What Birmingham means to today’s Conservatives

What Birmingham means to today’s Conservatives


BIRMINGHAM was an obvious place for the Tories to hold their conference. The mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, is a Conservative. Central Birmingham is a far better place for conferences than Manchester (where the Tories had their conference last year) or Liverpool (where Labour had their conference last week). There are dozens of excellent restaurants and bars within walking distance.

But Birmingham also comes with a problem: it’s a reminder of the disappointed hopes of the last election. Nick Timothy, formerly Theresa May’s co-chief of staff (along with Fiona Hill) and chief policy adviser, is a Birmingham boy who thought that the answer to his party’s pursuit of a post-Brexit identity lay in his home town. David Cameron had concocted “Notting Hill Conservatism” that was supposed to appeal to urban liberals who liked economic liberalism but worried that traditional conservatives were “nasty”. Mr Timothy’s response was “Erdington conservatism” (named after the district in Birmingham where he grew up) which was supposed to appeal to regular working-class and middle-class people who combined a belief in traditional values with worries about their economic future. Erdington conservatism broke with liberal conservatism in being willing to sanction all sorts of policies to “take back control”: Mr Timothy’s great hero was Joe Chamberlain, a former mayor of Birmingham who championed imperial preference.

The 2017 election was supposed to demonstrate the power of “Erdington Conservatism”. The party focused on winning over Brexit-voting working-class voters in the Midlands and the North (the party even launched its ill-fated manifesto in Stoke). Theresa May repeatedly claimed that she wanted to use Brexit as a way of addressing the problems of the just-about-managing. But the result was a debacle: the party failed to win enough seats in the Midlands and the North to make up for its loss of seats in Remain areas.

The Birmingham Conference is a reminder of one of the liveliest debates about the 2017 election debacle. Was the Erdington strategy doomed by austerity? It’s hard to address the problems of the just-about-managing on a tight budget. Or was it doomed by Mrs May’s poor performance? It’s hard to reach hard-to-reach parts of the country if you’re shy and self-effacing. Or was it doomed by the party’s failure to agree on a common strategy? Mr Timothy wanted a full-scale change election: the party needed to link Brexit with a radical policy of addressing Britain’s deeper problems (such as the concentration of wealth in the south-east). Sir Lynton Crosby, the party’s election chief, wanted it to be a continuity election. Theresa May represented strength and stability whereas Mr Corbyn represented a leap into the future. Another explanation is that you can’t help the just-about-managing if you’re desperately trying to control public expenditure—and if you’re worried that Brexit might destabilise 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 Tory Party’s future lies in extending its support in working-class regions in the Midlands and the North even if it means losing middle-class regions in the South. The Tory Party needs to double down on Tory values such as patriotism and social conservatism rather than apologising to the liberal elites. It also needs to field a vote-winning populist such as Boris Johnson rather than an election-shy introvert such as Theresa May. The anti-Brexit wing of the party not only worries that this will be electorally damaging. It also worries about being identified with a British version of Donald Trump’s Republican Party.

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