That the Tories are having to shift their policymaking far left even of the Milibandesque positions that Theresa May took before the snap election is quite obvious. Today’s education speech by the Prime Minister involved an admission that the current system, drawn up by the Conservatives in coalition, isn’t working. The problems that the Tories have noticed with that system are largely political, but that’s not to say that there aren’t flaws in the details, too.
But it’s not just on tuition fees that the party is having to change its tune from its time in government under David Cameron and George Osborne. Firstly, the Conservatives very rarely mention the deficit these days, while Cameron and Osborne would slip it into the most irrelevant of conversations, just to ensure its continued salience. Now, it’s trickier: not only are voters ‘weary’, as Philip Hammond would say, of austerity, but they’re also a bit sceptical of this argument about making difficult decisions when the price of the DUP’s support in the minority government was £1 billion.
Secondly, it is now widely accepted that the NHS does need a great deal more cash. This was never something the Tories explicitly resisted under Cameron and Osborne, but they did repeatedly make the argument about the need for a strong economy to protect the health service. Part of that strong economy argument was of course about spending cuts elsewhere, but part of it was also about keeping taxes low. Now, neither arguments seem to have much purchase. Indeed, I understand that Jeremy Hunt has regularly been making the point in Cabinet meetings that core Conservative voters care more about having a health service they can really rely on than they do about keeping their taxes as low as possible, which suggests that the party is limbering up for some kind of tax hike.
This, too, would represent a change of direction for the Conservatives. The political facts have changed a great deal since this time last year, so it does follow that the party needs to change.
Big political shifts are a bit like changing course in a large ship, though: you need to be sure of where you’re going before you start steering. There’s always a risk of being lured onto the rocks by political opponents who you will never really be able to imitate.