What Birmingham means to today’s Tories
BIRMINGHAM was an obvious place for the Tories to hold their conference. The mayor of West Midlands, Andrew Street, is a Conservative. Birmingham city center is a much better location for conferences than Manchester (where the Tories held their conference last year) or Liverpool (where the Labor conference was held last week ). There are dozens of excellent restaurants and bars within walking distance.
But Birmingham also comes with a problem: it is a reminder of the disappointing hopes of the last election. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former co-chief of staff (with Fiona Hill) and chief policy adviser, is a Birmingham boy who thought his home town was the answer to his party being searching for a post-Brexit identity. David Cameron had coined “Notting Hill Conservatism” which was supposed to appeal to urban liberals who loved economic liberalism but worried that traditional conservatives were “evil”. Mr Timothy’s response was “Erdington Conservatism” (named after the area in Birmingham where he grew up) which was supposed to appeal to ordinary working class and middle class people who shared credit in traditional values and concerns about their economic future. Erdington’s conservatism broke with liberal conservatism by being willing to allow all kinds of policies to “restore control”: A great hero was Mr. Timothy Joe Chamberlain, former mayor of Birmingham who promote imperial choice.
The 2017 election was supposed to show the power of “Erdington Conservatism”. The party focused on winning over Brexit-voting working-class voters in the Midlands and North (the party even launched its infamous manifesto in Stoke). Theresa May said repeatedly that she wanted to use Brexit as a way to deal with the problems of direct management. But the result was debatable: the party failed to win enough seats in the Midlands and North to make up for the seat losses in the Remain areas.
The Birmingham Conference is reminiscent of one of the liveliest debates of the 2017 election debate. Was Erdington’s strategy tinged with austerity? It is difficult to deal with the problems of people who are just managing on a tight budget. Or was he frustrated by Mrs May’s poor performance? Hard to reach parts of the country are difficult to reach if you are shy and self-motivated. Or was he frustrated by the party’s failure to agree on a common strategy? Mr Timothy wanted a full-scale change election: the party needed to combine Brexit with a radical policy to tackle Britain’s deeper problems (such as the concentration of wealth in the south-east). Sir Lynton Crosby, the party’s head of elections, wanted it to be a continuity election. Theresa May represented strength and stability and Mr Corbyn represented a leap into the future. Another explanation is that you can’t help those who just govern if you’re desperately trying to control public spending – and if you’re worried that Brexit could destabilize the economy. But there is no doubt that Erdington Conservatism failed.
The Birmingham conference is also a reminder that the Erdington debate is still alive. The Brexit wing of the Tory Party still believes that the future of the Tory Party lies in expanding its support in the working class regions of the Midlands and North even if it means losing middle class sectors in the south. The Tory Party needs to redouble Tory values such as patriotism and social conservatism rather than apologia for the liberal elites. It also needs to install a vote-winning populist such as Boris Johnson rather than an election-shy entrant such as Theresa May. It is not only the anti-Brexit wing of the party who are worried that this will damage the election. He is also worried about being identified with a British version of Donald Trump’s Republican Party.