The definition of Conservative policy, according to Lord Salisbury, was the preaching of ‘confidence’: the ‘provision of work … will only exist where confidence exists; when the capitalist is sure of being repaid for his investment’. When ‘confidence is destroyed’, he told an audience in 1882, ‘capital will not flow, enterprise cannot be created, wages must fall, and commerce must stagnate’. It was a neat formulation, deployed to dent the case for radical reforms that would, in the Tory worldview, destabilise the polity by setting ‘class against class’, but Salisbury also used it to justify some pragmatic adaptation to social facts: if the virtuous circle was to be maintained, labour could not be trampled recklessly by capital. If the working man was feeling trodden on, his lot should be improved. Salisbury, to the extent that he has any residual place in cultural memory, is usually thought of as a reactionary aristocrat, but he was three times prime minister in Britain’s first age of mass, working-class-dominated democracy (1885-86, 1886-92, 1895-1902), and it was his conceptualisation of Conservatism – concerned with maintaining capitalism but also with legitimising it, if need be by blunting, however modestly, its sharper edges – that provided the template for the party’s remarkable success over the 20th century. (Disraeli, who often gets the credit for this, did little more than provide slogans that became useful after his death. He never actually used the everlasting phrase ‘One Nation’, which was only gestured towards in his novel Sybil; Or The Two Nations, published in 1845.)
As a gospel, ‘confidence’ – and the imperative to protect and project it – is inclusive, easily comprehended and, crucially, flexible, because it will always favour the status quo, even as the status quo changes. By equating political and economic stability, and both with the wellbeing and security of the entire populace, it provides a broad, apparently public-spirited justification for existing social hierarchies and for shibboleths like the constitution, the Union and the monarchy. It also has the benefit, if articulated by a skilled politician, of sounding commonsensical, even non-ideological. Its most effective prime ministerial proponents, besides Salisbury, were Stanley Baldwin (1923-24, 1924-29, 1935-37) and Margaret Thatcher (1979-90), who shared his knack for condensing a political philosophy into a simple (and simplifying) phrase, as well as his ability rhetorically to align the interests of the nation with the interests of capital.
It’s still possible to detect ‘confidence’ in its old centrality when the Tory leadership candidates refer to the Conservatives as the ‘party of business’, or when they link the fortunes of the NHS to the strength of the economy, which is itself linked to tax cuts for big firms that help to ‘grow the cake’. However, what the contest has so far revealed is the extent to which the Conservatives have drifted from their historic message. It’s hard to avoid the impression that confidence is now defined as a personality trait – machismo as a mandatory requirement. This is confidence not as an end, but purely as a means, a way of being in the world that we are encouraged to believe will bring forth inevitable results: the Brexit we desire and deserve.
Something else has also become apparent. Between 2010 and 2016, it seemed that David Cameron and George Osborne had been as successful as Salisbury, Baldwin and Thatcher before them in setting the terms of political debate: it was relentlessly argued that irresponsible public spending had caused the financial crash, and that only a sustained programme of austerity could repair the damage. This was in many ways a classic ‘confidence’ message: Osborne warned of Britain going the way of Greece and insisted that if the deficit were not tackled the whole economic order – from top to bottom, boss to worker – would collapse. ‘We’re all in this together’ was a key refrain. It worked for a time – Ed Miliband’s Labour Party was forced to occupy the same political space and then squashed. But we can see now that austerity wasn’t properly thought through as a political project (as we already knew it wasn’t as an economic one). The proof is in the fact that not one of the Tory leadership hopefuls has spent any time talking up the deficit, nor has any of them committed to further spending cuts. Not only that; all of them have criticised their own government’s record: on housebuilding and infrastructure and education, but also – even more gallingly – on austerity itself. They have lined up to deplore the state of social care, spending on which has been cut in England by more than £7 billion since 2010. Sajid Javid said that ‘we cut back too much’ and called for a ‘spending reset’. Jeremy Hunt had the nerve to call local councils (whose funding from central government has been roughly halved since 2010 at the same time as their liabilities have increased) ‘hidden victims of the cuts’, noticing that hospitals have been forced to prolong patient stays at great expense because of the disappearance of community care: ‘that wasn’t a smart move.’ No shit, Sherlock. In the BBC television debate of 18 June, Rory Stewart was the only candidate not to promise a round of new tax cuts. Why? Because ‘we need to invest in our public services.’
