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The Tories will never change Even with Rishi, there's nothing new under the sun

Age of Optimism? Yeah right (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


October 27, 2021   4 mins

To watch Rishi Sunak deliver his Budget, one could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is a very different beast from its ‘age of austerity’ predecessor led by David Cameron and George Osborne. But, in reality, is the contrast so sharp? Isn’t what we’re seeing par for the course when it comes to a party which has always adapted to the spirit of the age?

The Conservatives can lay claim to be the world’s oldest and most successful political party precisely because, in order to hang on to power and prevent (or at least limit) any truly significant redistribution of power and wealth, they have always been prepared to mix and match policies in way that both appeals to a wide electorate and also makes pinning them down ideologically feel like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

Admittedly, at first glance, the impression of a party totally transformed is easy to run away with. After all, Cameron and Osborne, as well as insisting on balancing the books no matter what the cost to the nation’s deteriorating public services and rising poverty levels, were often portrayed as modernisers hell-bent on dragging the Tories kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Johnson on the other hand, whatever the cosmopolitan image he worked hard to create as Mayor of London, seems happy to cosplay the authoritarian populist — the leader of a party determined to engage in a ‘war on woke’, to defend the interests of businesses big and small, and to allow nationalism to trump his party’s traditional commitment to economic rationality.

But let’s look, first, a little closer at the Conservative Party under Cameron. Sure, it brought in equal marriage after it made it into government in 2010. But it had to rely on the votes of the opposition Labour Party to do so, since so many of its own MPs rejected the change. Similarly, while Cameron in opposition began by hugging huskies, he ended his time in Number Ten by demanding his colleagues “get rid of all the green crap” — meaning it was left to his unfortunate successor Theresa May to commit the country to net zero. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservatives also spent a great deal of time and effort both bringing in draconian policies (accompanied by equally draconian rhetoric) to try and crack down on immigration and badmouthing the European Union — all of which helped fuel the rise of UKIP and ultimately led to Cameron’s fateful decision to call the 2016 referendum.

As for austerity, there is no doubt that it was a reality after 2010 — but far more so for some parts of the state, and some people, than others. The NHS, as it may do now, escaped the bulk of the cuts foisted on so many other public services, while folk on pensions — unlike younger people and the poor — actually did relatively well, presumably because they constituted (and continue to constitute) such an important part of the Conservatives’ voter coalition. Admittedly, policing did suffer cuts, but that didn’t stop the party under Cameron continuing to call its main opponent ‘soft on crime’, as well as framing Labour as the party of immigrants, Europhiles, students, the chattering classes and supposedly work-shy welfare claimants.

So what about the party under Johnson? True, Sunak has raised rather than cut taxes, including corporation tax — a move which, notwithstanding reliefs on R&D and temporary cuts to high-street business rates, some pearl-clutching neoliberals will doubtless still insist on seeing as the very incarnation of Johnson’s characteristically unguarded (but also characteristically pretty meaningless) “Fuck Business!” remark. But few if any of those tax rises is remotely progressive, not least the increase in National Insurance which the party pretends will ‘fix social care’ (it won’t). Nor is there any serious suggestion of moving to tax wealth or property to anything like the extent that a serious rebalancing of the economy would require. The hike in the National Living Wage is, of course, welcome, although let’s not forget that it was George ‘austerity’ Osborne who invented the concept in the first place!

Meanwhile, Sunak rescinded his boost to welfare benefits prompted by the pandemic as soon as decently possible — a decision which, for those not in work, will not be compensated for by his eye-catching (and indeed welcome) reduction in Universal Credit’s taper rate. Nor is the Government providing anywhere near enough funding to help poorer pupils who missed so much school catch-up. The same arguably goes for climate change policy, where, especially after the Government’s policy announcements in the run up to COP26, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the feeling that the Tories under Johnson, not for the first time, seem happy to will the ends but not the means.

As for spending more generally, while capital spending and infrastructure projects have received an expected boost, day-to-day government spending (much of which filters down, or rather doesn’t filter down to local authorities) is going to be as tight as ever, making the Government’s endlessly repeated talk about ‘levelling up’ a little hard to credit — unless, of course, we’re talking about money funnelled not to those most in need but to those constituencies in the Midlands and the North which flipped to the Conservatives in 2019 and which Johnson and his colleagues are understandably desperate to hold onto.

For all that, barring an economic meltdown in which the cost-of-living crunch really does become a crisis and the various trading frictions associated with Brexit get worse rather than better, they stand a pretty good chance of doing so.

The voter coalition that Brexit enabled Johnson to build is made up of older voters, of sometimes ethnocentric, not particularly well-educated, intensely patriotic voters living in small towns, and of more affluent voters in already well-served parts of the country who (if they are better-educated and so socially more liberal) are prepared to set aside their discomfort with the Brussels-bashing and the culture wars so long as their taxes are kept reasonably low and their precious house prices kept high. And, like Brexit — indeed precisely because Brexit continues to simmer even if it no longer boils — that voter coalition, whose geographical distribution is nicely suited to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, doesn’t seem done yet.

