Conservatives risk becoming ‘party of nostalgic nationalists’
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Conservatives risk becoming ‘party of nostalgic nationalists’

The Conservatives risk becoming “a rump party of nostalgic nationalists”, senior ministers have said after Labour announced a package of interventionist policies aimed at middle England.

Some ministers said they feared the party’s annual conference in Birmingham this week could be defined by infighting over Brexit, with little else to say to the country. “We’ve been told it’s about ‘getting through’ conference,” one senior source said.

However, there is no consensus among senior Tories about how the party should counter Labour’s offering. The business minister, Sam Gyimah, said the Conservatives had to emphasise their belief in the alternative to Corbyn’s policies by being more vocally pro-business, while a select committee chair, Robert Halfon, said the Tories must set out their own social justice agenda.

The chancellor, Philip Hammond, is thought to be unlikely to approve any significant further spending, though ministers such as the home secretary, Sajid Javid, and the communities secretary, James Brokenshire, are tipped to make announcements. Theresa May’s speech is set to focus on immigration.

Labour announced a slew of policies at its conference in Liverpool aimed at broadening the party’s appeal. They included shares for workers, regenerating the high street and spending on childcare, housing and green jobs.

After Corbyn’s speech, the party released a political broadcast targeted at leave-voting towns, highlighting social issues such as insecure work and failing transport systems and featuring seats Labour would need to win in order to secure a majority in a general election, including Mansfield and Hastings.

The film, made by the award-winning director Simon Baker, said the party was listening to left-behind voters who had been “sold short” by the political and economic system.

The chief secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, said the Tories had underestimated how slick Labour’s campaigning had become.

Asked by a Tory student at the Reform Scotland thinktank whether she had seen the Labour broadcast, Truss described it as “very good” and “a serious threat” to the party.

“That video does capture the heart of where we need to be as a party,” she said. “So we need to be talking about how people’s lives are getting better.”

Gyimah said May must restate the party’s mission and purpose. “We can’t out-Corbyn Corbyn, and if we try we risk offering a pale imitation that leaves people yearning for the real thing,” he wrote in an article for the House magazine.

The business minister said he expected a full-throated endorsement of capitalism and enterprise or the party would look like a limp version of the opposition.

“When I look at how we on the centre-right have reacted to the perceived failing of capitalism, I can’t help thinking we have lost our way,” he wrote.

Gyimah said the party was “confused about how to handle business” saying it swung between “Trumpian economic nationalism” and reaching for “the old playbook, implying that if we simply deregulate and cut taxes, all will be fine,” a coded warning to some Conservative colleagues over the party’s Brexit strategy.

“Whichever side you are on in the Brexit debate, we need to realise that if we are not the party of business then we are nothing,” he said. “So we need to find our way, and quickly.”

Halfon, a former deputy chair of the party, said the Labour conference had offered “serious stuff … that may resonate with millions of workers”.

Writing for ConservativeHome, Halfon said Corbyn’s diagnosis of the problems with homelessness, failing railways, poor services from utilities and failing high streets resonated with huge swathes of the public.

“They are speaking to the problems faced by many. We too often speak only for the few,” Halfon said. “I am not urging more socialism on our country, far from it. I just want a conservatism that answers these things.

“I just hope that next week’s Tory conference sets in train conservatism for the future – a vision that deals as much with social capital as economic capital, and gets to grip with the burning injustices that the prime minister pledged to tackle when first on the steps of Downing Street.”

George Freeman, the former chair of the prime minister’s policy board, said: “This is a 1975, 1945, 1905 moment: when the underlying rules of our system of political economy profoundly change.

“A new generation of aspirational professional voters under 45 are rejecting the old model. Unless the Conservative party reconnects with them, we risk becoming a rump party of nostalgic nationalists,” he told the House magazine.

Freeman, the founder of the 2020 group of Conservative MPs who publish ideas for the party’s future, said the party could not rely on “breathless government announcements … as out-of-date as New Labour spin and husky-hugging”.

Before the conference, May announced a £1.7bn fund to overhaul transport links between suburbs and city centres, a policy that could appeal to small-town voters disgruntled by creaking infrastructure and the amount of money spent on transport in the capital.

Local authorities, including Derby and Nottingham, Leicester City, Norwich, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and West Yorkshire, will bid for a share of the funding, which could include new bus routes or docking stations for electric bikes.

May said the proposals would “help spread growth beyond London and empower local businesses to create more, better-paying jobs”.

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