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Andrew Grice: May has an image problem
December 30, 2017
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When Conservative-supporting students at Kent University spoke about the youthquake in June which saw their Canterbury seat go Labour for the first time, they admitted their members found it easier to come out as gay than as Tory.

Theresa May’s party has an image problem, especially among under-45s. Ironically, it falls to her to cure what she memorably diagnosed as Tory chairman in 2002: it is again seen as the “nasty party”. Allies insist May is the “original moderniser” who got there before David Cameron. But after foolishly tearing up the Cameron-Osborne playbook when she became Prime Minister, May now turns to it to engage the voters her party needs – not just to have a chance of winning the next election, but to have a future, as its older supporters literally die out.

The environment has shot up the Government’s agenda. As opposition leader, Cameron hugged a husky in the Arctic and said: “Vote blue, go green.” Now May plans a crackdown on puppy farms. Michael Gove, the hyper-active Environment Secretary, has announced a blitz of measures – a ban on pesticides that harm bees; a war on plastic waste; stronger animal rights after Brexit and an independent green watchdog. He has won genuine plaudits from stunned environmentalists.

The scale of the Tories’ challenge was shown in YouGov polling last autumn for the liberal Conservative group Bright Blue. It found that even people who voted Tory in June didn’t really like the party much. It tested their views on issues including climate change, animal welfare, the private rented sector and LGBT rights. “Even among its own voters who are aged under 40, the Conservative Party’s policies are viewed unfavourably,” Bright Blue concluded. “This suggests that the negative perception of Conservative Party policies in these areas is not the result of simply of a tribal dislike of the party.” There was also a widespread lack of awareness of Tory policies on such issues. The top three policies that would make under-40s proud of voting for a party were all on the environment. Sam Hall, senior research fellow at Bright Blue, said: “One of the main reasons the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority in 2017 was their failure to appeal to the younger, socially liberal voters of metropolitan Britain. It’s very welcome the Government now recognises the political opportunity of going green.”

The Tories’ private polling tells a similar story. MPs called to briefings at Downing Street were told that the party is “not caring enough”. May seems to have got the message; the Government has announced some policies to address its weaknesses. They include raising the salary threshold at which graduates start repaying their student loans; helping Generation Rent (a little) by tackling bad landlords; a domestic ban on the sale of ivory products; and dropping plans for a free vote on fox hunting.

There’s a lot more to be done – notably on housing. The Budget decision to scrap stamp duty for first-time buyers won’t result in more houses being built, and, like the extra the Help to Buy guarantees, is “more of the same”. Rather than leave it all to Gove, May herself needs to do something big on the green agenda, with which she has never been associated. A long list of micro-policies might look good on paper but will not shift large numbers of under-45s into the Tory column. Big, symbolic moves are needed to make them sit up and take notice – notably on housebuilding. But does the Government have the capacity while Brexit is all-consuming?

An impressive generation of 103 new Tory MPs elected in 2015 and 2017 is fizzing with policy ideas and May should bottle them. The optimists among them insist that Brexit offers an opportunity to renew the party in 2018.

But Brexit is also a threat. Some 71 per cent of 18-24 year olds and 54 per cent of 25-49 year olds voted Remain in the referendum, according to YouGov. Bright Blue found that Remain-supporting under-40s “have an even more negative perception of Conservative Party policies than the general under-40s cohort”. Remain voters are more socially liberal than the wider under-40 population on issues such as immigration and gay rights. Although the polling did not cover Brexit options, it’s a fair bet that under-40s would prefer soft to hard Brexit; May should take note.

While some of the Tories’ young guns insist the renewal project can win back many who rejected the party in June, others fear they will be unable to shake off their image as “the party of Brexit”. That could mean losing forever an unforgiving generation of under-45s, posing an existential threat to the party. As one Tory MP put it: “Renewal could make us, but Brexit could break us.”

The Independent

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