What would Utley say? (JUSTIN TALLIS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

January 1, 2024   10 mins

In early 1960, fresh from another Conservative victory and almost a decade of Tory rule, T.E. Utley wondered what it all was for. “The Tories have shown they can win General Elections,” he wrote. “[But] have they still got a philosophy of government?” Utley’s answer, of course, was no — and they would be kicked from power at the next election

At the start of the year, Sunak set out what was supposed to be his response to this same question. The point of his government, he said, was to concentrate on “the people’s priorities”. And these, he claimed, were rising prices, NHS waiting times and illegal immigration. To show his seriousness, he then offered five pledges upon which he could be judged. He would halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce the national debt, cut waiting lists and pass new laws to stop the small boat crossings. “I will only promise what I can deliver,” he concluded in what was supposed to be a rousing peroration. “And I will deliver what I promise.” Here was Sunakian Blairism, where what matters is what works.

A year on, his record is decidedly mixed. His inflation target has been met and the economy has grown, albeit only just. But debt has also grown, waiting lists are up, and no new laws have been passed to stop the small boat crossings, even if the numbers have somewhat come down. If we really are supposed to judge him by results, he’s kept only two of five promises.

The thing is, though, this is not how government should work. Targets are not ends in themselves, but indications of underlying principles. Halving the rate of inflation isn’t the goal; the goal is to create a stable environment in which people can plan their lives.

Beyond Sunak’s five targets, do we have any idea what principles underpin his government, let alone his Conservative Party? Do we know what kind of country they would like to build and why? Again, as in 1960, the answer is surely no.

When you look back at Sunak’s time in power, what is striking is how much he has bounced from one idea to the next. When he first became Prime Minister, in October 2022, he presented himself as a safe pair of hands who would clean up the mess made by his predecessor. By October 2023, he was presenting himself as a radical who represented a break from a failed 30-year consensus. And then he hired David Cameron as his foreign secretary.

Looking back at his record, there are three distinct periods of Sunak’s premiership: the technocratic honeymoon; the political reality check; and the desperate reset. From January to April, Sunak operated with the breezy confidence of a technocratic troubleshooter. After setting out his five tests on January 4, he started scraping off all the unwanted political barnacles he believed were making it harder for his government to function. First, Sunak blocked Nicola Sturgeon’s gender recognition reforms, flashing a bit of unionist muscle with a confidence that put the SNP in a position from which it has yet to really escape. Then, in February, Sunak concluded a deal with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Here was a man in a hurry. By March, this new “Windsor Framework” was comfortably backed in the House of Commons by 515 votes to 29. Sunak was on a roll.

And then reality kicked in.

Over the next four months, from May to August, Sunak’s smooth technocratic sheen started to blister under the relentless pressure of events. First, in the local elections in May, the Tories lost more than 1,000 seats, registering an estimated 26% of the national vote, only a little better than their worst ever local election results in 1995 and 2013. Labour’s 35%, meanwhile, left them nine points ahead of the Tories, the largest lead that the party had recorded in any local election since 2010.

Then, in June, Partygate reared its head once again, with Boris Johnson suddenly announcing he would quit parliament rather than accept the Privileges Committee’s conclusion that he should be suspended for 90 days. Later that month, the Court of Appeal threw out the Government’s policy of sending refugees to Rwanda for processing, declaring the country unsafe. And then, in August, the “crumbly concrete” scandal broke when the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan revealed at least 100 schools would need to close because they were no longer safe. A few days later, Keegan was filmed angrily asking why journalists did not tell her she’s done “a fucking good job” because “everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?”

By September, the Tories had fallen back in the polls to almost exactly where they were at the start of the year, hovering at around 25% to Labour’s 45%. The truth is, while inflation was on its way down, prices were still rising dramatically and interest rates were being jacked up to deal with it. One way of looking at 2023 is through the prism of individual events, but another is to look at the structural current dragging the Government across the rocks. The basic reality for most people in 2023 was that they were quite obviously getting poorer while their services were getting worse. On top of all this, the Government seemed unable to deal with the growing problem of industrial unrest with strikes hitting transport, schools and even hospitals.

