The Tories are failing to deliver free-market ideas
By all accounts the coup to remove the Prime Minister has failed – for now. Her Parliamentary colleagues appear to have united behind her, with their anger instead being directed at their disruptive colleagues. Seventy-one per cent of Conservative voters asked by YouGov say that MPs calling for the PM’s resignation are being irresponsible and should stop. With their leader wounded by sheer bad luck, any MP making a move against her would risk being seen as a bully or as trying to capitalise on Mrs May’s misfortune to advance their own career, while risking the stability of the country.
Take the prankster, the cough and the disintegrating stage away, though, and you are left with a dire speech.
Like some members of the Labour Party, is Mrs May’s team under the illusion that it was Mr Corbyn’s party which won the election? The lesson that the Conservative leadership appears to have taken from the June election is that it was Labour’s manifesto that won the election, with the Conservatives merely left in office to implement it. What other possible justification can there be for rehashing interventionist policies which only harm those they intended to benefit by distorting the market? Let’s look at an example.
The energy price cap was Ed Miliband’s flagship policy, which he first announced in 2013. The past is indeed a foreign country. Mr Miliband’s idea was then attacked as Marxist by the Conservatives, yet just a few years later, an energy cap is Conservative policy, delivered by Mrs May with this warning: “For while we are in favour of free markets, we will always take action to fix them when they’re broken.”
As is often the case with government-led market intervention, there are concerns that an arbitrary energy price cap will harm consumers rather than help them, as energy companies will pre-emptively raise prices, with the cheapest fixed-rate deals being withdrawn from the market, restricting consumer choice. It is a classic example of a market intervention making matters much worse for consumers. The irony is that when this policy fails to deliver, it’ll be branded as a failure of the free market, paving the way for more government intervention.
We have a political climate where the shadow chancellor, when asked how shareholders of industries brought into national ownership under a Labour government would be compensated, boldly declares on BBC Radio 4 that the value of companies’ shares will be determined by Parliament. The Conservatives – supposedly the party of the free market – should be extolling at every opportunity the dangers of state interventions in the market. They should be stridently making the point that many of the problems which are blamed on the free market are actually caused by ham-fisted market intervention. Instead, Conservatives seem intent on resurrecting interventionist policies which they themselves have condemned as dangerous in the recent past.
Theresa May’s conference speech disaster is a minor glitch compared to the party’s complete failure to make the argument and deliver the free-market policies the country desperately needs in preparation for Brexit. A party can recover from losing a leader or even an election. Recovering its lost soul is much harder. FOLLOW Dia Chakravarty on Twitter @DiaChakravarty;
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Let’s get this out of the way at the start. It was humanly impossible not to feel the most unbearable sympathy for Theresa May’s public humiliation. I was nearly reduced to tears watching it, so I understand (and admire) the characteristically British kindness that has been showered on her. But you don’t give somebody a country to run because you feel sorry for them. And all the charitable talk of the debacle “not being her fault” is, I’m sorry to say, not quite right.
What happened on the podium last Wednesday was not a bizarre, unforeseeable series of accidents. The voice fiasco, which was the most seriously damaging aspect of it, was particularly predictable and could have been avoided. Every broadcaster (like every actor) knows that if you are suffering from a cough prior to a performance, a doctor can produce an anaesthetising throat spray which will ensure you are untroubled for a number of hours. If Mrs May’s team does not know this – or if she refused to accept their advice – then they are all unfit for their offices. This isn’t even a matter of political judgment: it’s a question of professionalism and simple competence.
But the Prime Minister’s credibility – and her relationship with the party – had begun to break down before the amateurish shambles at Conference. It really started when she declared her intention to continue as leader through to the next general election. Her original statement to the parliamentary party after the disaster of the last election that she would stay on for “as long as you want me to” was gracious and appropriately humble. When she appeared to retract that promise in the name of her famous determination to “get on with the job” it did not look like courageous dedication (as she obviously intended) but arrogance.
She first said it in response to a direct question in a broadcast interview. On the spur of the moment, she may have felt that it was necessary to utter an unequivocal declaration that sounded confident about the future – and then, of course, she had to stand by it. But the question should have been anticipated: political leaders in difficult positions need a script ready for such awkward moments.
Was she caught off guard and pushed into giving an unwise reply? Did her team not prepare for this possibility? Or did she ignore their advice? Again, either way, she is unfit for her position. This isn’t just a failing of tactics: it suggests that her judgment is seriously inept, and that she is not capable of making a team (including her Cabinet) work successfully.
So even in the midst of our agony it was appropriate to feel angry. This display of floundering ineptitude would have been embarrassing at a local council meeting. In a national firstname.lastname@example.org governing party facing the most critical impasse in post-war British history, as well as the most dangerously irresponsible opposition for a generation, it was simply unacceptable. It is delusional to think that things can go on as they are.
On this score, there are some peculiarly stupid things being said. The May Loyalists claiming that the Plotters are only demanding her resignation out of personal bitterness because (said with heavy sarcasm) “they think their own talents have been ignored” are simply fuelling the sense of a party falling into acrimonious pieces. Even if the demands for her resignation are being led by malcontents, that doesn’t mean they are wrong. You might just as easily argue that the people who are determined to keep her in place are doing so because they believe they, or their views, are likely to be favoured by her. Everybody has a dog in this fight. By jamming up behind Mrs May with support, the party simply looks as if it is, to resort to the traditional cliché, sleepwalking. For Mrs May herself to announce, as she did on Friday, that the country needs calm leadership and “that is exactly what I am providing” looks blithely presumptuous rather than assured.
None of it – not the speech catastrophe or the management failures – would matter so much if the content of her political programme was inspirational or even sound. To make some mistakes en route to a glorious objective would be excusable – because the prospect of a great new plan for the future would necessarily involve risks and the people would understand that.
But to suffer through all this mishandling and bungling for the
‘None of it would matter so much if the content of her political programme was inspirational or even sound’
at telegraph.co.uk/ opinion promotion of a return to council housing – state-owned subsidised accommodation which undermines social mobility? Her grand plan for the future is a return to the Fifties? Once, not long ago, even Labour recognised that self-determination and aspiration were the keys to political popularity and a genuinely free society. Now we have a Conservative leadership proposing to build more (but not much more) government housing.
Confusingly, in the same ill-fated speech Mrs May offered the ultimate statement of true Tory values: “How far you go in life should depend on you and how hard you work.”
So which is it: Macmillan paternalism or Thatcherite selfreliance? Or neither? Something new and bravely original? That might be possible but for it to emerge would require the kind of deep thought and serious research that underpinned both the electoral miracles of our time. The most successful political leaders in recent British history – Blair and Thatcher – ran their operations as continuous seminars. Ideas factories, led by think tanks and academic theorists, provided the substance for political parties that, in opposition and in government, were engaged in constant and frequently heated debate, which sometimes exploded into open splits. But at least they were falling out over ideas and not just sniping over personal ambition. Where are the ideas now? Declaring your love, in the abstract, for the free-market economy isn’t enough.
Mrs May speaks with obvious sincerity of her sense of duty. It’s time to say that carrying on in the present job is probably not the best way of fulfilling it.