Sometimes, when overwhelmed by morbid curiosity, I find myself reading the Wikipedia pages of plane crashes. Thanks to the data recovered from black boxes, especially of cockpit voice recordings, the last moments of a flight can be recreated with vivid accuracy. The most arresting are those caused largely by human error.
In those final fateful moments, you can observe highly intelligent, highly trained professionals making error after error, gradually dooming them and their passengers. Despite the ringing alarms of the onboard systems, they lose sight of what they are doing or how to avoid the impending doom. They pull the joystick instead of releasing it, they shut down the working engine instead of the failing one, or sometimes the two pilots pull in different directions, cancelling each other out. Eventually, they hit the Point Of No Return and, shortly after, the ground.
The current Conservative leadership election has a similar atmosphere. Every day in this interminably long contest, the final two candidates fire out press releases and half-formed policy proposals, only to wind them back in — flailing around the controls they want to wield in a month’s time. Meanwhile, the country slides towards crisis.
Neither Rishi Sunak nor Liz Truss appears to recognise the serious problems Britain faces, both in the short and the long term. Analysts predict that the energy price cap will hit £4,400 this winter. As an isolated threat, that would mean deep discomfort for many. Combined with other price rises and increasing interest rates, it will mean destitution. Government will have to step in to prevent this. And yet it is offering only piecemeal solutions.
This might be forgivable if it were the sole issue to which the candidates seem oblivious. But everywhere you look, the country faces massive challenges that the governing party has no answer to. On housing, for instance, Rishi Sunak has swung behind defending the greenbelt, while Liz Truss has prevaricated and developed an obsession with “Soviet style targets”. But as anyone who has managed KPIs will tell you, if there is no target for something, the target is zero.
Beyond this, Britain looks forward to running out of water and electricity. Infrastructure projects that could have alleviated this have been bandied around and frustrated for decades, and little can be done to turn it around on short notice. They say the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, and the second-best time is today. In Britain, the second-best time to begin is after three preliminary reports, two judicial reviews and a general election. The best time is never.
Even in foreign and military policy, the natural home of the Conservative politician, the reality is bleak. While the country has performed well in arming Ukraine, its own defence commitments have been mealy mouthed. Promised rises are undermined by inflation and clever accounting, while procurement remains scandalously wasteful. With beautiful bureaucracy, a chunk of our defence spending goes on consultants planning the next round of cuts and another chunk on how to cope with the last ones.
But this catalogue of woes just serves to highlight the most pervasive and surprising problem the Tory Party faces: it doesn’t care about politics. This is not to say that the party doesn’t care about winning elections. It remains ruthlessly committed to that and its record is clear. Even after the crashing scandals of the Johnson era, the incoming PM has a fighting chance of securing the next election, giving the Tories nearly 20 years in power. The problem is they no longer understand why or to what end they wield such power.
Those on the Left must be shocked by how apolitical most of the Conservative Party is. I suspect no more than a handful of Tory MPs have ever read Burke or Hayek, unless they cropped up on a PPE reading list. They will be far more familiar with Isabel Oakeshott than Michael.
Factionalism within the party is therefore driven far more by aesthetics than by ideology. One former MP once told me that when he asked his association why they had picked him for the safe seat, he was told: “It was the lovely way you spoke about your wife at the selection.” In more than a decade as a party activist, I’ve met fewer than half a dozen mainstream Tories who could be classed as ideologues. At its best, this makes the party flexible and pragmatic, able to pivot around the issues of the day. At its worst — and it really seems to be falling into the worst now — it becomes listless, incapable and slightly baffled by the power it holds. It’s the cat that has finally caught the laser pointer.
The track record of the current government is testament to this. Despite coming to power with a majority of 80, the government has failed to push forward on any of its purported objectives. The government which claimed to be hard-line on immigration did nothing to reduce it. The government that seeks to be tough on crime has seen petty crime become almost legal. The government that complains about “woke culture” has done nothing at a legislative level to prevent it.
Even on its beloved Brexit, the party tries to stoke an ongoing threat that it might be undone or revoked or strangled at birth rather than engage with the realities of leaving the EU. It has no clue whether Britain’s future is Singapore-on-Thames or shoring up the dying embers of Red Wall industries. Instead, it jumps to silly-season headlines on imperial measures and crowns on pint glasses. The party once sought to campaign in poetry and govern in prose; now it campaigns in shitposts and governs in tweets.
All of which reflects an emptiness at the heart of the current Conservative Party. Its politics and principles are skin-deep and conflicted. It is apparent in almost everything it does, from Remainer Liz Truss becoming the “Brexit candidate” for leadership, to the pious Catholic Jacob Rees-Mogg defending the serial liar and philanderer Boris Johnson to the hilt. In place of policy innovation, the party grasps around for yesterday’s answers to yesterday’s problems, copying the homework of a leader who has been out of power for 30 years and dead for ten.
In the place of politics, all the party can do is say things that appeal to the voters who keep returning it to power — the generally older, wealthier suburban dwellers. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the leadership contest. Last weekend, Rishi Sunak’s suggestion that he would cut degrees that don’t lead to good jobs was viewed by many on the Left as an attack on the university sector, or even part of a grand plan to exclude the working classes from the humanities. In truth, it is neither. It is Sunak appealing to an electorate who came of age when 10% of the population went to university and economic growth carried them to prosperity, and who now see their grandchildren laden with debt, unable to buy a home. It’s the “common sense” of the bloke at the end of the Conservative Club bar — not something that will ever seriously happen.
Equally tenuous is Liz Truss’s insistence that the cost-of-living crisis can be solved by tax cuts rather than handouts. Those facing the most acute pain pay no income tax and minimal national insurance, while much of their spending is likely concentrated on low-rated or VAT exempt items, such food. It’s preaching to the Tory choir, with a plan that won’t survive a collision with reality once she is in Number 10.
I could go on through a dozen such announcements — the theme remains the same: Tory MPs and Tory leaders, saying what they think the person in front of them wants to hear. No plan for implementation, no plan for adverse consequences, no underpinning logic or principle. They are bricks thrown through windows with no notes attached.
Which takes me back to those panic-filled cockpits. With an impending crisis, they have lost sight of what levers they hold and what they can do, instead debating whether they want the chicken or lamb as the altitude warnings flash. The Conservative Party has fallen into a fundamental problem — it is unwilling and unable to address the needs of the day.
So when I look at my own party, I feel not fealty but disappointment. From the housing crisis, to the stagnating economy, to law and order, to the health service, there are solutions out there. Yet the party has given up on seeking them, seduced instead by the 24-hour news cycle, the focus group and the Twitter grifters. Neither leadership candidate offers much hope. Sunak looks like he will run the country like a private equity project, cutting any expense he can and damn the consequences, while Truss will run it like a village fete, harking back with boundless enthusiasm to the old hits.
Whoever wins in September, Britain will remain stuck. The Conservative Party is failing to adapt, failing to plan. The sirens are ringing. The ground is coming.
A version of this article first appeared on the Joxley Writes Substack