It’s not just those at the top of the party who’ve gone off piste. Recently I’ve been dipping into Britain beyond Brexit (£19.99), a 370-page collection of essays by Conservative MPs published by the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank founded in 1974 by Thatcher and Keith Joseph. As tempting as an ice bath, it has had a similarly eye-popping and face-purpling effect. Here’s George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk, and editor of the book:
[The Treasury] is currently operating like a financial control department at a failing company with a lack of a serious strategy for recovery. Its response to the structural deficit has been to take iron control of every line-item of expenditure and cut each by as much as it can – regardless of the impact on longer-term costs. The cutting of SureStart, school playing fields and council sports facilities are all examples of short-term cuts which are leading to higher costs elsewhere. Of course, we need financial rigour. But no company facing a serious crisis of debt, lack of revenues and investor confidence thinks the answer is in cost control on the P[rofit] and L[oss]. It’s in the balance sheet. We should be looking to unlock the energy and potential of the real assets of this country.
This sort of note is struck again and again, if never quite so explicitly, by his fellow contributors. There is a deafening sound of belts being loosened. So, what’s going on? Cameron and Osborne employed the traditional ‘confidence’ rhetoric but bolted it onto a ‘long-term economic plan’ serving a short-term purpose: the marginalisation of the Labour Party. Unfortunately for them, the ‘long-term’ aspect of austerity – not to mention the callousness of the cuts made – has backfired badly. This is partly because after Corbyn’s election Labour refused to participate in the narrative. Mainly, though, it’s because the narrative wasn’t good enough. As Salisbury realised, it isn’t enough just to talk about a virtuous circle – between capital, enterprise, work, wages and commerce. You also have to ensure that it actually has the appearance of being one. Even Thatcher, reckless in her own way, had a vision of a property and share-owning democracy which made sense in these terms. The longer austerity has gone on, and the more visible its effects have become, the weaker the justification for it has appeared. We’re all in this together, but for what? And who’s ‘we’?
The problem for the Tories now is that they’ve lost sight of their faithful steed, Confidence, and have found themselves saddle-sore on that bucking bronco, Brexit. The only candidate for leader who sounded anything like a classical Conservative was Rory Stewart. Though his dutiful voting record confirms that he’s as responsible as any other member of his party for the mess they’re all now in, he at least appeared aware both of the political realities that limit freedom of manoeuvre in any possible negotiations with the EU and of his party’s increasing disdain for its old priorities and objectives. The move of the others towards a more full-throated Brexit, even no deal, in order to stave off the threat from Nigel Farage, ties the party closer to a policy and position they know to be hugely divisive, and high risk for the things Conservatives are meant to care most deeply about: the economy, the Union, their party itself (in a recent poll Tory members said they were prepared to sacrifice all of these in order to achieve Brexit). This is to discard what has, since Salisbury, been the party’s strongest card: the allegation that first the Liberals and then, more profitably, Labour were ‘sectional’, ‘ideological’ forces in British public life; in other words, that they threatened ‘confidence’. This represents an opportunity for Labour, which historically has opposed the notion of ‘confidence’ and its implied chain of interlocking interests with a vision of ‘the people’ in confrontation with an elite. Or it might have done, had Brexit not also altered Labour’s position. The party’s attempt to keep both Remainers and Leavers on side looks to be about to give way. (It was, to my mind, a commendably phlegmatic strategy, though not always intelligently communicated. It also seems increasingly noble, now that those providing easy answers – Leave! Remain! – are once again the loudest people in the room.) The alternative, that Labour falls in wholeheartedly with the forces of Remain, will mean playing against the Tories under new, untested rules.
Of course, the greatest unknown of all is Boris Johnson, presently steamrolling towards power. It’s a by-product of our Brexit fixation that we are thinking more about his intentions towards the EU than about the future orientation of the Tory Party. I know this is probably a false distinction – ‘Britain beyond Brexit’ is an absurd, wishful phrase. More accurate would be ‘Britain Brexited’ or ‘Britain left in its own Brexit’. Still, I can’t help wondering: where are the Conservatives now? Post austerity, at least in some people’s heads, but pro … what? Johnson’s coalition of backers is incredibly broad, in a party that already seems impossibly stretched. His main policy pledge so far, to raise the threshold for the top rate of tax from £50,000 to £80,000, was opposed by all his leadership rivals. On what does the party agree? What does it defend? Whom does it represent? The signs are that Tory MPs have ceased to care – they either believe Johnson will deliver the Brexit they want, or that he will win an election when no one else will. The only thing we are being asked to place our confidence in is Boris Johnson. Last weekend, a poll found that 59 per cent of voters wouldn’t trust him to sell them a used car. But what do they know?