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Andrew Lilico: After Eastleigh...

Were you in Eastleigh?  I was.  It was cold.  I wanted to pledge that, if there were a Conservative victory, within just months we would see warmer weather.  If only all political promises were so certain of fulfilment.

But they aren't - and often events are no more under the control of politicians than is the weather - either because policy-making lacks the power to deliver, or because politicians lack the political strength to exercise the power than policy-making has.  That is one reason clever political tactics and schemes are so often futile and misdirected.  Often all that is possible is to do the best we can, given our political constraints, or do the right thing and hope the voters will recognise it.

After Eastleigh, much Conservative-leaning political analysis has been a case study in the pathologies of the past fifteen years.  Folk ask whether we need to see off the UKIP threat by being more like UKIP or by being less like it.  But in truth we don't need to see off the UKIP threat at all - because there isn't one.  UKIP isn't going to win the General Election.  It probably won't win any seats.

Much the same error was made late in the 2010 General Election campaign.  We started to obsess about how we could see off the Lib Dems.  But at the national level we didn't need to beat the Lib Dems; we needed to beat Labour.  If we beat Labour, beating the Lib Dems would look after itself.  In much the same way, at the local level in seats like Eastleigh what we need to worry about is beating the Lib Dems.  If we beat the Lib Dems in such seats, beating Ukip will look after itself.

Again, some commentators say we should become more right wing; others that we should aim more for the centre.  But the Conservative Party hasn't won a General Election from the centre for generations.  1970, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 - these were all General Elections we won from the right, reaching out to the centre.  We are a part of the centre-right, that reaches out to the centre from the right, not the other way around.  That is who and what we are.  What is the point in attempting to reinvent ourselves as another Party?  If folk want a centrist party, they'll form one and vote for one.  That isn't us.  And conversely, if they want a right-wing party focused only upon right-wing concerns and without the ambition to reach out to the centre they'll form and vote for that - that isn't us, either.

One of the great errors of the Conservative Party these past 15 years is its persistent refusal to be authentic, to embrace being itself and to offer itself whole and entire for the judgement of the electorate.  BBC3 has a marvellous piece of public service broadcasting called "Snog, Marry, Avoid", in which heart-wrenchingly insecure young women who coat themselves in fake tan, fake eyelashes, and wear outfits revealing embarrassing quantities of skin subject themselves to a "makeunder" in which they are radically re-styled to become...themselves.  The saddest cases are the large number in which the presenters revisit the young women some weeks later only to find that they have reverted almost to their original pathologies.

That is how I see the Conservative Party.  In 2001 and 2005 we wore a mini-skirt, put on fake orange tan, bleach-blonded our hair, and covered ourselves in bling.  In 2010 we put bones through our noses, cut off all our hair, and wore torn jeans and a hoodie.  But each of these was just an extravagant way of avoiding revealing ourselves, because we were afraid that people wouldn't like the real us.

We imagine that politics is terribly complicated, about this clever tactic or that.  But healthy politics shouldn't be.  It should be very simple: we should do and say what we believe in; and then voters will either vote for us or against us; and if they vote against us we should go off and do something else until the next Election comes along.  We shouldn't feel we have any intrinsic right to be in charge.  In a healthy political system it shouldn't even matter that deeply if we lose every now and then; it's the voters' right to chose whomever they want.  We should be humble enough to offer ourselves as we truly are, and if they don't want us that should be fine.

That is especially so in present uncertain economic times.  Sometimes the natural conservatism of the electorate provides an incumbency bias - once you are in, you are more likely to be re-elected.  But under present circumstances it is more likely that incumbents are punished for doing what is necessary.  So there is little point in doing other than what one believes to be right, simply in the hope of placating the electorate so as to get back next time.  You get your time, and you need to make the most of it.  Squandering it in petty tactics is a waste.

Matters are likely to get politically worse for the Conservatives from here.  I say this not out of any particular joy in declaring doom - I'm not some latter-day Denethor screaming for you all to desert your posts and die in your own way.  I want you to understand that your doom is not in your own hands.  All you can do is make the most of the time you have.

The chances are that the economy can only make politics worse here, in two ways.  Either the economy will recover or it won't.  If it doesn't recover, that may be because it gets much worse (which would certainly be politically fatal for the government, perhaps even bringing it down if there were a bank collapse) or because it gets no better (which would almost certainly be politically fatal for the government).  If it does recover, inflation will race away.  We have seen in the past five years that the British economy is an inflationary geyser; unless it is actually contracting, inflation races to 5% and rising.  How much inflation do you suppose there will be if growth really gets going, to 3% or more?

Inflation will be politically toxic for this government.  We have been able to blame double-dip recession, tax rises and spending cuts on Gordon Brown (and with good reason).  But the public will blame no-one but Osborne and his appointees and policies for inflation.

The cost of living has for the past five years been one of those many political issues that is not a party political issue because no-one amongst the parties wants to discuss it even though ordinary people discuss it frequently.  But inflation only a little above recent 5% peaks - say, if it were to reach 7 or 8% - will change all the political rules.  The Chancellor could not personally survive it - but he has known for years that he took on a hospital pass in the Treasury job - and perhaps not the Prime Minister either, but it would significantly change the debate that followed.  Instead of (...actually, as well as) "How should we get down the deficit?" the key debate will be "How should we get down the inflation?"  Will folk trust Labour with inflation?  Does Labour have the intellectual tools and concepts to deal with inflation if it comes into office?  How long could a Labour administration really last?  And would any of our current leadership really be the right people to offer the story of how we would tackle inflation?

These are debates for next year and the year after and the year after that.  But they are worth reflecting upon now because they remind us that the complacent certainties of many commentators that there will be no General Election until 2015 and that Cameron will be Prime Minister and Osborne Chancellor then are nothing more than delusions - they simply have no conception of what and how economic events could transform the political landscape in half a Parliament.

Furthermore, they remind us that even if in principle we could get anywhere with clever political dressing-up and make-up to disguise our true selves (and three election defeats trying the same strategy suggests that we can't), and even if that were a good and healthy idea in general (which it isn't), in the context of the next few years we lack the required control of background events to execute such a strategy - whatever we might have been able to do in 2008, 2009, or 2010, from here we are as unlikely to be able to prevent either slump or inflation in the next few years as we are to stop the weather from heating up in Eastleigh this summer.

We should be authentic, our true selves, and do what we believe to be right in the time that we have, then face the judgement of our electors whenever that moment comes.


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