Watching the Conservatives fall apart over leadership gives me uncanny déjà vu after Australian politics. In the last eight years, Australia has had four Prime Ministers. So far, Britain has had three – and everyone can’t stop talking about the fourth.
Theresa May’s closing speech at the party conference this week was supposed to reboot her prime ministership. It was disastrous in presentation but, more importantly, it was disastrous in content. It was jumbled in principle and direction, showed her continued embarrassment at being a Tory, and, even if it were perfectly delivered, wouldn’t have helped her poll numbers.
Meanwhile, the conference was dominated by leadership speculation – will May stay or go? Boris or Ruth? After Brexit or before? The importation of the Australian disease, relentless leadership speculation, masks the underlying problem: the Conservatives don’t actually know what they stand for and what they want to achieve. As a consequence of abandoning free market principles, they lack the capacity to articulate why Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies would be disastrous for Britain.
Every Australian leadership change was supposed to save the respective party and fix all the internal problems. For a short time, the leadership changes worked. There was a sugar hit and a temporary boost in the polls.
However, once the public realised that the new leader didn’t actually have any idea why they replaced the former, other than personal political ambition, it all turned south. When the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, challenged the previous leader, Tony Abbott, he pointed to the thirty lost Newspolls in a row. Turnbull, after going to an election and losing seats, has now lost twenty. Turnbull, with uncanny similarity to May, struggles to articulate a vision.
Voters want authenticity and vision. This factor, more than anything else, explains Corbyn’s success. At the very least people feel they know where he stands. They can accept that they may not agree with him on everything – like many did not agree with all of Margret Thatcher’s policies – but at least it is clear what he wants to do. Corbyn is unashamed in his views.
After going to an election fighting a straw man – “the cult of selfish individualism” – May now tries to claim the benefits of economic freedom. “The free market – and the values of freedom, equality, rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law that lie at its heart – remains the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created,” she said at party conference. In the next breathe, however, she commits to “never hesitate to act where businesses aren’t operating as they should”.
At least in the manifesto, her words matched her actions. Today there is even more confusion as she tries to please everyone – criticising markets than endorsing markets; opposing interventionism than supporting more intervention in the next breathe.
The right adopting the left’s policies has the unintended consequence of blunting attacks on Labour’s policies. May has allowed the Labour party to set the terms of debate. How can May criticise Corbyn for increasing the debt and deficit when her policies are doing the same? How can she criticise free tuition when she has admitted that tuition is too high? How can she criticise nationalisation when she wants to regulate prices?
Corbyn was right to say at Labour Party conference that he is now the mainstream. But that’s only because the Conservatives let him move the centre. The Overton window, of acceptable political thinking, has dramatically shifted. The Conservatives have accepted the premise of his arguments, and on the key issues of the day do not put forward a distinctive vision.
Therefore it is perhaps not surprising that Corbyn is leading in many polls. If people want leftist policies they will vote for the real thing in Corbyn, not the weak imitation in May.
Sadly, May, whose election manifesto adopted Labour rhetoric about “social division, injustice, and unfairness,” is far too compromised to put forward an optimistic free market position. She lacks any understanding of why market works and how it functions. Her temptation to intervene is too strong.
The Conservatives do need to find new leadership. However, more fundamentally, they need to re-find their principles.
Matthew Lesh is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, recently returned a year in London.
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