Wanted: a Tory candidate with the faintest idea of what modern Britain is actually like | John Harris

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The Guardian

Someone is missing from the Conservative leadership contest. I have no idea who they are, or exactly what their pitch to Tory MPs and party members would be. But as we near the point where there will be only two candidates left, their absence becomes all the more glaring.

The country that the remaining contenders say they want to govern is in a mess. Their party has now lost three of its safest seats in byelections. The Tories’ support among young people is negligible, and may well shrink even further. Faced with that picture, you would expect at least one leading candidate to be making the case for an ideological rethink. But at the heart of the whole spectacle is a nagging tension. Outwardly, a contest dominated by women and people of colour might suggest a party in tune with modernity, but the arguments between the contenders have so far betrayed a telling mixture of fanaticism and political nostalgia.

A huge amount of energy has been expended on talk of tax cuts, and a debate only about whether they should come sooner – or, as per the view of Rishi Sunak, later. There is across-the-board backing – even from Tom Tugendhat, the supposed representative of a more compassionate Conservatism – for sending refugees to Rwanda, surely the single most monstrous Tory policy of the past 12 years. Amid baking temperatures, there has been almost no serious discussion of the climate emergency. To the delight of her backers in the rightwing media, Kemi Badenoch, the only serious contender who has appeared to offer anything radical, seems to want post-Thatcher Toryism to be taken to its logical conclusion, whereby government does no more than the “essentials”; although the politicians in charge of it must also guard against anything in the culture deemed “unsound” (remarkably, one of her chosen targets is Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream, as if she speaks for an imaginary constituency of diehards who walk past the freezer cabinets in Waitrose and spit feathers).

In response to any suggestions that fundamental change is needed, any staunch Tory would presumably cite their party’s winning of an 80-seat majority in the Commons. But its aura of strength is partly down to an equally weak and confused Labour party – and in any case, the Conservatives are now faced with an unarguable and increasingly uncomfortable set of political facts. If Badenoch, Suella Braverman and that zealous Brexit convert Liz Truss often sound like politicians frantically trying to change the country before it is too late, it may be because somewhere in their political subconscious, they well know that their time is running out.

In 1983, the Tories’ support among the 18-24s who voted came in at just over 40%; by 2019, that had nearly halved. Some of this is down to the fact that free-market economics has completely failed younger people, but there are other shifts at work. Last week, I heard a brilliant lecture by the historian David Olusoga about the legacy of the British empire, in which he talked about primary schools in Manchester, Bristol, London and Birmingham, whose classes are now thoroughly diverse, often polyglot, and increasingly full of children whose heritages are complex and multi-faceted. Here, he said, was the new Britain that will have fully cohered by 2040. In my experience, the kind of political and attitudinal changes that vision implies have long since reached younger people even in outwardly Brexit-supporting places. The UK of the near future, in short, will surely not be a country roused by flags, the Jacob Rees-Mogg view of history, serial cruelty to those seen as outsiders, and endless fights with Brussels.

To some extent, such shifts are already here. The Conservatives have now been chased out of just about all of Britain’s big cities, and, in the wake of the Tories’ transformation into the party of Brexit, their old rock-solid presence elsewhere now seems to be weakening. They no longer run the council centred on Tunbridge Wells; in the city of St Albans, the archetypal dormitory town, they have a mere four seats to the Lib Dems’ 50. Whenever you see Graham Brady, the chair of the Tories’ backbench 1922 Committee, remember that Altrincham, the central town in his Greater Manchester constituency, now has three Green party councillors in an affluent suburban borough – Trafford – that the Tories lost to Labour in 2018. What all this tells you is simple enough: the Conservative party takes the Daily Mail’s view of the middle class far too seriously, little realising that – partly thanks to the expansion of higher education – it is increasingly very different.

A Toryism reinvented to respond to these changes would hardly convince many of us, but still: Conservatives could conceivably keep their underlying scepticism about the state and belief in the market, but still be flexible enough to at least parry our current economic crisis, and have a more convincing approach to the politics of climate. With new thinking, the party’s leading figures could do a lot more to revive the dream of the property-owning democracy. They could also continue to extol the worth of marriage and the family, with the proviso that families now come in various shapes and sizes; a more gentle kind of social conservatism, indeed, might appeal to large swathes of the population, including many voters from ethnic minorities. What would have to go, though, is the bitter, nasty strand of politics that holds sway, closing down any non-Thatcherite thinking, continually looking for enemies and trying to finish the revolutions of yesteryear.

In the most inchoate way, some Tory MPs and members are beginning to understand all this. That may account for the unexpected popularity of the trade minister Penny Mordaunt: a candidate with some socially liberal views, and at least a patina of modernity. She is also an ardent Brexiteer. So far, her blurry uncertainty is probably an asset. But if she manages to win, it may well clear, revealing a leader at the mercy of her party’s hard right and a familiar sense of Tory business as usual – a short replay of the Cameron years, perhaps, without his PR gleam and brass neck.

Last week, I had a read of Greater, the 2020 book that Mordaunt co-authored with Chris Lewis, the adviser who for some reason styles himself as her “Grand Enchilada”. It is a very odd text, which bangs on about a “mission to modernise” without ever really stating what that might mean. Most of its sugary tributes to the British character – “The British prefer a future that looks very much like the past, only a lot better,” it says – could be used as the window dressing for both a shift in Tory attitudes and more of the same. Besides, the fact that the Conservatives will soon be on to their fourth prime minister since 2016 surely shows that, as Mordaunt’s rather laboured formulation puts it, their mounting predicament is not really about the leader but the ship. Intelligent, future-facing Tories must surely know: they should soon change course before they collide with the rocks. As this bizarre, contorted contest grinds on, the question that should haunt them is whether they even can.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to John’s podcast Politics Weekly UK, search “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday

July 17, 2022 at 06:25PM John Harris

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