THE party that met in Manchester this week was in a dismal mood: divided over Brexit, depressed by the recent election debacle and disillusioned with its leadership. The only energy in the conference was energy tinged with derangement. The biggest crowds gravitated to hardline Brexiteers who argued that Britain should leave the European Union “tomorrow” and that Brussels should be paying us rather than us paying them. A great party is in danger of becoming a fanatical sect.
By any reasonable measure the Conservatives are lagging behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Tory party membership is probably a fifth that of Labour and may well be lower than that of the Liberal Democrats. Almost half the Conservative Party’s members are over 65 and only 5% are 18-24. In June’s election the party lost every age group under 45.
But the party does have one big thing on its side: an impressive cohort of young MPs who for the most part got their parliamentary seats in the 2010 and 2015 intakes, as part of David Cameron’s modernisation drive. This generation contains a remarkable range of talents. Were it not for his catastrophic decision to call the EU referendum, Mr Cameron would have gone down in history as one of the Tories’ best party managers. Rory Stewart has succeeded in the demanding professions of the armed forces, the intelligence service and academia; Tom Tugendhat served in the army in Iraq and Afghanistan; Rishi Sunak is a successful entrepreneur with remarkable contacts in both America and India. And outside Parliament but waiting in the wings, Ruth Davidson has demonstrated her ability to take apart a politician, Nicola Sturgeon, who supposedly had history on her side.
In her darkest days after her election debacle Theresa May told the 1922 Committee of senior MPs that, “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out.” So far she has done little to make good on her promise. Mrs May’s biggest mistake has been to use her powers of patronage for purely defensive purposes, balancing the party’s established factions against each other in order to shore up her position. That has given her a cabinet that lacks either direction or discipline. Boris Johnson, her foreign secretary, is forever challenging her authority in public and other ministers are doing the same in private. She should instead have used her powers of patronage to remake the upper echelons of her party by promoting talented younger Tories.
The current cabinet is ripe for a makeover, if not a complete gutting. Benjamin Disraeli once mocked the opposing front bench as a row of exhausted volcanoes (“Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest”). The current Tory front bench is a row of exhausted molehills. Philip Hammond is doing a decent job of steering the economy through Brexit, and delivered a good speech in Manchester. Amber Rudd is a competent if not scintillating home secretary. But what on Earth is the point of Chris Grayling, the transport secretary? Or indeed of a foreign secretary who is as despised abroad as he is divisive at home?
Fast-tracking the younger generation would help the party to tackle its problem with younger voters. The party’s top jobs are now held by a gerontocracy. Mrs May and Mr Hammond are a generation older than their predecessors, Mr Cameron and George Osborne, and Mrs May’s closest confidant is her Oxford contemporary, Damian Green. As well as hampering the party’s attempt to appeal to younger voters, gerontification is causing internal management problems. Mr Tugendhat’s success in deposing Crispin Blunt from his position as chair of the House of Commons foreign-affairs committee shows just how much pressure there is for change from the younger generation.
Fast-tracking young stars might provide more diverse faces as well as youthful ones. The party saw its share of the ethnic minority vote fall from 24% in 2015 to 19% in 2017, a drop that may have cost it 40 seats in the election and certainly sounds an alarm bell in a fast-diversifying society. The younger generation includes several leading lights who challenge the idea that the Tory party is a white one. Mr Sunak and Kwasi Kwarteng, both the children of immigrants, have stellar academic credentials. Sam Gyimah was brought up partly in Ghana before going to a British state school then Oxford. Nusrat Ghani is the party’s highly regarded first female Muslim MP. Having done so much to retoxify the Tory brand with her (largely vain) pursuit of Brexit-supporting working-class voters, Mrs May has a duty to detoxify it again by producing a more diverse cabinet.
Out with the old
Perhaps most important, fast-tracking young stars will provide some new intellectual energy. The cabinet is entirely devoid of big, or even small, thinkers. Even a relatively intelligent figure such as Mr Hammond is a technocrat rather than a philosopher. By contrast the next generation contains a number of intellectuals. Mr Kwarteng has written excellent books on British imperialism. Mr Stewart has held a chair at Harvard. George Freeman is a particularly impressive policy entrepreneur. He recently organised a festival of ideas, billed as the Conservative Glastonbury, and possesses an ability to relate broad conservative principles to specific proposals.
In his conference speech Mr Johnson reminded the Tories of Winston Churchill’s great line about giving the lion its roar. A more apposite line for the Tory party’s current predicament is John F. Kennedy’s one about passing the torch to a new generation. The generation at the top of the Conservative Party has been given its chance and, in too many cases, has been found wanting. It is time to give a chance to a new generation-one that knows what it is to live in a world of student debt and out-of-reach houses and that has the energy and ideas to renew a fading party. Mrs May’s job in the time remaining to her is to make sure that the torch is passed as smoothly and quickly as possible.