Of all the difficulties Theresa May faces, the importance of denying the truth may be the most acute. There are certain things a prime minister cannot say; certain fabrications that must be insisted upon because political expedience cannot withstand too much daylight. Mrs May, then, must pretend her position is secure and that, contrary to the expectations of her party and the country, that she will lead the Conservative party at the next general election, whenever that may be. If this makes her seem modestly ridiculous then so be it; the alternatives are even worse.
Even so, some fictions would be better abandoned. Last week the prime minister was asked if the Conservative party needed to revisit the ‘modernising’ agenda that, in part, Mrs May was once a part of. Don’t be so silly, May said: ‘I think that’s an argument that we had in the past. I think there was a time when we needed to do that. But I think we’ve moved on from that.’
Even a cursory examination of the latest YouGov numbers puts the lie to that. According to them, Labour enjoys the support of 70 percent of 18-24 year olds and 52 percent of those aged 25-49. If you meet a voter under 50 there’s less than a one in three chance they’re a Tory voter. Only in the modern Conservative party can a 49 year old be considered a stripling.
There are Tories who understand this, recognising that the party has a serious and debilitating generational problem. George Freeman’s You-Can-Have-A-Tent-And-Still-Be-A-Tory ideas festival event was a start, not least because it identified the right problem. And even Theresa May appreciates that something must be done.
The suggestion tuition fees should be capped and a move to increase the threshold above which this effective graduate tax is paid is a start, a belated recognition that the costs of university attendance have spiralled out of control, increasing more rapidly than the benefit of a university education itself. Similarly, the renewed focus on housing – albeit a focus that has not yet delivered meaningful action – is at least a recognition that the housing market is no longer working the way it should.
But, useful though such measures may be, they remain desperately modest. Policy is only part of the problem and, in many ways, the lesser part of it. The sense the Tories have stacked the deck against younger voters – a definition, remember, that now includes the early years of middle-age – is as widespread as it is corrosive. That can be fixed, however, more easily than the still worse problem which remains the sense, fair or not, that the Conservatives lack an instinctive sympathy with anyone under the age of, well, 50. It is a question of sensibility and perception and these are less easily-changed or fixed than mere policy matters.
The Tories’ de facto alliance with Ukip may have helped deliver Brexit but it sent a message to younger Britons too. It is not just that young Britain rejected Brexit, it is that young Britain rejected the particular type of Brexit envisaged by Ukip and its fellow-travellers. Since the referendum, Theresa May has generally – at least at a rhetorical and symbolic level – embraced that vision and the consequences have been as predictable as they are easy to understand.
There are millions of Britons who, while accepting their birthright and being modestly satisfied with it, are happy to consider themselves citizens of the world. This does not, they think, make them citizens of nowhere. In the great metropolises in particular, they see and enjoy a Britain they think relaxed and at ease with itself. Race and gender and even religion matter very little to them and they are repulsed by politicians for whom they do. This is, for sure, a form of liberalish identity politics but it is one which likes to think it rejects a cruder, more traditional, idea of identity politics. A kind of politics Brexit illuminated and encouraged. There is a reason a new Queen Mary University poll suggests the Tories might only win 29 percent of the vote at the next London local elections; a reason too why the Tories only win the votes of about one in four ethnic minority voters.
Brexit, then, is a proxy for other things much more than it is a problem in and of itself. The details of the negotiations or indeed the intellectual argument for leaving the European Union matter less than the general temper in which these matters are discussed. And the picture the Tories present is too frequently more Blimpish than might be thought wise. Symbols matter, of course, and the spectacle of Tory MPs obsessing about Big Ben or a new Royal Yacht has been as ridiculous as it has been telling. If history is a divide, these people are on the wrong side of it. That, at any rate, is how these matters are perceived by many younger and early middle-aged voters. Waffling about how Italian prosecco-makers depend on the United Kingdom for their own future prosperity carries an unwelcome whiff of Marie Antoinettism.
David Cameron’s quiet tragedy was not that he misdiagnosed the Tory problem but that, having diagnosed it correctly, he abandoned the cure only half way through the course of treatment. Fox hunting! Grammar schools! Blue passports! These might tickle the party memberships’ erogenous zones but they sent a very different signal to millions of voters who have no interest in joining the Tory party but could be prevailed upon to endorse Conservative candidates if those candidates seemed enthused by and comfortable in modern Britain. Again, it is a question of sensibility.
In the face of that, even laughable alternatives begin to look tempting. The opinion polls confirm as much. If the government has no plan, the opposition doesn’t require a credible one either. Ultimately, so much of what the Conservative party has done – and, just as importantly, said – in the past 18 months confirms the sardonic wisdom of Robert Conquest’s third law of politics. Namely that ‘the simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies’.
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