Whatever May believes, here are the five ideas that the Tory party urgently needs to understand

Theresa May, it seems, doesn't do ideas—but there are concepts the party must take on board to move forward
June 15, 2017

There has never been much of a Tory intellectual tradition—even Burke was a Whig—but there are Tories who care. Lacking philosophy, they hang policies on all sorts of hooks, unworried by the tangled mess this creates. Now someone will have to sort out the biggest tangle of all, the one created by Theresa May. 

She didn’t do ideas: we know it now. We can see that her anything-but-Cameron lurch to provincial authoritarianism which fed energy price caps, immigration targets and grammar schools sank the nobler aims in her manifesto about inter-generational fairness. It also sank what there was of good liberal Conservative government in the Coalition years, under the best administration this country had seen, or will see, for some time. 

Ideas are also the last thing tea room Tory MPs are talking about now: the recent manifesto is judged only by the toxic effect it had on voters who feared losing their homes to council bailiffs, or their pensioner perks without any explanation of what might support them instead. 

But ideas—or at least an idea of what it is for—is what the party will need if it is to deserve a future in government, or even in opposition. So how might this be done? Here are five things which might help.

First, the absence of a majority means the end of new laws. This is a good thing. It is not only Conservative politicians who have confused the ability to pass eyecatching laws with good government— Gordon Brown was infected with this disease—but Conservatives really ought to realise that not very much government touches works very well, and that constant changes only make things worse. There are always sometimes big things which need to be done: adapting the state to manage new technology, new individual rights, or manage the market fairly. So do them. But the end of pointless tinkering should be to the good.

Second, modernisation wasn’t stupid. Most Tories are not bigots, or deranged, but some are. They drove David Cameron away from his early goal of creating a party which served the country as it now is, and would be in the future, rather than the one which used to exist. They also led to Brexit. 

Modernisation was mistaken for spray-painting the party to make old ideas palatable to new voters, but at its height there was the glint of something real. Social enterprises which broke free of council control to do good. Local devolution of a kind Labour never dared try. An openness to self-expression and freedom which should not be the preserve of the controlling, choice-supressing left. May has trashed this. Tories need it back.

Third, find some smart people. Tory think tanks are moribund. Move online. Dump the ghastly warm white wine receptions in Westminster attics, or in party conference hell. Be interesting. Be brave.

Fourth, believe in the market. Capitalism is often foul. Empty multi-million pound glass flats in London deserve contempt. But so much of what is good about our world comes from the ability of different businesses to create the unplanned parts of a much greater whole: Adam Smith’s self-interested butcher, brewer and candlestick maker always serve society. So trust them. But smash monopolies (Google and Facebook among them). Lock up fraudsters. Drive down bankers’ salaries. Do it all to make the market work.

Fifth, back the bits of the state you want to work, but tell the truth about what won’t. There’s no contradiction between a free economy and good public services. But not all things can be limitless, centrally run and perfectly funded. That’s Labour’s lie, and voters know it. So pour money into better schools. Don’t cut core welfare. But you can’t have free tuition for the middle classes and free tube travel for every millionaire London pensioner and every form of healthcare available free forever on the deficit. Some of this May might eventually have sorted out, if she hadn’t screwed up so badly. 

But she did screw up, and so did Cameron, and with them all claim to a confident agenda. So right now, the party’s politics is about panicky tactics. Ideas matter more. Even Tories should see it.