This week Conservatives for Liberty held a joint event with the recently-resurrected Selsdon Group, in which 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady MP kindly agreed to be the speaker. It’s not the first event we’ve held with the group, given when it comes to economic matters, we’re very much of the same mind.
Founded by Nicholas Ridley (uncle of Matt, Viscount Ridley), the Selsdon Group was so named after a meeting between free marketeers and Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet at the Selsdon Hotel in 1970. The meeting was credited with majorly influencing Heath’s highly free market manifesto that year, and Harold Wilson quipped about the rise of “Selsdon Man.” In vain, it turned out – against all expectations, Heath won the election.
Heath’s manifesto was as radical, if not more so, than Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 manifesto (which was relatively tame, given what was to come) but his U-turn only two years into his premiership has gone down as one of the most shameful episodes in the party’s history. It also cost him the 1974 general election and extended the long, gangrenous, death of the socialist post-war consensus another five miserable years.
What lofty goals they had. Yet faced with an economic downturn and striking unions Heath, unlike Thatcher, retreated back to socialism. That was cowardly, but men without firm enough foundations and convictions can be forgiven cowardice. What is truly disgraceful about this government is that it has broken its promises and willingly embraced socialism simply as a “triangularisation” exercise to out-Labour Labour and convincingly win the 2020 general election.
Well, the rotten fruits of that endeavour are already starting to stink up the place, and are only likely to get worse with today’s Budget. The surprise “living wage” has already got Tesco, B&Q, and Whitbread (who run Costa Coffee, Premier Inn, Brewers Fayre) complaining they are having to slash recruitment, overtime and perks for their employees in order to keep up. With an £80bn black hole in the nation’s finances and a £50bn debt overshoot by 2020, the Conservatives’ claims to be fixing the roof while the sun was shining has been exposed as utter nonsense – which is particularly concerning when some are predicting the next big crash is just around the corner.
What does Osborne plan to do about this? Spend, spend, spend! Like Heath, he has reneged on his election rhetoric to set the market free and allow businesses to do the rest, opting instead to use the largesse of the state on vanity infrastructure projects such as a £6bn, 18 mile long, transpennine tunnel absolutely no-one has been clamouring for while, it is suspected, hammering businesses even harder in order to pay for it.
Writing in the Financial Times, Daily Politics favourite Janan Ganesh claims Osborne can only succeed the soon-to-be-departing prime minister by failing in his stated aim to balance the books, on the basis the pain he would mete out by staying true to his word would turn people off voting Conservative. Also facing a far-left and embattled Labour Party, however, this didn’t prove much of a hurdle for Margaret Thatcher.
But before Osborne can even think about moving next door into Number 10, Conservative Party members would have to vote him their leader. But I’ve always said the main difference between Labour and the Conservatives is that Tory members’ minds are changed by success, whereas Labourites’ aren’t. Margaret Thatcher – suspected and disliked for her radical ideas in 1979 – became the hero of the grassroots by 1990 after three general election victories, whereas Blair’s parallel success made him more hated than ever by 2007.
If the party’s remaining members reward Osborne’s abject failure with the golden crown, then the most successful political party of the twentieth century will be truly dead. Most likely, however, they will look back upon a half-won 2010 general election and a barely-won 2015 general election and conclude the self-described “heir to Blair” they treated with such suspicion proved to be just as disastrous to the country as his Labour forebears. On that day, expect Conservatives for Liberty to be shouting from the rooftops about the heir to Thatcher.