Moving the Centre, not Occupying it

By Sam Barrett

At the Centre for Policy Studies’ Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security of June this year, Henry Kissinger gave a speech during which he briefly recalled a conversation he had once had with Mrs Thatcher. At the time she was a fairly obscure education minister, yet her prudent language foretold the success she was to enjoy; she lectured him on how politics was about shifting the centre, not lurching towards it. Or, in other words, it was about finding an ideology, a principle,  and sticking to it. Now, we Conservatives have a sentimentality that manifests itself in a predilection for comparisons to the ‘good old days’ of the past and when Theresa May took over from David Cameron a year and a half ago, the delightful thought of Maggie May was on everyone’s minds. Here was the chance to form a genuine Conservative alternative to the radical Leftism of Jeremy Corbyn.

However, subsequent policy decisions the PM has made in response to Corbyn have made the Mrs Thatcher comparison seem at best premature, at worst totally misguided. Workers on company boards, capping energy prices, from the start of her premiership she neglected Thatcher’s words and gravitated towards the centre, rather than grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and telling it where to go. In some senses, one can understand it. Faced with a far Left ideologue like Corbyn, adopting the middle ground seemed like a good idea, but in order to properly confront him, we needed to win the battle of ideas which we simply did not bother to do. In rugby terminology, you’ve got to do the hard yards before you earn the right to go wide.

I’m not suggesting that dealing with someone as unconventional as Corbyn is easy, but the simple reality is that he proferred a radical set of left-wing ideas and laid down the gauntlet for an ideological war, a war we could have won but refused to have. Instead of tackling his views head on, we adopted centrist Miliband-like policies that took our own faithful for granted. We attacked him which was the right thing to do, given the man’s appalling record, but there’s only so much bashing you can do before the public grows weary and recoils. There comes a time when you need to set out a positive Conservative vision for government. Adopt an ideology, stick to it and move that centre ground. Much has been discussed on the manifesto and while it attempted to answer difficult questions on social care, it abandoned some key liberal Conservative ideals: security in retirement, free-market deregulatory conservatism, an emphasis on a low tax economy. At the heart of the social care policy, for example, was the fundamental belief that wealth was hugely undertaxed. Likewise, the regulation of the so-called ‘gig’ economy stunk of an interfering government trying to fix an imaginary problem in the market. Since then it hasn’t got much better; senior parliamentarians in the Party calling for an end to fiscal conservatism which would saddle future generations with debt, the suggestion from Damian Green that we need to have a ‘national debate’ on tuition fees, the report in the Times over the summer that Justine Greening is considering sacrificing free schools, one of our lasting successes in government, to plug the hole in the education budget. All thoroughly un-conservative.

I agree we need to do more to attract the youth vote but the way to do it isn’t by stealing Corbyn’s spots, it’s by espousing the benefits of liberal, free-market conservatism and fiscal restraint. For the reality is that the public don’t want to see a Party adopting the policies of another to gain power any more than playground insults traded between politicians on their televisions at six o’clock. Give the British people a little more respect than that. Surely the time has come for a principled Conservative ideology that sticks to its guns and fights its corner? I don’t believe that the election result was a vindication of ‘Corbynism’, but I do believe we allowed him to dictate the agenda. It is now indisputable that the ideals Corbyn stands for have become the default position of the Left, which I think presents us with an opportunity to rediscover what Conservatives stand for again. Let’s listen to Mrs Thatcher, let’s move the centre ground, not occupy it.