Certainly I wouldn’t bet on those voters taking seriously against the Budget even if it doesn’t fall hook, line and sinker for Sunak’s ‘new age of optimism’ line as much as his adoring fandom in the Tory-supporting press. They know, we know, that this is the British Conservative Party — doing whatever it takes, two-and-a-half centuries and counting. Rishi or no Rishi, there is nothing new under the sun.


Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the Mile End Institute.

ProfTimBale

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Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

The Devil’s Dictionary [a translator]

economic rationality – policy solutions that everyone except economists agree with.

let’s look, first, a little closer at the Conservative Party under Cameron – “would you like to impale a straw man” (sung to the melody from Frozen)

ethnocentric, not particularly well-educated, intensely patriotic voters – citizens who become dumb racists when they stop voting Labour

commit
to net zero – Assure the public that we’ll make it a lot more expensive for the working poor to heat their homes and drive their cars without the climate ever noticing the difference.

draconian policies – stuff that a slogan can dismantle before a paragraph can defend.

austerity – whenever the annual increase in spending drops below 10%

NHS – A wonderful system for treating the healthy

Last edited 2 years ago by Mikey Mike
Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

This is the perfect analysis of the above article 😀

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

With just a little tinge of sour grapes overlaying it all.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I prefer to think of my sour grapes undergirding.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

great translation job

Mark Walker
Mark Walker
2 years ago
Reply to  Mikey Mike

A wonderfully precise pin inserted into Prof Bale’s inflated ego. Bale is a Remainer who still will not accept Democracy even when repeated from the 2016 Brexit Referendum until the 2019 General Election. How sad life must be for the luvvies of London.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

Amazing how many people the author managed to insult (for their opinions) in just one short article.
I get an inkling that he doesn’t vote Tory – and did vote Remain.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Addie Schogger
Addie Schogger
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Are you impugning biases to the author? Shame on you. He’s a professor!

Last edited 2 years ago by Addie Schogger
Alan Osband
Alan Osband
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

I hadn’t realised that in David Cameron we had our own Eric Zemmour . Draconian policies on immigration accompanied by Draconian rhetoric ! Wow we must have been machine gunning illegals on the beaches
Is ‘ethnocentric’ the new code word on the left for racist ? He says part of the Tory coalition is ‘sometimes ethnocentric , not particularly well educated Intensely patriotic voters living in small towns ‘
He’s longing to say ‘thick white racist bigots who need to have their nativist enclaves made more diverse and vibrant ‘

Last edited 2 years ago by Alan Osband
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Osband

Yet David Cameron was a Remainer…..

Colin Baxter
Colin Baxter
2 years ago

Possibly the most patronising article I have read this year – must be a ‘professor of politics’

Justin French-Brooks
Justin French-Brooks
2 years ago
Reply to  Colin Baxter

I agree – and almost feel embarrassed for Prof Bale. Someone whose worldview has been so fundamentally deposed that he needs to find new outlets to try to reestablish it. The Brexit boil has been lanced and he can’t bear it.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

“…Cameron’s Conservatives also spent a great deal of time and effort … badmouthing the European Union — all of which helped fuel the rise of UKIP…”

So what you are saying is, the Red Wall lifetime Labour voters all listened to Tory narratives, the party they hated, simultaneously ignoring the narratives of the party they had supported all their lives, and then as a result decided to vote for UKIP, a third party altogether. Either you are trying to signal those voters are a bit dumb, and you know, manipulatable, (without explicitly saying so), or there is something seriously askew with your analysis, which is it then? And yes, this is a ‘when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife’ type question, so don’t feel obliged to answer.

Last edited 2 years ago by Prashant Kotak
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Cameron was a Remainer, as was the official position of the Tory govt in the referendum. The ONLY Pro Brexit party was UKIP who never had any clout in parliament. It was people power that brought us Brexit. People watching from the coalface and watching the EU take a gleeful delight in humiliating our elected PM when asking for common sense things like stopping the sending of UK size benefits to kids who DON’T EVEN LIVE HERE and are not even British citizens.

J P
J P
2 years ago

I think the author confuses “nationalism” with patriotism. An error often made by the liberal elite, particularly those who are anti-Tory, anti-Brexit, and largely anti-common sense.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  J P

If does seem though that accusations of nationalism and ethnocentrism are largely one way. It’s Black History Month ffs. The slogan is ‘proud to be black’ and in my company there are diversity and inclusion policies to celebrate immigrant homeland ‘independence days’ (i.e from the bad old British Empire, which incidentally enabled many of them to live here and be ‘oppressed’). Not to mention whole swathes of some towns flying the flags of foreign countries. Apparently other nationalisms and ethnocentrities are perfectly acceptable.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Not exactly new, but it’s a long time since we had a PM who believes the state should be a servant and not the master – with low funding and low taxes to match.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Isn’t that what austerity was? If the Tories had carried on down that path they certainly wouldn’t be enjoying an 80 seat majority

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Austerity was reining in government spending and a national debt that was increasing by 10 billion pounds a month.

