Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Week-in-Review: The Conservative Party has come to terms with its malaise

There was a time when Rishi Sunak looked ahead to a series of set-piece events on the near horizon — lauding each as a chrysalis chamber from which he would emerge energised and election-ready. 

Count with me: Conservative Party conference, the King’s speech, a cabinet reshuffle and the autumn statement; all were framed in terms of how they might alter the destiny of a tired party tailspinning into opposition. 

It was telling, then, that ahead of the Spring Budget this week, much of Westminster seemed genuinely non-plussed by the relentless pre-statement speculation. After months of false starts and scuppered opportunities, this was, in theory, another chance for the government to seize the agenda and shift that stuck dial. But the legacy of Sunak’s reset era, characterised by flailing and at times implausible emphases, loomed large.

We are at the stage in the political cycle when every action by the government is judged according to its electoral potency. It follows that, with Rishi Sunak’s party languishing 28 points behind Labour on some measures, individual actions are dismissed as too late and not enough. But the reading is no breezier for the prime minister when his recent tactics are taken together. Persistent strategic failure exacts a heavy toll — soon people just stop listening. 

In the end, the Spring Budget is merely the latest — albeit likely the purest — illustration of this brutal reality. 

But first, let’s paint the most optimistic picture for those of a Conservative persuasion. In Jeremy Hunt’s statement on Wednesday, there were — after all — fleeting flashes of political savvy. The chancellor’s decision to steal two of the Labour’s revenue raisers, and the party’s most popular ones at that, speaks to a raw and effective political calculation on behalf of the government. In the aftermath, Labour Party apparatchiks boasted of how they are winning the “battle of ideas”. But Hunt well knows that philosophical supremacy is not nearly as important to Labour as its claim to fiscal responsibility. 

The problem Hunt’s scheming creates for Keir Starmer is twofold: first and most obviously, the Labour leader will feel compelled to either find new funding arrangements or sacrifice some commitments. But more pressingly, it underlines that Starmer must not only come up with popular, sensible policies — but popular, sensible policies that are insusceptible to government pickpocketing. Hunt notes a dearth of ideas in Conservative politics; he plans to mutualise this intellectual malaise.

The Spring Budget was also a (rare) triumph in terms of its narrative consistency; the prime minister’s decision to return to National Insurance (NI) speaks to the lessons he has learnt from his failed reset era last year. Blasting NI as a “tax on work”, Sunak now touts savings for the average worker of £900 a year after two successive cuts.

But consistency is, of course, only one-half of what makes a political message effective. If the chosen narrative is not compelling enough to cut through beyond Westminster, it matters little how ruthlessly you cite it. In the end, the NI cut at the autumn statement failed to shift the dial for the Conservatives; rather, since the last fiscal event, the polls have if anything worsened for Sunak’s party. Few expect the Spring Budget to succeed where the autumn statement failed.

But more pressingly, Hunt’s additional commentary on the long-term future of national insurance also proved his largest misstep on Wednesday. In signalling the beginning of the end of National Insurance, he opened himself up to a litany of Labour attacks. On the post-budget media round, Rachel Reeves declared that calling time on NI would cost £46 billion a year — “a bigger unfunded tax cut than even Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng tried to get away with”.

Labour’s attack line, and the Conservative Party’s bungled defence, naturally took much of the shine off the budget’s more potent Labour-facing aspects. But, on top of this, the debate also points to a broader sea-change in our politics. 

It goes without saying that, of Britain’s two main political parties, Labour is the outfit more exposed to accusations of profligate tax and spend — those evil twins of left-wing mythology. The truism means Labour is always expected to do rather more than the Conservatives to signal its fidelity to a sound fiscal regime. 

The political realities of post-Trussonomics politics arguably make this fact even more prescient. With Labour attempting to seize the mantle of fiscal responsibility, the party’s emphasis on its “fiscal rules” has, in turn, become more and more overbearing. But the recent debate on the future of NI underlines that it is not only Keir Starmer paying penance for the legacy of Trussonomics. At the budget, Sunak showed signs of escaping the political silo — that of a corrective, fiscally-orthodox force — he entered upon seizing the reins of No 10 in October 2022. But Labour, invoking the memory of Sunak’s failed forebear, is determined to keep the PM firmly in his lane. 

In this way, what might reasonably be considered the Conservative Party’s most reliable, visceral strength is being spun anew into a weakness by a ruthless Labour operation. So has Liz Truss shifted the tectonic plates of British politics. 

Spring Budget: Jeremy Hunt signals ‘long term ambition’ to scrap National Insurance

Consider, then, what motivated Hunt’s decision to declare his “long-term ambition” to one day scrap NI (presumably with a view to combining it with income tax). In the end, given so many Conservative MPs have called on the government to drop its risk-averse instincts on fiscal policy, it is difficult to treat the proposal on terms beyond that of sop to Sunak’s tax-cutting critics. Labour’s increasingly aggressive attacks aside, therefore, has the pledge at least succeeded on these terms?

Well, on the party-management metric, the Spring Budget appears to have neither succeeded nor failed. There has been no significant outcry and no renewed call for Sunak’s ouster — but nor are Hunt’s proposals heralded as signalling some great departure in the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. 

In simple terms, the budget landed with next to no furore — positive or negative. That Sunak’s sops cease to register is in the end revealing of a broader malaise in Conservative Party ranks. And it is one with a lifespan far beyond that of a mere fiscal event. 

To take a broader view, the Conservative Party has essentially not fought the last three by-elections in Wellingborough, Kingswood or Rochdale; its MPs, many of them relatively young, announce their intention to stand down at the next general election at a quickening rate; and as we edge closer to a poll date, the party’s ratings do not rally — they worsen.

Exodus of Conservative MPs is a sign of the times for Rishi Sunak

Every sepulchral set piece, every by-election routing, each distressing development (opinion poll, recession, etc.) further fan the flames of MPs’ cynicism. Nothing the government does can puncture the swelling anticipation of defeat. Both Sunak’s prescribed remedies and strategic retreats only seem to make the situation worse. The political momentum remains with the Labour Party; Keir Starmer, in all, will be pleased with how budget week played out.

Tellingly, the Conservative Party does not even appear to have the energy for infighting — once its favourite pastime. The fear of impending electoral doom no longer impels recurrent factional conquests; rather, Sunak acolyte and antagonist alike view the political scene with some shade of resigned fatalism.

Of course, there is no consensus on who is to blame for said problems. But whether it’s the wets or dries; the frontbench or the backbenches; the one nationers or the New Conservatives; Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss; the scale of the party’s task with an election mere months away seems increasingly insurmountable.

It was always an open question as to what might follow the Conservative Party’s slow political disintegration. But now the picture seems clear. Rishi Sunak, who once pleaded with his MPs to “unite or die”, helms an utterly enervated operation. A pungent odour of defeat simply hovers over every government move — trailing ministers as they tour broadcast studios and the doorsteps of at-risk constituencies.

Behold, then, the Conservative Party’s post-existential politics: genuine resigned stagnation. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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