The Conservative Party is in deep trouble. As a brand it is now synonymous with the Austerity Party. This is a bombastic failure for a party which rebranded a decade ago in order to shed its “Nasty Party” image – an initiative which began thanks to the Conservative chairman, now prime minister, Theresa May. Today the Foreign Secretary joined a growing list of cabinet ministers seeking to change public sector pay policy. This is the tip of an iceberg that is quickly melting under the heat of public opinion.
The problem with the modern Conservatives, as defined by David Cameron and George Osborne, is that they projected themselves as the Meritocratic Party and failed to live up to it. George Osborne said that they were ‘on the side of people who work hard and want to get on’ and in their most recent manifesto they made plain their designs to make Britain a ‘Great Meritocracy’. For sure, the Conservative message plays well to the true-believers who Margaret Thatcher brought into the Tory fold. But for “the many” – as the Labour Party now seems to be the champion of – meritocracy is the grand illusion of modern Britain.
Anyone under the age of 40 can “work hard” all they want and still struggle to get a job, own their own home and raise children who will be better off than them. This is particularly true of those in the public sector (doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters et al.) who are by all accounts overworked and underpaid. And after the so-called “dementia tax” shambles the Tories can no longer count on the support of the elderly either.
The first task for the leadership of the Conservatives is to acknowledge this. The second, and more important, will be to find a remedy. Of course, they are the most successful and enduring political party in British history, and the secret of their success has without a doubt been their pragmatism. In 2017 they must regenerate once again, under Theresa May or not. This will require either keeping the same message but using government more effectively in order to deliver it – or changing the message entirely.
Indeed, the ultimate problem for them is that in Britain meritocracy does not hold much sway; as a society we are still far too class-ridden, envious of wealth and sceptical of merit (unlike America, for instance). And so whoever leads the Tories in the future will need to do what Tony Blair did to the Labour Party: divorce them from dogma, preach to the unconverted and make them relevant for the modern world.
Otherwise, the truth is that conservatism isn’t working.