Look at the two main political parties in England and Wales, and consider which one seems to have most changed.
Labour? It has been collectively fretting for decades about the appeal of Conservatism to the working class, while solidifying into a party dominated by the educated bourgeoisie. In terms of basic beliefs, it remains the party of the big centralised state. Leaving aside the brief spells of Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman as acting leader, all 19 of the party’s chiefs have been white men, and its current frontbench does not quite reflect the diversity its leaders extol.
Meanwhile, the Tories have long seemed restless, and self-transforming. Their five most recent prime ministers have included two women. The next leadership election could well be a contest between Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Rishi Sunak. Now that the party has achieved breakthrough successes in a huge number of former Labour strongholds, its senior figures suddenly speak the language of interventionism, infrastructure and “levelling up”. The narrative the government is now selling portrays the country’s current problems as mere turbulence, en route to a fairer future that will benefit the people and places that Conservative politics has too often ignored.
On Wednesday, Sunak will present his combined budget and spending review: a big occasion that will mark the decisive beginning of what the government wants us to see as post-pandemic politics. Notwithstanding the apparent divisions between the prime minister and chancellor about the spending involved, the government’s pursuit of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will loom large. So will the Tories’ emphasis on somehow bringing opportunity and wealth to places where they are in short supply. The weekend saw pre-budget announcements that included a revival of the kind of early-years provision that Sunak’s party has spent 10 years taking away, new transport finance for England’s city regions, and increased funding for skills education.
But the chill of austerity is also in the air. In his speech at Tory conference, Sunak insisted that “recovery comes with a cost”. For the spending review, the Treasury has asked Whitehall departments to identify “at least 5% of savings and efficiencies” from their budgets, and any additional money going to many government departments looks set to amount to mere crumbs. Councils continue to face impossible financial pressures, and there is no sign of any meaningful help from Whitehall. We know that the so-called tax burden is set to rise to its highest-ever peacetime level. Any excitement about the Treasury’s supposed enthusiasm for “levelling up” also ignores the most significant pre-budget announcement by far: the brutal ending of the £20-a-week “uplift” to universal credit, which was pushed through by the chancellor – and takes much-needed money out of both people’s pockets and local economies.
Moreover, the government’s strategic goal seems to have been set. On the most basic fiscal matters, Sunak and Boris Johnson have reportedly come to an agreement. As the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote last week, in a sentence that could have described any number of Tory budgets going back decades: “The ambition, shared by both prime minister and chancellor, is to rein in spending and borrowing now so that they can cut income tax before the election.” Whatever the pyrotechnics, the party’s outward revolutions have seemingly been carried out in the service of a fundamental continuity: everything must change in order for everything to remain the same.
Of course, Sunak will not present his announcements in those terms. Before the relevant experts start going through the small print, there will doubtless be headlines saluting his largesse, and suggesting that the great post-Brexit shift in Conservatism is proceeding as planned. Missing from such hype will be not only the fine details of what he announces, but the kind of action that is demanded at a time of profound economic uncertainty and a mounting cost-of-living crisis – not to mention the continuing pandemic. Witness last week’s open letter from left-leaning thinktanks and economists, proposing a fiscal stimulus of up to £90bn split between capital investment and day-to-day spending, and focused on “a green and care-led recovery”.
Another interesting point of comparison is the prime minister’s rhetoric. Last June, for example, as he announced a pretty trifling £5bn increase in infrastructure spending, Johnson insisted the government would “not be responding to this crisis with what people called austerity”, and that he and his colleagues would not try “to cheese-pare our way out of trouble, because the world has moved on since 2008”. They would, he claimed, “build back greener and build a more beautiful Britain”. He went on: “I am conscious as I say all this that it sounds like a prodigious amount of government intervention. It sounds like a New Deal – and all I can say is that if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand.”
Words tumble out of his mouth: even his own chancellor, it seems, does not take them wholly seriously. As Johnson sounds off, Sunak’s calculation seems to be that someone has to be a Conservative grownup, guarding the nostrums of balanced budgets, and quietly readying his party for an eventual return to a smaller state. This will not get in the way of increases in the minimum wage, a modicum of devolution, some transport projects, and small pots of money to restore what the government calls “local pride”. But if Sunak gets his way, the ground rules of Conservative politics will be the same as ever: the Tories will style themselves as the financially responsible champions of homeowners and hard workers; the Labour party they will warn against will be portrayed as fiscally incontinent and too kind for its own good.
This positioning has helped the Tories win elections before; maybe it will again. But there are tensions within the cabinet about the gap between some ministers’ interventionist ambitions and Sunak’s preferred direction of travel, and they may yet spill out into other parts of the Conservative party. If I were one of the new MPs representing a so-called red wall constituency, I think the chancellor’s emphasis on the old Toryism of fiscal tightening and eventual tax cuts would bring on a growing sense of worry. Among the party’s leaders in local government, wearied by the necessity of competitively bidding for paltry “levelling up” funding, anxiety may yet teeter into rising anger.
The UK’s deep inequalities and imbalances have made it vulnerable to both economic shocks and political turnabouts, as proved by the crash of 2008 and what eventually followed it: most notably, the vote for Brexit, and the way the restlessness and resentment behind it led to Johnson’s seismic victory in 2019. Sunak and his ilk may think the eternal Tory talent for maintaining the status quo while presenting a picture of novelty might serve them well – but I would not count on it.
Soon enough, they may yet pick up cries from the cheap seats which will sound eerily similar to the ones last heard when our exit from the EU was held up by parliamentary deadlock, and the government’s current high-ups presented themselves as the solution: “We voted for change. Where is it?”
• John Harris is a Guardian columnist