Elsewhere, a new threat was beginning to emerge on the Right, as Reform steadily grew in the polls. It is at this point that we can see the third phase of Sunak’s troubled year begin: the desperate reset.

As summer’s glow faded, Sunak began to show a far sharper political edge than before in an attempt to create dividing lines with Labour and kill off the threat from Reform. First, in September, he watered down some of the Net Zero commitments made by his predecessors, putting himself on the side of the motorist and, as he would have it, “good Conservative common sense”. Then, in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October, he went further, scrapping the northern leg of HS2, connecting Birmingham to Manchester, in order to save billions in public spending he could then start diverting around the country before the next election. Alongside Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement in November, cutting taxes with future spending cuts, the Tory election strategy began to become clear: Vote Tory to stop Labour tax rises. In other words: Sunak was preparing for the classic Tory election.

What was more unusual — or eccentric, even — about Sunak’s conference speech in Manchester, though, was that in setting up this tediously traditional dividing line, he claimed he was upending decades of political wisdom. “What I have learnt is that there is an undeniable sense that politics just doesn’t work the way it should,” he declared. “The feeling that Westminster is a broken system… In particular, politicians saying things, and then nothing ever changing.” Sunak then declared that he agreed with this assessment. “Politics doesn’t work the way it should. We’ve had 30 years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one.” He, however, was different.

Sunak’s assessment was revealing. By using this marker, he was dismissing the premierships of not only John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but also those of David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Theresa May and Liz Truss in which he had served. In effect, Sunak was declaring the last successful prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He was, he claimed, her heir. “You either think this country needs to change or you don’t,” he declared with an apparently straight face.

The problem for Sunak is that he couldn’t look more like the system if he tried. There’s nothing radical about him, whether ideologically, stylistically or temperamentally. He went to Winchester, became a banker and then Boris Johnson’s chancellor. He believes in the system and shares its prejudices. He became prime minister when the Conservative Parliamentary Party decided it needed to throw out the Tory members’ choice, Liz Truss, because she couldn’t do the job. In both his first speech as Prime Minister and his set-piece address setting out his five pledges, Sunak claimed to be carrying the same ideological flame as Boris Johnson, only with more competence. “The mandate my party earned in 2019 is not the sole property of any one individual,” Sunak declared. “It is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us.” When he then decided to keep Johnson’s Rwanda refugee plan, Sunak further tied himself to Johnson’s record. And yet, here he was at the Conservative Party conference, no longer pledging to honour the manifesto of his predecessor, but declaring him part of an era of failure.

Ultimately, it is difficult to take seriously either Sunak’s claim that he is an anti-establishment radical or that he is different from all his predecessors in placing more value on “long-term” decisions than short term gimmicks. All governments must combine principle and expediency, but in his short time in power, Sunak seems to have grown ever more attracted to expediency. In September, he announced he would ban the XL Bully breed of dogs before working out exactly how he would do so. In November, he cancelled a meeting with the Greek PM at the last minute because his opposite number said he wanted the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece. And then in December, he forced ministers to suddenly come up with a new high salary threshold for migrants to be allowed to come to Britain without working out what exactly this would mean for the economy. Far from the calm, confident technocrat of January, here was a Prime Minister thrashing around to get some kind of traction with the public — and with little success. As 2023 draws to a close, Sunak is more unpopular than he was at the beginning, and with the Tories on 22% in the polls, close to the nadir the Tory party reached under Truss.

If there is any hope for Sunak, it lies in the unpopularity of Keir Starmer, an improving economic picture and the fact that his own party just about kept itself together at its the moment of greatest crisis earlier this month — when it faced a choice between defeating the government over Sunak’s latest Rwanda plan or allowing it to die another day. The problem, though, remains the one that Utley put his finger on in 1960: what is the government’s purpose?

Throughout Utley’s career, he prodded and probed at this most elemental of questions about the purpose of Toryism. In 1974, he wrote a piece titled “Left, Right — or simply Tory?” in which he took aim at the inadequacy of the Conservative Party simply declaring itself the party of common sense, as Sunak did in his party conference speech. “On the rare and painful occasions when the Tory party feels constrained to re-examine its role in British politics,” Utley observed, “it normally starts its thinking with the assumption that, whatever other characteristics it should have, it should above all else be a party of ‘balance’ and ‘moderation’.”

