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Now is a good time to take stock of what the last few years have taught us about British Conservatism.

The UK’s departure from the EU prompted another bout of derision from trade experts and broadsheet political commentators about the Conservative party’s lack of concern for the economic competence it once prized above all else.

Yet the process has revealed important truths about Conservatism that are more sobering for the party’s opponents than the easy punch lines that are usually traded in left of centre political debate. Any remaining illusions about the Conservatives being swept from office in a wave of popular revulsion at their handling of Brexit/Covid (delete as applicable or keep both) should be abandoned now.

Some commonplace beliefs about the Conservative party have been tested over the last few months and most of them look wobbly.

Business interests

Does the Conservative party primarily exist to serve the interests of business? It doesn’t seem so given the magisterial indifference the government has exhibited to the opinions of business organisations as it set about separating Britain from its biggest export market. Indeed, it is possible that the order of priority in the relationship between Conservatism and business runs in the other direction. The muted response of businesses to the economic implications of a hard Brexit suggests that Conservative electoral interests now predominate in the relationship.

Free markets

Does the Conservative party seek to advance free markets? Since Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the party, British Conservatism has acquired a reputation as a party of ideas, or at least a party committed to advancing a specific pro-market worldview. It would be too strong to say that the party is no-longer in this sense Thatcherite, but it is certainly a party that has pivoted from the classical Thatcherite vision of the European single market.

Observing Conservatives laboriously erecting barriers to trade rather than removing them surely indicates that the top priority of its leadership is not the free movement of goods and services across national boundaries.

Yet it was this reform agenda that the great exponents of liberalising markets have historically seen as essential to constrain the power of the nation-state to nationalise, regulate and redistribute. Conservatives now favour more state spending and have even committed themselves, however notionally, to a new regional policy aimed at sharing prosperity more evenly across the country. It is a curious moment in the Conservative party’s recent history when further deregulation of the labour market turns out to be too politically dangerous to undertake.

European integration

Are Conservatives riven by a deep split over European integration? Internal splits over European integration have played a decisive role in felling an impressive number of Conservative prime ministers (Thatcher, Cameron and May) but they don’t seem likely to do so in the future, since the Conservative party has now cohered around support for Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit. The europhile strand of Conservatism no longer exists as a meaningful force within the party. No doubt the UK’s relationship with Europe will be a vexed political question in the years to come, but it seems more likely to play out as a debate between the parties rather than one that will divide and demoralise the Conservative party itself.

Beneath the Conservatives‘ new ideological profile

It might be concluded from all of this that the Conservative party has reinvented itself ideologically as a quasi-nationalist populist party. There is something to this characterisation, but it is important to appreciate the hard-headed electoral calculations that underpin the party’s current ideological profile.

What we have learned about Conservatism is in one sense an ancient wisdom about the party: it is an incredibly supple competitor when it comes to winning elections and sniffing out new political coalitions that will maintain it in office. As Anthony Trollope observed in 1859: “no reform, no innovation – experience almost justifies us in saying no revolution – stinks so foully in the nostrils of an English Tory politician as to be absolutely irreconcilable to him. When taken in the refreshing waters of office any such pill can be swallowed.”

Conservatives have historically been willing to shift in sometimes quite startling ways if they think it will help to win elections. This accommodating instinct has been a fundamental driver of recent Conservative strategy. Analysis of Conservatism sometimes downplays this aspect of the party because academics and social critics are instinctively fascinated by the social and intellectual structures that shape politics rather than the high political dynamics of elite party competition within those structures.

The accommodating instinct

Yet we can clarify a lot about contemporary politics by attending to Conservative politics in this narrow sense. Boris Johnson and his team spotted that the Brexit referendum had crystallised a political realignment and ensured that it would be favourable to the Conservative party by mobilising Johnson’s support for Brexit as their principal electoral appeal. The economics of Brexit simply had to be made to fit that political logic, whatever the cost to international trade and, ultimately, economic growth.

It has undoubtedly been easier for the Conservatives to play this game than Labour because the Tories are more hierarchically organised, enjoy a compliant print media, don’t challenge the economic interests of the wealthy, and represent the winning position in the Brexit referendum. But Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, deficient though they are in various standard dimensions of governing competence, have proven themselves to be unusually skilled at identifying a simple, clear message to campaign on and amplifying that message through shrewd use of Johnson’s own personality and his loyal followers in the press.

Johnson is unimpressive at the business of governing but harder to beat at the business of campaigning. It has always been assumed that Johnson’s flaws at the former would undercut his skill at the latter, but the last year of political turmoil at least leaves it as an open question whether that will prove to be the case.

The Conservative vote still looks resilient, even as the economic consequences of the pandemic and Brexit mount up. A downturn in Labour’s political fortunes probably lies ahead as vaccines are distributed and the economy reopens. But any advice to the opposition should at least start by recognising the underlying strengths of the current Conservative brand rather than assuming that Labour should obviously be enjoying Blair-style leads in the opinion polls.

As Trollope went on to note about the politics of the mid-nineteenth century: “A poor Whig premier has none but the Liberals to back him; but a reforming Tory will be backed by all the world – except those few whom his own dishonesty will personally have disgusted.”

Based on a longer article in the Political Quarterly journal.

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