The sad, sorry state of the Conservative Party

Leadership elections, much like Presidential primaries, are usually a great opportunity to showcase the ideological variety hidden beneath the veneer of party unity. Asides from entertainment, this is valuable as it allows differences to be expressed, battles to be fought, and new consensuses to be developed. 

The Parliamentary Conservative Party decided to buck this trend, even before the contest ground to an unceremonious halt when Andrea Leadsom, the last obstacle to Theresa May’s coronation, pulled out. Superficially, there was a significant divide between the candidates: May (and Stephen Crabb) supported remaining in the EU, Leadsom supported leaving (as did Michael Gove and Liam Fox). Likewise, May seems to support retaining a greater level of access to the EU’s Single Market than Leadsom, who prioritised curtailing migration to a greater degree.

However, along with the other candidates, May views ending free movement of labour into the UK as enough of a priority to compromise access to the Single Market. In the best-case scenario, this would amount to the EU conceding the loss of freedom of movement in exchange for the UK losing certain benefits. Most worrying is the risk this poses for financial services. In particular there is a significant threat to passporting rights, which allow global financial institutions based in the UK to ‘passport’ into the rest of the EU. 

This is terrible policy. Immigration is beneficial to the UK economy: it increases output, does not increase unemployment, offsets an ageing population, and does not create a burden on the welfare state. And, even if it were detrimental, reducing it would not be a price worth paying for compromising finance.

Admittedly, you would be forgiven (though not necessarily correct) for thinking that maintaining freedom of movement was politically impossible in post-Brexit Britain. The problem is that this stance reflects a more general perspective and outlook that looks set to dominate and define the Conservatives: nationalism, authoritarianism, and populism are trumping economics, markets, and trade. 

May, the purported establishment-continuity candidate and ‘safe pair of hands’, exemplifies this by taking the most hard-line and wrongheaded attitude towards EU citizens currently residing in the UK. She also has a particularly ugly record of vindictive anti-migrant policies as Home Secretary. 

The problem goes beyond migration. May is perhaps best known for her devotion to the surveillance state, and was instrumental in perhaps the worst piece of drugs legislation to have ever been written. Crabb, the other ‘moderate’ candidate, is associated with a church that claims it can ‘cure’ homosexuality and has a very poor voting record on social issues.

Libertarian support for Leadsom was misguided. She supported much of the current government’s most authoritarian agendas, and consistently opposed more liberal legislation. Furthermore, pro-business rhetoric aside, her enthusiastic championing of curbing migration suggests her consideration of business and financial issues is limited. The same is true of May, who has also started spouting vapid anti-business populism.

Simply put, free market libertarianism and internationally inclined liberal-conservatism have been marginalised and neutered. The worrying implication is that this is no longer a party of either Thatcherite Whigs or of anti-utopian Tories, but increasingly one of populist, nativist anti-intellectuals. 

It may seem odd to find anything positive in the Labour Party’s recent bout of self-destruction. However, given the increasingly apparent political realignment (away from ‘left-right’ and towards ‘open-closed’) it is probably healthy that Labour is likely to split into an internationalist left-liberal party and an anti-globalisation neo-socialist movement. 

What is missing from all these perspectives is uncompromised support for free markets, free trade, and economic globalisation: in other words, the right’s contribution to ‘open’ politics. This is supposed to be at least one of the functions of the Conservative Party. And without this, the chances of pursuing an intelligent post-Brexit option, whether that is EEA membership or something more radical, look increasingly diminished.