Often, this means the party finds itself so desperate to avoid handing over any power to what it sees as its own “lunatic fringe” that it becomes captured by its “cliché ridden progressive wing” which is most obsessed with this notion of balance yet has few answers about the purpose of its rule. But, as Utley saw, Toryism needs to be about more than just moderating between other people’s ideologies — socialism and liberalism, say. And nor can it simply be about conserving the status quo, because that status quo could be wrong. This, though, is exactly where the Tory party finds itself once again, so desperate to avoid handing power to the various groups of lunatics that have formed on its Right that it has stopped thinking about what it actually believes.

In 1974, Utley suggested a series of maxims that made up authentic Toryism. On top of securing the nation against foreign attack and maintaining public order at home, he argued that the chief function of government was to use its influence and power to “maintain that minimum of cultural and moral unity within society without which a nation can be held together only by political tyranny”. Toryism, in other words, was neither liberalism nor libertarianism. It does not believe in a neutral state, but one that fosters a sense of common purpose, habit, custom, duty and morality. As part of this job, Utley wrote, Toryism also believes the State is “justified in intervening to protect sections of the community whose protection is seen to be a matter of special importance to the nation as a whole”. Finally, Utley argued that of all the groups which the State exists to protect, “none is of more fundamental importance than the family”. And to protect the family, the State needed to defend and — crucially — expand property ownership.

Looking at the record of the past 13 years of Conservative rule and it is hard to think of it as in any way particularly Tory. Almost nothing has been done to promote a sense of national unity across the whole of the UK. A trade border has been erected within the country and trade deals are signed that seem to actively put British producers at a disadvantage. Foreign governments are invited in to build core national infrastructure or run once-nationalised industries. Home ownership has collapsed and families are having fewer and fewer children in part because of the necessity for both parents to work full-time to afford the basics of life. State subsidies for childcare only apply to nurseries and other official settings and do nothing to help parents or grandparents look after their own children. And, uniquely in Europe, the tax system does not see family units, only individual workers.

Sunak has shown some signs of an instinctive Toryism with his ideas about banning social media for the young, but there is little evidence of a wider, coherent Tory vision of what his government is trying to do. On the whole, Conservative governments now seem to treat everything as economic. People must be made more healthy — to grow the economy. Mothers and the retired must return to work — to grow the economy. And immigration must increase — to grow the economy.

While there is a good deal of lunacy on the Tory Right, it is also the case that there is more intellectual energy coming on the fringes of the party than around Sunak, Cameron and the old Left. The New Conservatives, for example, today offer a more authentic Utleyite Torysim on questions of immigration and the family than the party’s liberal wing, which claims to want to reduce immigration but baulks at the economic price of doing so. Miriam Cates, though now under investigation for apparently bringing Parliament into disrepute, is not anachronistic in her concern about the falling birth rate in Britain — this is now a distinctly modern problem affecting not only this country, but almost all Western democracies. How to deal with the new reality of low birth rates, low growth and mass immigration will, in fact, be one of the central questions facing all Western economies over the coming decades.

Most important of all is Utley’s central contention that Tory governments must endeavour to create a sense of national unity and harmony. How will Britain do this in what is now a multinational, multicultural state in a globalised world? The economist Dani Rodrik has argued that in today’s world a trilemma has emerged which cannot be escaped, in which countries must choose between democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration because it is impossible to have all three at the same time. The more you integrate your economy into the world, the less democratic sovereignty you will have over the material interests of your citizens. But the less you integrate into the global economy, the less efficient your economy will be, leaving your citizens poorer.

In some sense, Brexit is Britain’s answer to this trilemma, choosing sovereignty over integration. But, as we have seen, the trilemma does not go away, only emerges in different forms. What will be the Tory answer to these 21st-century dilemmas? The Tories have shown they can win General Elections: have they still got a philosophy of government? Right now, the answer is no.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.