Rice and Timothy’s twelve core elements, most of them stand as a rebuke to thirteen wasted years — for instance, “sustainable immigration”; “planning reform and house building”; “supporting families”; “actively defending institutions and culture”. It’s a great to-do list for the future, but it would have been a great to-do list for 2010.
If there’s one thing missing from The Case for Conservatism, it’s an in-depth look at what went so wrong. I guess it would have been impolitic to include such a section, but the authors do make a good point about the “liberal ratchet”, which they describe as the process by which “parties of both Left and Right each introduce ever more liberal reforms, never to be undone.” They give some excellent examples — for instance, “our hyper-individualised method of taxing families” and the “tendency of quangos and cultural institutions to be dominated by progressives”. As for economic liberalism, they mention “the privatisation of public utilities (with mixed results)” and the “laissez-faire approach to the offshoring of industry.”
If the Conservative Party has any ambition to return to power and represent the national interest, then it must smash the liberal ratchet, which all too often represents rival interests.
Of course, well before that point those who believe in the agenda set out by Rice and Timothy must win power within the party. But looking ahead to the next leadership contest it’s hard to see who the Case for Conservatism candidate might be.
Obviously, it wouldn’t be Liz Truss, nor David Frost (should he swap the Lords for the Commons). As for Penny Mordaunt, did she ever see a liberal ratchet she didn’t like? Suella Braverman desperately needs to deepen and broaden her offer — and so does Kemi Badenoch, who needs to tell us what government can do, as well as what it can’t. That just leaves James Cleverly, who has yet to set out his stall.
In all likelihood, Gavin Rice and Nick Timothy will have to play the long game — waiting until the leadership election after next to seize their chance.
My hunch is the next generation of aspiring leaders will have a firmer grip on the meaning of conservatism than the current crop. Or, at least, I hope so — otherwise there might not be a party to lead.