History shows us that during periods of crisis the Conservative party has a tendency to look for leadership from the nearest suitable nonentity. Whether Theresa May can avoid future historians recording her as another manifestation of this unfortunate trend is doubtful, says Nick Turner.
It is often said that the Conservatives are not an ideological party. The late John Ramsden argued that it is their very appetite for power, rather than any particular way of thinking, that characterises their history. Yet great splits over policy are also a feature. Protectionism or free trade sundered the Peelites, including a young William Gladstone, from the bulk of the party over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Free trade or Joseph Chamberlain’s imperial tariffs almost repeated the trick half a century later. The post-war consensus never sat well with the classical liberals who joined the party before the war while Europe has been a fault line since the Treaty of Rome was signed.
When Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher first questioned and then smashed the socialism pursued by all governments since Clement Attlee’s, they also proved that free enterprise could lift Britain from the sick man of Europe to its leading power. Too late did Thatcher realise that Delors’ single European model was antithetical to her own policies and the wets had their revenge. The legacy of that regicide has dogged Conservative prime ministers ever since, sometimes submerged but never resolved, it is an ideological rift that cannot yield to Hegelian synthesis.
For Thatcher’s children, being locked in the European Union and bound by their queer ideas on regulation, competition, a level playing field and harmonisation retards and eventually defeats the organic growth liberal economics promises. Conversely, for the more paternal or interventionist minded, the EU provides cover for the expansion of government control while simultaneously preventing a deregulatory programme; the ratcheted direction of travel having only one trajectory. Outside of the EU, both sides can seek to persuade others of the merits of their policies; inside and it is game, set and match by default to ‘a beatific state of intolerable bureaucracy.’
It is little wonder then that Theresa May would rather be tied to the EU model than pursuing the Thatcher style tax cutting and deregulation that is currently boosting the US economy. As Yuval Levin points out, nostalgia is a powerful ingredient in baby boomer politicians and Mrs May imbibed the policies of Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath with the milk on her breakfast table. Her full-throated defence of free markets at the Party conference is at odds with policies such as the industrial strategy and a belief in the good government can do, while Mrs May’s grasp of economics is Keynesian at best with none of Macmillan’s deep understanding of that false gospel.
In the absence of a deal, the remorseless logic of Brexit dictates that to make a success of it the UK would need to ditch many of the EU’s ludicrous regulations, reduce marginal, sales and corporate taxes and reverse the progressive authoritarianism of the British state. Over time the size of government would need to be reduced down nearer the growth maximising level achieved by countries such as Australia and Switzerland. Genuine free trade, not the managed and overregulated EU’s idea of it, is an easy step in the internet age. Similarly, the bloated Quangocracy, filled with an expensive and economically valueless rentier class, has become so superfluous due to the information revolution that the whole system of regulatory oversight needs reform. Likewise, the civil service has proven that it is not so much a Rolls Royce as an old and obsolete Austin Maestro, no longer Plato’s disinterested Guardians they have become as debilitating as Confucian Mandarins. Ironically one of the few Cabinet Ministers who understands all this is the one-time Thatcherite and now Remain captured Chancellor, Philip Hammond. Mrs May, backed by the same establishment that feeds at the EU’s big government trough and the big business that enjoy the barriers to entry the EU erects, would rather have a deal at any cost.
Yet for all Mrs May’s maternal interventionism, it was still possible to account for her actions as keeping her fractured party together. Until the Cabinet met at Chequers. If the Blairite Third Way was not bad enough, the triumphalism of a prime minister who was on the losing side of both a referendum and an election hardly soothed the suspicious Eurosceptic backbenchers. As noted by former Minister, Steve Baker, the dishonest briefings from No. 10 were childish and not indicative of the statesmanship the moment demanded. Cabinet, the conduit between Parliament and the government, is reduced to a cabal when it does not act as ‘a board of control chosen by the legislature.’ When it chooses the loud crickets of big business over the numerous herd, many of them in smaller enterprises without any lobbyists other than their MPs, it is a mere clique. Far from representing the balance of the Parliamentary party, Mrs May’s soddenly wet Cabinet has a distinct and top-heavy Remain flavour.
The tragedy of Mrs May’s premiership is that she drags others down with her. Popular MPs like James Cleverley are deployed to advocate policies they came into politics to oppose. Cabinet Ministers practising sophistry when advocating for her fake Brexit lose the respect of their followers while the Tory party as a whole is mistrusted by its own voters. The internet has a long memory and clips will haunt those loyalists if they ever get a leader to the right of Ed Miliband. Mrs May’s Machiavellian skills have long been apparent to political anoraks, but they are not the tactics needed for a party with no majority and a largely single-issue base in a rare state of hyper attention. In seeking to split the Brexiteers, she split the party. Surely the art of politics is to do that to the opposition?
For Mrs May, perhaps the enemy was always the Brexiteers, especially the ‘libertarian right’ that constitute so many of their number. James Burnham identified the tendency of American progressives to see no enemies to the left, even if they are all mad Marxists. The modern Tory high command seems afflicted with the same disease, not surprising given their close ties to Barack Obama and their admiration of New Labour, themselves heavily indebted to Bill Clinton’s New Democrats of the 1990s. The result has been an instinctive tack to familiar centrism, itself an ideology. The effect is that voters then choose an outsider rather than ‘Vichy politicians.’ Consider Marco Rubio: elected on the Tea Party ticket and then seen as a Quisling over his membership of the establishment’s Gang of Eight, Rubio’s Presidential dreams never stood a chance against an outsider willing to run against the ‘uni-party’ policies the Republicans seemed to represent.
Whatever Mrs May’s intentions, stated or otherwise, her stewardship has promised delayed gratification and delivered procrastinated submission. Professor Ramsden’s fellow Conservative historian, John Charmley, notes a phenomenon in the Party’s history: ‘namely the temptation in an emergency to reach for the nearest suitable nonentity usually ends in tears.’ Whether Mrs May can avoid future historians recording her as another manifestation of this unfortunate trend is doubtful. Her political instincts and character put her at odds with many of her younger MPs who grew up as the children of Thatcherism. Nor will her Heathite policies win over the progressive children of Blairism, many of whom, as Burnham once mused, turned out not to be liberal at all but monsters. To woo their peers from the pied pipers of Marxism would require a party willing to heed the advice of Nikolai Bukharin, the most intellectual of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who noted ‘it is well known that the most powerful enemy of Marxism is the Austrian school.’ As Mrs May has just lost two of her most notable Austrians in David Davis and Baker, the omens are not looking favourable. Brexit needed a statesman willing to act as the great enabler; instead, it got May, the great emasculator.