The Tories' decade in power is remarkable for the hollowness of their vision | Andy Beckett

Past governments have inspired imitation – but Keir Starmer shouldn’t look to this one for an ideological steer

One of the dirty secrets of politics, in democracies as well as dictatorships, is that if a party is in power long enough, its enemies adopt some of its outlook. Sometimes, this adjustment is just pragmatism: the opposition’s need to adapt to a hostile environment. But sometimes it’s a deeper shift, a recognition that the dominance of those in office reflects social realities. Margaret Thatcher’s government persuaded some on the left that individualism and free markets were forces that no realistic politician could challenge. Tony Blair’s government persuaded some Conservatives that they needed to make concessions to social liberalism, such as accepting same-sex marriage.

These shifts happened in public, and were marked by new laws and big speeches. But equally important accommodations with the political common sense of an era are made in private: people slowly and quietly change their views, sometimes without even realising. How has the latest long party supremacy in Britain influenced its enemies?

Next month, it will be 11 years since the Tories took power with the Liberal Democrats. With a further Conservative general election victory looking quite likely, they could rule for the rest of the decade – which would be the longest government since Britain became a modern democracy.

Yet it’s been harder than usual for their opponents to adjust to this situation. The Tory ascendancy since 2010 has been a paradox: rarely very popular, sometimes sustained by deals with other parties, and not much based on competence, consistent policies or fresh ideas. With three starkly different prime ministers and many more U-turns, the government has often seemed just to be surviving from one week to the next. The one time it has won a strong mandate, at the 2019 election, it did so by downplaying the fact that it had already ruled for the previous nine years: the Conservative manifesto promised they would “unleash Britain’s potential”. This has been a Tory hegemony that dare not speak its name.

It has arguably changed Britain as much as Blair and Thatcher. But the transformation has often felt less like a strategy than a series of improvisations and accidents. And it’s striking that the two strategic thinkers the government has had, Dominic Cummings and Steve Hilton, both left Downing Street prematurely as frustrated figures. Instead of a worked-out national vision – which the left could reject or tacitly accept – we’ve had government by tabloid newsdesk, both literally and metaphorically: constant attention-grabbing announcements, aimed at pleasing ageing newspaper proprietors and readers, that often fall apart on contact with reality. While the Thatcher administration was feared by its enemies, Boris Johnson’s government is frequently regarded with contempt.

When there has been grudging respect for the Tories on the left since 2010, it’s been for their ability to reinvent themselves and play the electoral game – not for governing in ways that other parties might usefully imitate. A related argument says that only the Conservatives’ shameless exploitation of rare events, such as the Brexit vote and the Covid vaccination campaign, has enabled what would otherwise have been a short-lived government to grow to freakish length.

This Tory supremacy also seems to lack a durable social base. Whereas Thatcherism was popular with many young voters, and went with the grain of 1970s and 1980s trends such as rising materialism and widening property ownership, current Conservatism relies hugely on pensioners for its electoral success. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that since 2010 the broader public has actually become more liberal on immigration and less harsh towards benefits claimants, despite the efforts of the government and the press. Even the Tories’ relentless culture wars often have the air of rearguard actions. Protecting old statues against young protesters doesn’t feel like a good long-term political bet.

And yet, for all its short-termism and other weaknesses, today’s Toryism is belatedly prompting a rethink by some on the left. Under Keir Starmer, Labour has become increasingly preoccupied with looking patriotic, in the most traditional, Conservative-defined sense. An influential internal Labour presentation recently recommended that the party make “use of the [union] flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc”, in order to “give voters a sense of authentic values alignment”. The voters Labour has most in mind here are the ones it lost to the Tories in the “red wall” in 2019, who are often older and more socially conservative than its supporters elsewhere. After moving slowly and then rapidly to the left from 2007 to 2020, under Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is now moving back to the right. For the current Tory ascendancy, it is yet another win.

Whether a rightward shift is a good idea for Labour, electorally at least, may start to become clear at next month’s local and Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections. If Starmer’s leadership ultimately ends in failure, then his leftwing critics will argue with justification that Labour should have paid less attention to contemporary Conservatism and more to developing its own policies and identity.

