I recently went to an event organised by the Guardian and Soundings magazine. It turned out to be the first public meeting of a new support group called 'Thatcherites Anonymous' (TA). Three Tories and a member of a right-wing think tank gathered together to condemn 'corporate welfare' and 'global capital'; criticise the economic theory that people act rationally to maximise their profits; slam George Osborne's plans for council tax cuts; and call for higher wages for lower earners and a more equal distribution of wealth. I half expected the event to finish with the panelists leading us in a rousing rendition of the 'Red Flag'.
This is not to say that these words are likely to be backed with action. Jesse 'Nice but Dim' Norman, for example, called for 'power to be dispersed...this doesn't just mean state power, but also things like the power of the media'. Yet when asked whether that meant that David Cameron might try to disperse the power of, say, Rupert Murdoch, he started mumbling about how picking out specific examples was just a 'distraction'.
Ferdinand Mount used to work for Maggie Thatcher, but now sounds more like Alan Milburn or Nick Clegg in regurgitating the lowest common denominator prejudices of the political class that 'most problems can't be solved by more cash', but instead require reform of public services and 'localism'. He then went on to call for an end to post office closures, higher universal benefits instead of means-testing and for tax cuts for the poor. Or 'problems which can be solved only by more cash', to give them another name.
Representing the traditional, religious Conservatives, Philip Blond made the interesting and novel argument that the weakening of associative bodies such as the trade union movement was largely the fault of the Attlee government and 1960s librulses, and said that most lefties these days are libertarians for whom 'if their will is thwarted, that's fascism'. He called for the strengthening of intermediate associations against both state and individual.
Hearing these former Thatcherites, mugged by reality and scrambling to respond in their different ways to the current economic crisis, it is possible to imagine what a kind of New Conservatism would look like. Like Christian Conservatives such as Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee in the USA, it would champion 'traditional values' and 'traditional families', small businesses rather than big chain stores, be suspicious of globalisation and emphasise charity instead of state action. Anastasia de Waal from the right-wing think tank Civitas made the point that Conservative policy on promoting marriage is based more on faith than on fact (as, indeed, is their welfare reform policy, which Anastasia supports).
But when push comes to shove, and the interests of the small shopkeeper and local community conflict with the financiers and big business who bankroll the Tory Party, does anyone really believe that the New Conservatives will be on the side of the little guy or community against the likes of Tesco's or the City of London?
If so, there is going to be a really nasty faction fight in the Conservative Party between these New Conservatives and the remaining free market fundamentalists. If not, Philip Blond warned, the future promoted by the Conservatives will end up being a toxic combination of 'moralism and markets'. Either way, the future seems unlikely to belong to the conservatives.