Ideology with no concern for consequences or convention is the business of revolutionaries
I have today resigned my membership of the Conservative Party after 24 years. While that’s a moment of some sadness for me, it’s of trivial importance on any wider scale. What isn’t trivially important is the set of changes which the Party’s undergone in the last few years and especially the last few weeks because these will have an immense impact on the country, one way or another, and are changes that no true conservative party would be advocating.
Foremost is inevitably Brexit. Unlike some who’ve left the Party recently, I am not opposed to Britain leaving the EU. I did vote Remain in 2016 and don’t regret that decision but the country chose Leave and that decision should be respected.
What is not necessary is the obsession with either the arbitrary deadline of 31 October, or the clear desire among many in the Party to leave with no deal. The latter would be deeply damaging to the economy and community cohesion, while the former makes it an all but certain outcome as there wouldn’t time to deliver anything else, even if the conditions for re-opening talks weren’t designed as if to be rejected.
In truth, Brexit has become for the Conservatives what nationalisation is for the Corbynite Labour Party: an end in itself, to be achieved irrespective of cost and with any practical benefits as an incidental bonus. It is a revolutionary ideology unworthy of the Conservative Party, not least because it fails to consider the likely counter-productive political and social consequences of delivering Brexit in such harsh manner.
Over the last 20 years, the effective policy of the Party has gone from keeping open the option to join the Euro (1997/2001 manifestoes), through to leaving the EU without a deal. This is the measure of the shift in policy and the reason why it is now unattractive to many natural supporters of a pragmatic political party interested in pro-business policies and cautious about unnecessary radical change.
The source of this new-found enthusiasm for these grossly disruptive policies is not hard to pinpoint. While I accept that Boris Johnson himself is by instinct a fairly liberal Conservative – though these instincts are far too easily overridden by his ambition and cynical embrace of populism – he has surrounded himself both in cabinet and in his Number 10 staff by people drawn disproportionately from the right of the Party, presumably because of their willingness to endorse his Brexit policy. This not only reduces the quality and capacity of the government – how many, including Johnson himself, have previously failed in ministerial office? – but sends a clear signal that the Conservatives are not the broad church they have traditionally aspired to be.
In particular, the appointment of Dominic Cummings is an indication that good, stable government is not valued: he will inevitably cause conflict and chaos and destroy much more than he can create. His appointment is what a PM with a 150-majority who wants to fight a civil war would do, not one who needs every vote. Cummings might argue that it is better to undertake a revolution than to undergo one. I would argue it’s better not to have a revolution at all: they invariably end up eating their sponsors, as well as many others.
The suggestion yesterday that the PM could simply sit out the two weeks after losing a Vote of No Confidence, and bed-block in this manner to trigger a general election and so deliver Brexit by default – even if another government could be formed from within the existing House – is grotesque. It’s one of the most striking examples yet of how little this government values the conventions of politics that keep debate within sensible bounds and ensures wide buy-in to the legitimacy of the system. We ignore these conventions at our peril: once broken, they no longer protect anyone.
The third main reason I cannot actively support this government is its irresponsible attitude to fiscal prudence. The Cameron governments did great work in healing the economic damage caused by the excesses of Gordon Brown, in eliminating the real-terms budget deficit while preventing recession and in overseeing considerable growth in employment. These achievements are now likely to be undone by the uncontrolled promises made for additional spending or new tax cuts. There are certainly many valid candidates for increased spending but those decisions have to be taken sustainably (which again argues for a controlled Brexit).
Politically, these commitments completely undermine the Party’s arguments and actions of the last decade and are not only irresponsible in themselves but will inevitably give cover to Labour to make their own unfunded promises. Labour will no doubt also take the opportunity to claim (wrongly) that the reversal of policy also proves their assertion that the austerity programme was the result of an ideological desire to cut rather than a pragmatic need to sort the nation’s finances out. The largesse is both unconservative and un-Conservative.
The changes in the Conservative Party’s policies and attitudes have left me politically homeless. Labour under Corbyn remains a serious threat to the country, while I cannot support the Lib Dems when they reject the referendum result. I know I am not alone in my dilemma and there are others on the centre-right who feel much the same. Where our votes will go in the end, I can’t say: I suppose it will depend to a large extent on whether any party bothers to court us.
Conservative Party member (1995-2019)
Councillor, Bradford MDC (1999-2003)
Chairman, Shipley Conservative Association (2011-13)
Chairman, Wakefield District Conservative Association (2016-18)