by danielbarker on 13 October, 2020
In his speech to the Tory Party conference, Rishi Sunak made a bold declaration: “We share the same values. The Conservative Party and the country.” For a start the 57% of voters who didn’t opt for the Conservatives last December will disagree. But his statement also raises a key question: what are the values that today’s Conservative Party stand for? Anyone who takes a moment to look at Johnson’s Conservatives can see that the party of statecraft, the rule of law and fiscal conservatism no longer exists.
The rest of Sunak’s speech was surprisingly brief and light on policy. One thing he did emphasise was his commitment to balancing the books. But that didn’t seem to matter when it came to getting Brexit done or when announcing huge infrastructure spending.
They say they are about law and order, but have just voted to allow themselves to break international law. And Priti Patel’s speech at the weekend advocating an escalation of the hostile environment towards those seeking asylum made clear the Conservatives aren’t a party that looks out for the most vulnerable in society.
Part of the problem for the Conservatives is their own internal ideological divisions. On the one hand they have a raft of MPs in solidly safe seats who keep their heads down in public and quietly do as they are told, willingly voting for the Government every time. Some of these types also come from Lib Dem facing not-so-safe seats where their bacon was saved by Nigel Farage standing down his Brexit Party troops.
Then on the other hand there is a clutch of newly elected MPs from the so-called ‘Red Wall’, where voters were persuaded that Boris Johnson had done a great deal with the EU and that he would turn their lives around for the better if they made him PM. Even before the pandemic, those promises were bound to fail. But it is these areas which are likely to be hit the hardest by a no-deal Brexit in just a few months time and would have been the victims of this Government regardless.
Trying to reconcile these different factions has turned the modern Conservative Party into a Trumpish, populist group. They say what they like in any given moment and hope that no one notices or cares when they do a screeching U-turn five minutes later. Unfortunately, they have been able to get away with too much of this as so many people have switched off the news or become numb to the outrage.
Our perennial Lib Dem problem is that people always complain that they don’t know what we stand for. We all joined the Party for different reasons. Some people are focused on improving public services, others want to concentrate on fighting for equality for marginalised groups, some want to make sure we stay at the heart of Europe. Some joined to get the potholes filled. It’s healthy that we each have different interests and areas of expertise. We’d be rather boring and ineffective if we didn’t. But those underlying liberal values of freedom, fairness and internationalism are there across the board, uniting our aims and driving what we do.
We all know we have a lot of work to do if we are to let voters know what we stand for. Coming back from the 2019 defeat will take a huge effort. Ed Davey’s listening tour will help us better join up our values to the demands of communities. But the one thing that gives me a lot of comfort is knowing that as a Party we do still have those underlying liberal values that unite us. The same cannot be said for Johnson’s Conservative populists.
* Judith Rogerson was the Parliamentary Candidate for Harrogate & Knaresborough at the 2019 General Election and is a barrister specialising in healthcare law. She grew up in South Yorkshire and lives in North Yorkshire. She is a member of the Northern Liberal Network Committee.
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