Most general elections boil down to “don’t throw it all away” versus “time for a change”. When there seems to be nothing much left to throw away, the urge to chuck out the Government gathers an inexorable, irresistable power.
The longer you go on, the stronger it gets. So it proved for the Conservatives in 1964, after three previous election wins. So it was for Labour in 2010, after Tony Blair’s hat-trick. So, too, for the Tories in 1997, after four successive victories. The simplest way of thinking about last week’s Conservative by-election losses is to conclude that the Tories’ number is up and that there’s nothing much they can do about it. There is a time for everything. A time for government. And a time for opposition.
But before bowing to the apparently inevitable – signed, sealed and delivered by Labour’s recovery in Scotland – it’s worth asking how the Conservatives have hung on for four terms in office since 2010, through recession, war in Europe, a pandemic and Brexit, the main effect of which has been to convince much of the opinion-forming class to take the worst possible view of their own country.
The answer has been found in the Party’s capacity for re-invention. David Cameron lost the EU referendum. So he was replaced by Theresa May. She was unable to deliver Brexit. So she was succeeded by Boris Johnson. He lost the confidence of Conservative MPs, and also of Party members, if our panel of them is representative: from November 2021, he was in negative ratings more often than not. So he was replaced by Liz Truss. If you have forgotten how she got on, this site is providing a daily reminder here.
But the moral of the story is that, at each successive general election, the Tories didn’t ask voters not to “throw it all away”. They said instead that it was time for a change. And that, successively, each new Conservative leader was change. This case convinced enough voters at enough elections to keep the Tories in office for 13 years, and counting.
Rishi Sunak is thus the fourth consecutive Conservative leader to seek to persuade voters that they stand for change – and, to the list of problems haunting Britain, one must add the worst fall in living standards in modern times and a war in the Middle East which may put our multicultural settlement under unprecedented strain. It would take an electoral genius – a Lloyd George or a Margaret Thatcher or a Tony Blair – to pull this trick off.
There is no sign that such a wizard exists on either front bench. The Prime Minister is one of nature’s head boys (which is why he actually was one). The moral he will have drawn from his life, before entering Downing Street, is that if you say your prayers, believe in your country, stick by your family, draw out the spreadsheets and master the detail there is nothing that you can’t achieve.
However, these qualities are no guarantee of success in the bastardly business of politics – especially, perhaps, if you are the fifth Prime Minister in 13 years and can claim no mandate of your own, either from Conservative activists or the wider electorate. Sunak may have under-estimated the amount of poison in the chalice he was presented with when he entered Number Ten. But whether he did or didn’t, he understood, earlier this year, that “time for a change” was still his Party’s best chance of electoral success, small though it might be.
Change means change from the past – his party’s past, the country’s past. The first leads logically to change from Truss and Johnson. He didn’t serve under the first and resigned from doing so under the second. So he has a story to tell. The second leads, more intuitively, to a Dominic Cummings-style overhaul of our failing state, with its cartel capitalists, change-resistant public services, and remote quangocracy.
Perhaps denouncing the system over which the Prime Minister himself presides was always going to be a leap too far. But in any event, he has, with the striking exception of the Windsor Agreement, backed away from confrontation with Tory MPs. The whips would have recoiled in horror at any attempt by Sunak to, as they would see it, pick a fight with his predecessors at Party Conference, given the last four years. So he seems to have plumped for things that get him going: A-level reform, the proposed smoking ban and, of course, downscaling HS2.
He can only hope that his enthusiasm for them rubs off with the voters. But there is absolutely no sign of them doing so to date – if the polls and by-elections are any guide – and these passions don’t fit neatly with his five priorities. So we are where we are. We have reached a point where although a Labour Government wouldn’t be greeted with enthuasiasm by voters, it might be with relief, and a sense of exhaustion.
The natural itch in these circumstances is to Do Something – indeed, almost anything. Cut inheritance tax! No, stamp duty! No, the 40p rate! All of them at once! With a bit of the luck Sunak hasn’t had to date, there should indeed be some reductions next spring. But tax cuts alone are like a single note on a piano, and it takes more than a note to make a song. Any tax cuts have to be part of a story, or they simply look – and would be – desparate. Ken Clarke took a penny off income tax in his 1995 Budget. A fat lot of good it did the Conservatives in 1997.
The classic Tory case is that a country can only flourish with shared values. Integral to these is controlling borders; indeed, having them in the first place. At the same time as reinforcing them – which means stopping the boats – our public services need reform: voters aren’t getting value for money. On which point, Sunak needs to work out a way of reforming the Bank of England, if inflation is to be kept in a box.
The state is too big, a point that preoccupies Tory activists, and grossly inefficient, one that engages many voters. But reducing the supply of government will be very hard without first reducing demand for government. That means focusing tax help on families, thus empowering them to choose the childcare they want, and getting more houses built. We need more of what Michael Gove plans for Cambridge but further, faster. I fear the point about shared values will become alarmingly topical as war in the Middle East intensifies.
As his options narrow, Sunak has little choice but to get back to first principles, which would be the right course anyway. The alternative would be the self-indulgence of a leadership challenge during a domestic crisis and a third successive leader unendorsed by voters – with no cure-all successor. Conservative MPs understand that their current plight is dire. But seem to grasp that this course would be even worse.