As we approach Theresa May’s first anniversary as Prime Minister, we are confronted with a government losing its passion for reform. Brexit dominates the national conversation, but the economic and social problems which have fuelled the rise of populism will worsen if Toryism does not respond to them.
The greatest risk for the Conservatives is for them to become an uninspiring party of managerialism. The country does not need more technocrats at a time when voters feel frustrated with the political class and distressed by the upheaval of the twenty-first century. By retreating on the reforms of both May and Cameron, the Conservatives are becoming a party of Grey Toryism. The growing similarities with the 1990s when the party leader was infamously satirised in Spitting Image with grey skin, and the party went into a minority with support from Northern Irish MPs in its dying days, has not gone unnoticed.
Leadership rumours have also undermined the spirit of radical Toryism. Rather than asking questions and proposing solutions to help the party connect with working-class voters, the young, and public sector workers, many MPs seem more interested in gossiping about when May should leave office and who should replace her. The next Tory leader will certainly need a positive vision for the future of Conservatism, but the question of leadership should not define the party’s post-Brexit identity. There are major challenges which need to be addressed by a new radical Tory philosophy.
The meagre nature of the domestic legislation in the Queen’s Speech was inevitable given the new parliamentary arithmetic, but the government has been sliding towards managerialism for months now. During the election, May never proposed any truly imaginative and popular policies to live up to the philosophical vision in the manifesto. Even the ideas which inspired May’s communitarian conservatism were drowned out by the constant and unrelenting mantra of “strong and stable leadership”. The government is now suffering the consequences.
Social reform has been paralysed. Some progress might be made with reform of mental health and domestic abuse legislation, but we cannot expect anything as ambitious as the Coalition-era public services reforms. In fact, flagship Tory reforms are being watered-down. Michael Gove’s innovative and much-needed prison reforms have been ditched. Justine Greening might end funding for the future expansion of free schools. Damian Green has appeared reluctant to defend the tuition fees system.
Economic reform has also stalled. George Osborne succeeded in delivering cuts to income tax and corporation tax, a reduced deficit, and a steady flow of investment in infrastructure and skills. But the Cameron-led Conservative party never fully grasped the post-crash reality. The changing nature of work, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, the unaccountability of global corporations, and growing inequality between the generations. Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers have been too busy making public interventions on why their departments should be exempt from fiscal restraint.
There is no lack of radical Tory thinkers and ideas. Conservatives should draw upon them to become a populist, rather than a managerialist force in British politics. Voters are attracted to parties with a clear vision. That is why the politicians across the political spectrum from Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron have prospered. Defending the status quo, or promising “strong and stable leadership”, simply will not do. It’s time for a rebirth of a radical Toryism which is prepared to win the twenty-first century.