Tories wrestle with meaning of modern conservatism

Manchester: Two topics dominated conversations at fringe events, parties and dinners at this week's Tory party conference: Boris Johnson and where-to for the centre-right beyond Brexit.

The first is a symptom of the second.

Theresa May's leadership appears all but over - it is a matter of when and the question of whom with no obvious replacement in the wings. It had been expected that May would be forced to stand aside around March 2019 once the gritty work of negotiating Brexit has been completed.

Should events, like more of her keynote speech debacle, force the battle sooner, Johnson and the Brexit Secretary David Davis would be the likely contenders. But there is appetite for these yesterday's men to be swept aside once Brexit is done to set the party up for generational change as it tries to define what is modern conservatism.

At any rate, Cabinet ministers were openly criticising Johnson at conference for his attention-seeking and headline-hogging ways and MPs were dismayed by the leadership cloud he had placed over the conference where May was desperate to deliver some sort of reset.

Her nightmare-from-hell speech, where anything that could go wrong did and then some, will buy her sympathy but only at a superficial and short-term level.

May's failure to set out a vision for the Conservatives, rooted in an open market economy, is at the heart of this.

The Tories are experiencing a crisis-in-confidence in their relationship with the markets and how to tell voters, who saw the banking sector's bad behaviour socialised after the global financial crisis, that a freer economy really is in their best interests.

Several government backbenchers were despairing, singling out Uber, recently banned in London - a decision backed by by the Labour mayor Sadiq Khan - as an example of where the party can present the modern case for markets in presenting consumers with choice.

But Uber's plight was not mentioned by not one of the ministers who gave keynote speeches.

Government intervention

Mayism, for however long it lasts, has always favoured bigger government.

With Corbyn tacking so far left, the Tory party has sought to combat his success by shifting left too, fighting Labour on issues like housing, university fees and the NHS - in short - enemy territory.

With its response, the government hopes to paint itself the "balanced" option. As party chairman Patrick McLoughlin??? said: "Labour always take it too far." Labour's retort is devastatingly easy. "Theresa May's response to the broken energy market doesn't go nearly far enough," said frontbencher Rebeca Long-Bailey.

And there is no more pertinent symbol of a dysfunctional market than the UK's housing crisis where prices are now about eight times higher than the average wage.

"It's a mark of our failure on housing that the Labour party, a party led by Jeremy Corbyn, is being taken seriously again," conceded Sajid Javid???, the secretary for communities and local government and potential leadership option.

The deputy prime minister and May confidante Damian Green even invoked Jeremy Corbyn's slogan: "We remain the only party committed to home ownership for the many," he told members.

In last year's address to conference, the prime minister cited the financial crisis and Brexit as evidence of the British public crying out for change and spoke of the "need to rebalance the economy...in order to spread wealth and prosperity around the country."

"Time to reject the ideological templates provided by the socialist left and the libertarian right and to embrace a new centre ground in which government steps up - and not back - to act on behalf of us all," she said, singling out the housing and energy markets as ripe for intervention.

In 2017 the rhetoric was far more pro-market but the policies to deal with the two issues were vintage Mayism.

On Sunday evening, May ended her birthday at Conservative Home drinks for the 1922 committee and gave a rousing speech on the need to re-prosecute the case for markets.

"One of the lessons that the general election has taught us is that there is something else we now need to do as Conservatives. We thought that over the last few decades we had made and won arguments about the importance of free market economies, about the importance of fiscal prudence, about the wealth creation," she said.

"But Jeremy Corbyn has shown that we have to got to go out and make those arguments all over again and we will do that and you know what? We won the argument last time, we're going to win those arguments again."

But when put to the test May reached for state intervention and government handouts. A further ??2 billion will be allocated to "affordable housing," which are rented at 80 per cent of market rent via not-for-profit housing associations.

Social housing in the UK is popular and does not carry as much stigma it might in a country like Australia. As Southwark Council recently told Fairfax Media, voters are sick of the affordable housing myth and want a revival in council homes, which were effectively halted by Thatcher.

Now Thatcher's female successor wants a "new generation of council houses to help fix our broken housing market." Councils will be urged to apply and offer homes at social rent, well below market level, effectively "getting government back into the business of building houses," May told conference.

Earlier in the week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced a further ??10 billion for David Cameron's Help to Buy scheme which offers government equity loans.

"??10bn to inflate the housing market through Help to Buy bubble, ??2bn to provide a real solution through social rent. It's a bit of a muddle," observed Dave Richmond who manages housing for Hull Council.

And with her pledge to allow the regulator to impose caps on energy prices, May revived a policy styled by Ed Miliband in 2013???. "Cough..I am sure I've have heard this somewhere before," the former Labour leader crowed in a tweet.

Stephen Martin from the Institute of Directors (IoD) said conference season had been one big let down for business.

"On the one hand you have a Labour Party which has decided that business is the bad guy, on the other you have a Conservative Party which talks about the importance of markets, but then tinkers around with help to buy and energy price caps. What are business leaders meant to make of it all?"

Conservative party member and former political agent to Margaret Thatcher Mike Love resigned his membership, for a third time, following May's speech, declaring it "semi-socialism."

"If the Conservative Party cannot come up with exciting radical Tory policies to grab the country by the throat and make it want to get behind a party of real change, it might as well pack up and go home," he said.

"Nobody ever beat socialism with semi-socialism."

Whether the next Tory prime minister comes from the Cabinet or the next generation - a candidate say from the 2010 or even 2015 intake is not yet clear. But what is certain, is that the immediate future of the Tory party depends on whether or not that candidate feels the free-market cap fits or not.

This story Tories wrestle with meaning of modern conservatism first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.