Emerging images from the Conservative conference of desolate halls and frustrated delegates are a convenient visual metaphor for a party that has been intellectually hollowed out. Having defined its politics solely by “eliminating the deficit” for the past eight years — a task it has failed to complete despite inflicting the pain of relentless cuts to public spending — the Conservatives have apparently forgotten how to talk in any coherent manner about domestic issues.
While in subsequent years Labour responded to the financial crisis of 2008 with a process of renewal that was underpinned by an analysis of why capitalism was failing, the Conservative Party effectively dropped the entire proposed intellectual foundation of David Cameron’s leadership. Until the financial crisis, it was intended to be based on “Red Toryism”: more left-wing economic policies combined with social conservatism, but this agenda was abandoned in favor of exploiting the great crash of 2008 with an austerian narrative. Despite committing to match Labour’s spending plans in prior years, the Conservative Party after 2008 proceeded to lie to the British people, claiming that Labour had overspent and mismanagement of the public finances had caused the deficit.
The Conservative government, propped up by the Lib Dems, then proceeded to embark on a neo-Thatcherite journey of deregulation, corporate tax cuts, privatization, and shrinking of the state. So the very small state, low tax, and low regulation ideology that had exposed Britain to the financial crisis in the first place became the medicine the Conservative Party proposed to cure its ills, in place of any broader strategy to confront an economic system that was broken. Their denial was perpetuated by right-wing cheerleaders in the press, who regurgitated George Osborne’s lies about Labour overspending. As a result, the political conversation in Britain narrowed at precisely the moment a deeper analysis was required.
Having foregone any political imagination for the past eight years, the Conservatives are now paying the price. Devoid of any domestic agenda, policy announcements are few and far between, and when they emerge, they’re often simply a rehash of Labour policy. While the Financial Times praises shadow chancellor John McDonnell for “stepping into the economic void left by government,” the Conservatives are operating in an intellectual vacuum.
So it’s no surprise the headline to come from the chancellor’s speech was that the Tories “vow to stick with austerity.” By this stage there can be no doubt about the damage these policies have caused. As well as delivering some of the slowest growth numbers of any developed economy, and the longest wage stagnation since Victorian times, they clearly played a part in the outcome of the Brexit referendum. And the Conservatives knew this. In fact, Vote Leave’s infamous bus promising an extra £350 million a week for the National Health Service if we left the European Union, which was so prominent during the referendum campaign, was effectively an anti-austerity argument for Brexit. But the reality is, despite privately acknowledging how deeply unpopular and economically unsuccessful these policies have been, the Conservative Party are devoid of alternatives.
The cost of living is currently the top priority for most people in Britain, with the NHS second and Brexit a distant third. So while a general election may be needed if we’re going to sort out the impending Brexit impasse, Brexit itself won’t decide that election. Centering political discourse around the deficit for six years may have been electorally advantageous for Cameron and Osborne, but the price of that expediency was a refusal to formulate a coherent analysis of why the economic system was failing most people, which might have provided a foundation for Conservative solutions.
The Conservatives can attempt to talk up their economic record, but they cannot spin people’s lived experiences. Most people are struggling, and until they reconcile themselves to that reality, solutions will be limited to hilariously bad pronouncements such as that from the chief secretary to the treasury, Liz Truss, who suggested sorting Britain’s productivity problem by increasing the speed limit on motorways to eighty miles per hour.
The result of the intellectual vacuum in the Conservative Party is a conference dominated by Brexit, foregrounded by a debate over whether the Conservatives should either emulate Jeremy Corbyn’s policies or instead turn Britain into a deregulated tax haven with bargain basement standards, further diminishing of workers’ rights, and disintegrating public services. Going Corbyn-lite would be an admission of defeat on austerity, effectively conceding that it was a political choice all along, opening the door to Corbynism proper. Proposing to turn Britain into a tax haven would likely get annihilated at the ballot box.
A month after she became leader of the opposition in 1975, Margaret Thatcher spoke to a conference of Conservative students about the importance of the “intellectual counter-attack.” A long period of social-democratic consensus was breaking down, she said, and in its place free-market ideas were gaining a foothold. “If we can win the battle of ideas,” she told the room, “then the war will already be half-won.”
As a general election looms, it is the Labour Party which has learned that lesson.