Brexit is in the process of re-defining longstanding assumptions about British politics. Party loyalties are being tested to the extreme and parliamentarians are splintering off into their own groups. Meanwhile, at the head of the two main parties stand two people who appear to possess none of the conventional skills associated with effective leadership.
Political scientist Fred I Greenstein described leadership as having proficiency as a public communicator; organisational capacity; political skill and vision; cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.
For the Conservatives, the inability to deliver Brexit at the expected time has terminally harmed Theresa May’s leadership. She remains in charge through sheer determination, yet her credibility has been entirely lost. Indeed, such is the extent of the discontent that an unofficial leadership election is already underway, with Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab looking like the most favourable candidates to Conservative party members.
Broadly speaking, some Conservatives hope that removing May as leader will remedy the current crisis harming the party. However, this will only be possible if the problems affecting May’s leadership are resolved by her removal. The Tories need to resolve the Brexit question in a way that maintains the base.
A further issue adding to the party’s problems are the overtures being made by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party towards its core voter. Unless the Conservatives act, it is possible that they may lose vital activists needed to campaign for the party locally and nationally. May’s departure and the installation of a new leader who can deliver Brexit and appeal to the membership will be the first step in that process.
Then the Conservatives need to reconnect intellectually with what it means to be a conservative in the 21st century. The core elements of conservatism can be summarised as free enterprise, freedom for the individual, low tax, and social liberalism, which has part of former leader David Cameron’s modernisation agenda. Any renewal strategy needs to frame these four principles in an electorally appealing way. To do that the Conservatives need to justify why they are important, and explain how they can improve the quality of life for the population.
The Conservatives will also need to explain what they are – for example free enterprise can be presented as small businesses; freedom of the individual is the right to free speech and the right to make personal decisions without intervention from the state; and low tax aims to reduce the tax burden on the individual, thereby increasing their personal capital and autonomy.
Rhetorically, it is vital that these are relatable to a voter currently being courted by non-conservative ideas. Margaret Thatcher approached this by referring to “her people” and by showing that she believed in aspiration, self-improvement, and freedom. In modern Britain, significant parts of the electorate aspire to home ownership, job security and freedom of choice. The issue for the Conservatives is finding a leader who can credibly reflect those aspirations while simultaneously appealing to the core supporter.
At present, Brexit is dominating the narrative, and any new leader is likely to be selected on the basis of their attitude to the EU. However the Conservative Party will need to look beyond Brexit to see what kind of party it wants to be. To do that, it needs to remember what it means to be a conservative. Until May steps down and the new leader is in place, the Conservatives will be unable to do so – thereby increasing the prospect of a Corbyn-led government.