In the early 2000s, a rising star, one Theresa May, argued that the Tories were seen by some as ‘the Nasty Party’. Since then, the Tories have been constantly seeking to remove a perceived negativity about their motives and focus among parts of the electorate. DEFRA secretary Michael Gove’s conversion to a host of environmental measures, from soil erosion to banning pesticides, appears to have echoes of early Cameron as a way of changing voter perceptions. And this week May herself took charge of the 25-year environmental plan, which was previously rumoured to be a damp squib, but now blossomed policies forth, particularly around ‘avoidable’ plastic use.
The plan certainly helped move on from both the reshuffle kerfuffle and a separate row about ‘toxic Tories’ caused by appointing Toby Young, free school campaigner and journalist, to a university regulation watchdog. A host of Young’s ill-judged tweets were unearthed, including ogling and objectifying women and apparently belittling the difficulties faced by disabled students. Some Tories argued Young’s appointment was toxic to students and academics, while others argued his tongue in cheek views should not detract from his free school work and focus on disadvantaged children. Toby Young decided to resign and bring the row to an end, but not until after several days of heavily negative coverage, particularly in the Twittersphere.
In both areas, you feel that the Tories still don’t really know for who and why they are trying to detox. May’s zeal about an environmental agenda has a touch of desperation and is a mile away from her previous detoxification efforts, which primarily focused on social injustices and economic change through causes like fixing high executive pay and being seen as the party of the ‘just about managing’. So now outside high-profile green causes such as disposable coffee cups, how far are the Tories really prepared to push higher prices on just about managing consumers? On the Toby Young row, some Tories think having imperfect allies like Young in key posts is crucial, and that backing down, not allowing him to redeem himself in post, made them look even worse. Perhaps most of all there is also the view, that while a detox is nice, ultimately it is no substitute for the hard slog – or in this case, fixing key voter priorities like wage stagnation, the NHS crisis and Brexit.