As I recall, there were no tax cuts to speak of. The holiday from stamp duty came with Covid and is now over.

Income tax is higher now than the eighties; VAT is the highest ever, pension contributions at their most limited.

None of this would be a deal breaker in a crisis or even crises, but there’s no sense of a temporary big state. The government has lost sight of the philosophy that underpins a small state – that it is more efficient and less wasteful, sure, but also less likely to ride roughshod over individual freedoms.

As I recall, the last PM to actually reduce the tax burden and the national debt was Margaret Thatcher – over thirty years ago.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

To quote Mikey Mike in the comments above:
austerity â€“ whenever the annual increase in spending drops below 10%

Robert Richardson
Robert Richardson
2 years ago

Seems a long way of saying the budget is inoffensive to most voters and is encroaching on the oppositions territory. It forces Starmer to say “the government hasn’t gone far enough!” he cant seem to differentiate from the governments direction of travel. We will be doomed to low quality national conversation until Her majesty’s opposition oppose something (not culture war related please).

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Why should Conservatives acting as they usually do be a surprise? Especially when Labour act for a social group but then drop them and switch to a more politically interesting social group as the search for power takes them?

Oliver McCarthy
Oliver McCarthy
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The “Tories” have been acting like the Socialists since 1990. Anyone who’s “surprised” by that must be a Professor of Politics.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Really disappointing article. Draws on conspiratorial views of the Conservatives more commonly found in the heads of 13 year old Labour activists, which apparently qualifies you as a professor these days. Despite this sites remit, some opinion are best left unheard.

Karl Francis
Karl Francis
2 years ago

Sour, inaccurate, condescending propaganda.

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

Waste of print, silly regurgitated rubbish by a silly professor. Am i the only one who s noticed that as the worlds predicted end, in a swirling hell of that vital gaseous life giver CO2, creeps closer there seems to a massive growth in the number of professors floating around, obviously there is a causal link !

Last edited 2 years ago by hugh bennett
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

“austerity”
Really?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

1. Austerity was an EU policy. If the Tories hadn’t done it themselves the EU would have pushed it anyway
2. Adaptation is an evolutionary benefit. The fact the Tories are capable of it is impressive, not the opposite.
3. Patriotism and ethnocentrism. Apparently something that’s brilliant and celebrated everywhere except Britain. Multiculturalism is pushed as a good thing (which means bringing your nationalism with you and implanting and sustaining it in another country) – I see NO benefit to this whatsoever as this has apparently resulted, according to the left, in the most racist, bigoted, disgusting society in the history of the world where poor BAME people choose to come here and be oppressed by all that awful Britishness.

Matt B
Matt B
2 years ago

Take away the forced-breezy style, re-hashed opinion (headlined) and coy ‘are you with me?’ nudges’ and there is but the party-predictable, ‘voters are stupid’, long baleful march down a Million Mile End road. Nothing new here under the sun, either. And why do people quote Ecclesiastes with such faux-religious winks to add moral purpose to rudeness and divisiveness? Hearts and Minds? Not.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt B
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

Good article. Yes, there are no tax cuts, but frankly I was expecting to get shafted with a raft of higher taxes, so it still feels like a tax-cutting budget.

Zorro Tomorrow
Zorro Tomorrow
2 years ago

Let’s face it, we’ve run out of spare governments and this is the only one left. Budgets never really give or take much money away to/from the man in the street. Jokes are rife – we have to drink 200 pints to get a free one. Prof Bale hardly knows what he’s talking about or to whom and Sunak has basically said nothing anyone will remember in a month’s time or six months when he has to U turn..

Barbara Williams
Barbara Williams
2 years ago

Of course with imminent climate and ecological collapse unravelling maybe, just maybe the general public might want to keep a little bit of the planet as habitable. That is of course only applicable when they wake up to reality. https://www.joboneforhumanity.org/what_most_people_do_not_understand

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Deranged pseudo-science. No better than the total denialists.

Barbara Williams
Barbara Williams
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Well Bystroff is predicting population collapse this decade, Seibert & Bill Rees don’t put a date but they agree that it is imminent if we continue with growth economics, Herrington (KPMG) predicts financial collapse. Ehrlich et. al. forecast a ghastly future with any attempt to continue with business-as-usual. All these papers referenced in one little Wikipedia article. Ecological overshoot – Wikipedia

hugh bennett
hugh bennett
2 years ago

gee whizz just go for a long walk and feel the wind in your face and enjoy what life you have and stop worrying about everything for everyone.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Ecological overshoot has was supposed to have happened 40 years ago according to the Population Bomb. I will take my chances with the scientific consensus, however imperfect, to cherry picked outliers, mostly produced and funded by ideological zealots.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

Nothing could convince me to double down on long-term investment like Ehrlich predicting a ghastly future.

Oliver McCarthy
Oliver McCarthy
2 years ago

For how long do these things have to be “imminent” before people cotton on that they’re not actually going to happen?

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

There will be no collapse. The earth will be fine, it’s the future if humans that isn’t and that could be for a myriad of different reasons.