Age is suddenly everything in politics. The Conservatives should skip a generationby / July 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Tory Party has been regularly in government for around 300 years. It is an old party, and in the 2017 election—more than ever before—it was the party of the old too. IpsosMORI reported that it mopped up a crushing 61 per cent of the over-65 vote. In an ageing society, that sounds like a solid basis for victory, but—alas for Theresa May—it was not enough. The party is unlikely to get back into a commanding position until it can appeal to younger cohorts, and picking a leader who belongs to one might be a good place to start.
Tony Blair was 43 when he took over in 1997, and he wooed Britain with his story (or waffle) about a “young country.” The Conservatives initially retreated into hopeless nostalgia. They looked and sounded like yesterday’s men, opposing even popular innovations such as the introduction of the minimum wage, and the baby-faced William Hague could not disguise this: he just sounded like a “young fogey.” The Tories, however, have lasted in the way that they have over the centuries because of their ruthless capacity for reinvention. Endlessly, the party has renewed itself, junking any leader—or policy—that was holding it back. After burning through two further (older) leaders, they eventually made the generational shift not merely in personnel but in thinking too, and found a winner. David Cameron dispelled the stereotype of grey fustiness that dogged the party and led it back into power. And just like Blair, he did so at the age of 43.
After six years, he was succeeded by a woman 10 years his senior. Previous examples of PMs passing the torch to the older generation do not bode well: Callaghan was older than Wilson when he took over at No 10, as was Brown when he picked up from Blair. Both went on to defeat. Yet shifting from Cameron to May briefly seemed a brilliant move. The allure of youth had died away, and the Tories settled for someone who preferred her ministerial box to a DVD box-set. Maturity, it was said, was resonating with the voters, while May enjoyed huge poll leads.
Quirky as it may sound, part of the maturity was meant to be tackling the economic gap between the generations. To be fair to May, she did try, pledging to trim pensioner perks to rebalance the scales. But she never looked the part, and her snatching of free school lunches from youngsters clouded the message. Although she was up against the considerably older Jeremy Corbyn, she got hammered not merely among the student vote, but among parents and others, right the way up the spectrum to middle age. Consequently, she mislaid the Conservative majority, and her MPs are now certain that she cannot lead them into the next election, which leaves them preoccupied with two questions: Who will replace her? And how long can she last?
“The next leader will have to entice the electorate with their vision. Old hands will try their best, but they are all carrying baggage.”
The Brexit negotiations will dominate the next two years, and May hopes to stick around for long enough to tend to them. But if her government collapses sooner, a member of her cabinet would surely take over. Likely contenders like Boris Johnson and 68-year-old David Davis would squeeze out lesser-known figures, who need time to build support. However, the dynamic will change considerably after October 2018. Britain is expected to have agreed its terms of exit by then, with the deal being reviewed by Europe’s national parliaments over the months that follow. Brexit would not then be jeopardised if May had to quit, as Britain would likely be preparing for an agreed transitional state on its way out of the bloc.
The next leader would have to decide where Britain ended up in its relationship with Europe, and work to entice the electorate with that vision. Old hands will try their best, but they are all carrying baggage.
Damian Green and Philip Hammond are too close to May to offer a clean break. Davis will have exhausted every ounce of energy on securing her a Brexit deal. He started his last leadership campaign as favourite, before being leapfrogged by an upstart. Johnson used his star power to help Vote Leave to victory, but the once broadly popular politician has turned into a divisive figure. His moment to seize the top job came last year, but he fumbled it—as his fairweather friend Michael Gove concluded. He will soon be pushing into his late-50s, and he once suggested that his party could go for a younger candidate, or as he put it, “some babe unborn.”
Quite so. Parliamentary experience has been no guarantor of competence lately. Despite first entering the Commons 20 years ago, both May and Hammond have astonished younger colleagues with their ability to make inept decisions. Within a week of presenting his first Spring Budget, the Chancellor dumped his proposed National Insurance hike—leaving a £2bn hole in the budget. They had both been elected on five separate election manifestos before this year, yet both had forgotten the importance of remembering what their last one they had said.
And there are plenty of “babes” already born in the Tory ranks who could do more to reinvigorate the party than the current top tier. Johnny Mercer and Tom Tugendhat have been MPs for just two years and are, as Martha Gill reports on p44, already sticking their necks out. Others are making their way up the ladder. Kwasi Kwarteng was elected in 2010 and now serves as parliamentary aide to the Chancellor. They have all left promising careers, whether it be in the military or business, to enter politics, and they expect to go places at Westminster too. Amber Rudd is in her 50s, but is a relative newbie from the 2010 intake. She has gone further—holding one of the Great Offices of State—and might be the most natural fit of the lot, were it not for her razor-thin majority. Few Tories want to risk having Labour decapitate their party. Surely ruled out, despite the jestful chatter, is another of the class of 2010, Jacob Rees-Mogg. A forty-something biological age is not much use in tackling the generational challenge, if your manner makes you sound more like a one-hundred-and-forty-something.
The Tory Party has reached its venerable age by being ruthless in cutting off any individual political life that has gone on too long for its collective good. May won the leadership by default, and now leads them in a lifeless administration after squandering their majority. They cannot afford to engage in anything like Buggins’ turn again.
After she has gone, things will be chaotic; it could be tempting to opt for an established candidate to steady the ship. But that is what she was meant to do: it didn’t work out. If it is serious about remaining in power, the Conservative Party must be bold in its hunt for someone who can own the future.