The Conservative Party’s ‘infrastructure revolution’ is nothing but a distraction from its toxic politics

The party’s war-like rhetoric on Brexit repels the very same voters they’re trying to hold onto, hence their attempt to woo centre-ground voters with a commitment to ‘spend, spend, spend’

Andrew Grice
Monday 30 September 2019 14:18 BST
The chancellor, Sajid Javid, is promising a roads and broadband overhaul, on top of more money for the NHS, schools and the police
The chancellor, Sajid Javid, is promising a roads and broadband overhaul, on top of more money for the NHS, schools and the police (AFP)

That David Cameron’s memoirs appeared just before the Conservative conference provides a useful counterpoint, and reveals just how the party has changed.

The true Blue activists who attend the conference are always loyal to the leader but there are degrees of enthusiasm. They tolerated Cameron, but perhaps never fully bought into his modernisation agenda. They respected Theresa May, but lost confidence in her when she delayed Brexit.

Here in Manchester, the mood of grassroots members is that they have a leader in Boris Johnson they trust to finally “get Brexit done”. Most lose no sleep over no deal. If Johnson does extend the UK’s EU membership beyond 31 October, many activists will be very angry. But for now, they are happy with nods and winks that Johnson will escape the clutches of the Benn Act forcing him to seek an extension if there is no deal.

The activists are comfortable with a cabinet of true Brexit believers which leans to the traditional right; a majority of them voted against Cameron’s legislation on gay marriage, which alienated many Tory members.

There is another contrast with the Cameron era. He wanted to be a prime minister in good economic times but, after promising to match Labour’s spending plans, U-turned in the heat of the 2008 financial crisis and embraced austerity.

Ironically given its instincts, Johnson’s cabinet can’t bury austerity quick or deep enough. The conference has already clocked up £50bn of spending pledges, with more to come. “Invest, invest, invest,'' scream the banners at the conference. For a moment, I thought I had gone back in time to Gordon Brown’s party.

Today is “spend, spend, spend” day, with the chancellor Sajid Javid centre stage. He is promising “an infrastructure revolution” on roads and broadband, on top of more money for the NHS, schools and the police. In a round of interviews, Javid said he would not break his fiscal rules, but would change them. It’s called moving the goalposts. He dismissed doubts about turning on the spending taps while the prospect of a no-deal exit still hangs over the economy. He hinted at tax cuts, spending rises and interest rate reductions (the Bank of England’s job, not his) in the event of no deal. There is little expectation here that Johnson will get a deal.

The Tories’ uncharacteristic largesse is logical. Splashing the cash, ministers believe, will leave Jeremy Corbyn up a creek without a paddle, unable to make waves on austerity as he did at the 2017 election. Johnson has to offer a positive vision of life after Brexit. His allies hope that showing a commitment to public services, especially the NHS, will woo Tory-inclined voters in the centre ground who might otherwise be tempted by the resurgent Liberal Democrats.

But there is potentially a big flaw in this strategy: that Johnson’s aggressive, war-like rhetoric on Brexit repels the very same voters. That measures to show the Tories are really the nice party are eclipsed by the language of surrender and betrayal which makes them look like the nasty one, especially in the eyes of women voters.

Some Tory MPs in the Home Counties are nervous about the Lib Dem advance. Their jitters were not calmed when Johnson withdrew the whip from 21 Tory MPs who opposed no deal and was reportedly resigned to the loss of Remain seats such as Guildford for the greater good of delivering Brexit.

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His 50-50 strategy for the looming election is based on holding 50 seats, where his party is 10 percentage points or less ahead of the challenger, and gaining another 50 marginals – many in Leave-supporting, Labour-held seats in the north and midlands. But as one Tory MP put it: “It’s all very well invading Labour’s territory and chasing Leave voters. But Team Boris seems more focused on that than protecting our own base. The language on Brexit is out of kilter with what we say about our good domestic agenda. We can’t afford to write off the four million Tories who voted Remain.” If the Tories lose ground in London and the south, among younger, well-educated, middle class and ethnic minority voters, they will store up huge long-term problems for the party.

There’s another potential flaw in the strategy: despite doubts about Corbyn, and some support for Johnson on Brexit, traditional Labour supporters in the party’s heartlands might prove tribally loyal, as May discovered in 2017. The Tories are banking on winning seats they have not won for decades. Nigel Farage could prove the fly in the ointment; some Labour supporters will never vote Tory but might lend their backing to the Brexit Party.

Politics is often about having a coherent message. As Johnson plays Mr Nasty who will deliver Brexit “do or die” and Mr Nice who loves public services, he needs to mind the gap, or he might fall between two stools.

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