Tories Should be Dreading Defeat
Those thinking a spell in opposition would fix things should be careful what they wish for.
There’s a sense in some circles of the Conservative Party that being out of government could be the best thing for it. Its ideological, intellectual and political malaise is well-discussed, and the party seems out of ideas, looking at the managed decline of both its own and the nation's prospects. It is disunited – members of both the parliamentary and the voluntary party rankling at the Truss implosion and Sunak coronation, while the ghost of Boris stalks the feast. In the midst of this, it’s easy to understand why some may want to embrace the sweet embrace of defeat.
Being out of government could, it is argued, give the party some time to recuperate. Exile to the other side of the House has taken on the qualities of being despatched to Baden Baden to take the waters. Away from the daily demands of government, the party could have some time to look inward, to focus on itself, to shake off the stasis and emerge renewed and revitalised. It’s an attractive narrative, but an unconvincing one. If you still support the Tory Party, you should still believe in it being in government.
Politics is a game of possession. If you don’t control power, there is little you can do. Opposition is a miserable, pointless place. All oppositions can do is wait, sustaining themselves on whatever parliamentary concessions they might inflict as they watch their opponents govern. Only when the government has fumbled sufficiently to grant them an electoral opening can they become reanimated.
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During that time, your opponents get to change the country broadly as they wish. Every day that the opposition has a majority is a day that their policies become practice and yours do not. As time passes by, these become more entrenched, a greater part of the status quo, the sediment of government building up upon them. By the time you are in power, these become harder and harder to undo.
The Tories should have learned this already. After more than a decade in power, trying to remove the 45p tax rate undid a Chancellor and a Prime Minister, even though the additional rate was only introduced a month before Gordon Brown lost power. The Conservatives’ bitter opposition to the Hunting Ban during the Blair years came to nought when they had control of the legislature, while they embraced and extended the minimum wage they had fought against. In the same vein, while many on the right criticise the 2010 Equality Act, nothing has been done to roll it back and the rise in immigration rates under Blair’s government has continued.
The Labour Party will likely find similar problems. The increase of VAT to 20% is likely too entrenched and lucrative to the state for Starmer and Reeves to dial it back down to 17.5%. Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees now looks shaky. They will not revoke Brexit. When you are out of power things get done by your opponents, and inertia sets them in place. Your opposition to them becomes fossilised and too difficult to revive. By the time you come back around to power, you are in a place you wouldn’t wish to start from.
Already there are signs of this as Starmer starts to see his team as a government in waiting. With a strong majority, he could set things in place which the Tories would baulk at, yet would always struggle to undo. The House of Lords could be upended by a muddled set of changes motivated largely for their own sake. There will likely be other tax rises. As the platform becomes apparent, there will be more and more things Tories want to stop, but that can only be done by keeping Labour out of power.
Time in opposition will be costly for right-of-centre politics, but it also might not bring the benefits that those who are dreaming of its desire. There’s no guarantee that the whiplash of going from an 80-seat majority to the other side of the House will produce the rejuvenation thinking they crave. Political parties find it hard to reinvigorate themselves after a loss and there is every chance that defeat in 2024 leads to a prolonged ostracism for the Tories.
Tories currently in parliament should see the warnings in Labour for this. The party were narrowly beaten in 2010, just 50 seats behind the Conservatives, after a long period in government that ended on the buffers of a huge financial crisis. There was no overwhelming reason why they could not bounce back, yet instead of a resurgence, there came a decade of chaos. In 2015 they failed to score electoral blows against the Tories, then lurched to the left, fighting themselves and alienating the electorate to suffer two more election defeats. Indeed, it is only with the Tories’ implosion that they have become an electoral force once more.
This is hardly an isolated position. Labour in Scotland has failed to recover from the 2015 surge of the SNP, regaining few of the seats they have lost to them either in Westminster or the Scottish Parliament. Older Tories will remember the failure to recover from the 1997 defeat, where two subsequent elections saw the party struggle to find new ideas or connect with the electorate. There is every chance defeat begets more defeat.
When political parties crash out of power, their recovery depends on a clear-sighted understanding of why they have failed and a determination to correct it. Neither is guaranteed. If taking place in opposition, the next leadership election will be among the ruins of Tory success. Those left to endorse and shortlist candidates will be from the very safest seats, the low watermarks of Tory success. There is just as much chance of them myopically ignoring the median voter as there is of intensive renewal.
Equally, being frozen out of power alienates you from many of the sources of reinvigoration. The young and ambitious will avoid you, whether they be prospective candidates or advisors. Think tanks will have little interest in feeding you ideas unless they are already so aligned with you that they have no interest in influencing your opponents. Donors will also dry up, as paying millions to losers neither appeals to ego nor self-interest. Electoral failure is easily something that compounds.
There’s every chance that the Tory Party goes towards the next election with an attitude of “what we did before but harder and louder”. Dogmatism instead of new thinking, with the same dreary parade of scandals and offhand, off-colour comments. One of the reasons for the party’s decline is that they are increasing its appeal to a diminishing world, focusing on the older before all else. Without the right leadership, this could well continue.
This leads to the other problem of being out of power – your opponent's plans might work. Though eventually, every government meets with some disaster it can’t contain, in the short term they can enjoy success. This delivers electoral benefits. The Labour Party is flourishing among the young because the Tories seem to have abandoned those under 45. Even the Prime Minister can’t voice an adequate answer to why the youngish should back him. If Labour makes progress on childcare and housing, it will only entrench its lead. The Tories can only fix this in Downing Street.
Indeed, being out of power could be more damaging to the Tory Party than ever before. At present, its continued survival is hugely boosted by the power of sheer incumbency. Any successor party or rival on the right would have to go toe-to-toe with it. When it’s already been beaten back in big chunks of the country, it becomes easier to have a straight fight with the opposition. If the Conservative Party slips into collapse, it will be from being beaten by the left first, then cannibalised from the right later.
There’s an obvious temptation in the time out. It’s easy to see the Tories’ problems stemming from the exhaustion of governing the country for more than a decade, and that some time in the cold could restore the party’s senses. But that is far from guaranteed. A stinging defeat could spin them out of control, looking for easy fixes and haemorrhaging talent and connections beyond their own echo chamber.
At the same time, if you believe in the party, you should also believe that its government is always better than the alternative. With Labour in power, they will make changes and they will entrench them. No Conservative should think that is worth the price of having some space to think. By the time the party bounces back, many of these changes will be irreversible, and time spent in opposition achieves nothing.
Most of all, however, there is no reason the Tories need to be out of power to reinvigorate. If the ideas are there, if the talent is there, it should be able to flow through. The party has managed to pivot and change many times in the last decade in power – it clearly can be done. The question is not whether it’s being in government which is the bar to fixing things, but whether the party is ready to embrace why it is failing and find the fixes.
If you don’t believe that the Tory party can improve itself whilst delivering for Britain, you should be questioning why you are supporting it at all. There is only one reason the party ought to go into opposition, and that’s if it is no longer fit to govern.