Either way, perhaps it’s a mistake to think of our governments since 2010 as a coherent entity – as a “project”, to use the Blairite and Thatcherite term. Voters grew tired of those singleminded administrations. One of the keys to the Tories’ current longevity may be that they offer nothing definite enough for a decisive number of voters to reject them. Even the government’s most tangible-sounding goals – Brexit, levelling up – are really very ambiguous.

Politics may have become so fragmented, political facts so contested and the political news cycle so hectic that it’s no longer practical for a government to have an overarching project. Voters wouldn’t be willing, or necessarily able, to follow it.

Or it may be that the Conservatives have simply gone back to a pre-Thatcher formula for Tory government. From 1951, the party ruled for more than a decade, using four different prime ministers, surviving a Brexit-sized foreign policy catastrophe, the 1956 Suez crisis, fatally mishandling the 1957 flu pandemic, and all the while cleverly manipulating the timing of elections to build a bigger and bigger majority. Meanwhile, the Labour left and right fought each other. Some predicted Labour would never govern again.

But it did. In 1964, Harold Wilson defeated Alec Douglas-Home, like Boris Johnson an Old Etonian prime minister better known for his wit than his work ethic. The Tory era that ended then is largely forgotten now, partly due to the passage of time, but also because it failed to energise Britain as promised. These were “13 wasted years”, as Wilson lethally put it in the 1964 election campaign. One day, historians of our own seemingly endless Tory years may say the same.

  • Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist


Andy Beckett

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Johnson’s Tories seem to defy reality – but Labour’s ‘realistic’ politics isn’t working | Andy Beckett
Effective politics promises to change who has power, not just manage it more competently, says Guardian columnist Andy Beckett

Andy Beckett

20, Aug, 2021 @3:25 PM

Article image
The Tories are losing the shires – this is a gift for Keir Starmer | Gaby Hinsliff
Voters got what they wanted in Boris Johnson: a rule-breaking rogue. But that was before coronavirus, and Cummings, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

28, May, 2020 @2:28 PM

Article image
Keir Starmer may not excite, but the Tories cannot lay a glove on him | Rafael Behr
The Labour leader’s ability to anticipate and swerve potential pitfalls is serving the opposition well – for now, says Guardian columnist Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr

11, Aug, 2020 @3:06 PM

Article image
The Tories have had a poll disaster – so why are we talking about takeaway curry? | Gaby Hinsliff
Beergate has helped Boris Johnson get through what should have been a perilous weekend, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

08, May, 2022 @2:51 PM

Article image
Covid is teaching the Tories basic social democracy – but they won't learn | Rafael Behr
They can see that Britain’s shocking inequality needs addressing, but the solutions go against their true instincts, says Guardian columnist Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr

26, Jan, 2021 @3:59 PM

Article image
The Tories have become the party of optimists. Labour needs its own story | Gaby Hinsliff
The opposition can’t just talk about what’s wrong – it has to create a feelgood factor, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff

07, Oct, 2021 @4:52 PM

Article image
After their annus horribilis of 2022, what will the Tories be wishing for in the new year? | Katy Balls
Rishi Sunak presides over a party still bitterly divided over what was the biggest mistake in the year of three prime ministers, says the Spectator’s Katy Balls

Katy Balls

30, Dec, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Tories have revealed their battle plan for a new kind of class war | Owen Jones
The promotion of Lee Anderson reveals a lot about who is and who isn’t considered working class in Britain, says Guardian columnist Owen Jones

Owen Jones

13, Feb, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
If it's all about the economy, why are the Tories still polling better than Labour? | Larry Elliott
The list of government failures should be a gift to Keir Starmer, says the Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott

Larry Elliott

06, Aug, 2020 @2:00 PM

Article image
The Tories profited from Labour ‘chaos’ in the 1970s. Can Starmer do the same now? | Andy Beckett
Labour must hammer the message home that these are the worst of times, and pin the blame squarely on Boris Johnson, says Guardian columnist Andy Beckett

Andy Beckett

22, Apr, 2022 @7:00 AM