Conservatives must rediscover their instinctive pragmatism

The writer is an FT contributing editor

When the Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill dubbed the Conservatives the stupid party he was not proffering a compliment. Yet over time the Tories were well served by an intuitive preference for tradition and pragmatism above intellectual and ideological abstractions. They need to reclaim the habit if they are to avoid defeat at the next general election.

The signs in the wake of Boris Johnson’s defenestration are otherwise. Dispelling the rancour that has seen Johnson bundled out of the leadership will not be easy. Voters do not much like self-absorbed, divided parties, even less so when times are tough. Johnson is unlikely to make his party’s task easier. Oblivious to the manifest character flaws that laid him low, he is nurturing a myth of betrayal. The failure of his successor would help sustain the deception.

If there was ever a moment when the Conservatives desperately needed to show competence and grip, this is it. Britain is sitting on the edge of stagflation. Household incomes face a ferocious squeeze from high inflation and vanishing growth. Trade and investment have shrunk in the wake of Brexit. Yet to listen in on the Tory leadership campaign is to conclude the only issues worthy of discussion are tax and the fight with Brussels about EU trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

The next prime minister faces two pivotal challenges. The pressing demand is to deal with the cost of living crisis with a strategy to restore balanced economic growth. Voters will take the pain if they can see a route map to recovery. Intimately connected is a need to normalise relations with Britain’s European neighbours. Blaming the war in Ukraine and the global energy price shock will not do the trick. Brexit was sold as an economic liberation. Instead, Britain’s inflation is higher and growth lower than that of European peers.

In response, the Tories are hanging on to ideological obsessions. Candidates are falling over themselves to promise lower taxes and an extreme version of Brexit. Old-fashioned common sense has not had a hearing in the scramble to claim the low-tax mantle of Margaret Thatcher. Never mind that Thatcher’s starting point was fiscal prudence.

The race’s early favourite, Rishi Sunak, is understandably reluctant to disavow his contrary, tax-raising, record as chancellor. But cuts, he still insists, are a question of when not if. The backbencher Tom Tugendhat is alone in striking a balance by recalling the Tories have manifesto commitments to “level up” the poorest regions. As for the rest, the former chancellor Kenneth Clarke got it right when he described the flurry of promises to reduce income and corporation tax and national insurance contributions as “populist nonsense”.

The economic facts are simply stated. There is a case for a temporary fiscal loosening to cushion energy bills as the economy tips towards recession. But beyond short-term relief, tax cuts would have to be paid for by lower public spending — in areas such as health, defence, social benefits and pensions — or in rising public borrowing and debt. You will not find a serious admission of either possibility in the leadership manifestos.

The same neuroses are shaping the leadership debate about the EU. The candidates on the right — the high priests of Brexit who see wicked Remainers around every corner — are behaving as if Johnson’s demise was a dastardly pro-European plot.

Such is their hold on the party’s psyche that even Tugendhat says he would press ahead with legislation to unilaterally tear up the so-called Northern Ireland protocol. So much for the fresh start needed to stabilise trade and investment flows with Britain’s most important market and to restore the country’s international reputation as a nation that keeps its word.

There is much else surreal about this contest. Such is their personal antipathy to Sunak — accused of plotting against Johnson — that some hardline Brexiters are backing the foreign secretary Liz Truss. Sunak voted leave in 2016; Truss backed remain. The campaign also seems to assume that some other party has been running Britain since 2010. Rarely have politicians been so eloquent in denouncing policies they championed the day before yesterday.

This is the problem with ideological obsessions. You get lost in the highways and byways. Life was so much easier when the simple promise of Conservatism was to uphold the best of the nation’s traditions and values while carefully managing an accommodation with modernity. Back then, the stupid party could also call itself the natural party of government.


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