The Tories have just realised the party has an age problem

Rachel Cunliffe
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Conservatives failed to come up with anything useful for the under-30s (Source: Getty)

The Labour conference had an “Acid Corbynism” event and festival chants of “Ohh Jeremy Corbyn”.

What have the Tories had so far?

Amber Rudd, admitting she doesn’t understand encryption but wants to ban it anyway. Michael Gove, doing the headline writers’ jobs for them by talking about Brexit and pigs’ ears in the same sentence. Philip Hammond, shedding his “Spreadsheet Phil” reputation with a speech entirely devoid of substantive policy.

Read more: Here's what Boris Johnson had to say on markets, foreign policy, and Corbyn

Even Boris Johnson was a disappointment. After stealing the limelight by publishing his “red lines” for an EU deal the day before the conference, one might have hoped for some spark from a man clearly itching to get his hands on the steering wheel. Instead, the audience was treated to 30 minutes of waffle.

Like Hammond the day before, the foreign secretary’s pitch to young voters was to describe the 1970s. “We have to win the battle for the future,” he entreated, while offering no powerful vision or even vague plan for that future.

Johnson’s speech is the epitome of the rest of the conference. Where there was policy, it has felt flat, cobbled together, and decidedly uninspiring. Mostly though, this has been about the panicked reminder that the party has a looming age problem. The average age of their members is 71.

Theresa May opened the conference with two policies ostensibly aimed at appealing to younger voters, both of which fail miserably.

As Ryan Bourne noted yesterday, pumping £10bn into the Help to Buy scheme is absurd. Giving people more money to buy homes without liberalising planning laws will just fuel demand while keeping demand static – a recipe for even steeper price hikes.

The bid to win over students and graduates is also a non-starter – and an expensive one.

I’ve written before about the outrageous levels of interest charged on students loans (currently 6.1 per cent, over 24 times the base rate). But with bold statements from Labour (however credible) about scrapping tuition fees and forgiving student debt entirely, the Conservative offer to slightly raise the income threshold of loan repayment doesn’t really compare.

It’s a giveaway that will cost taxpayers £2.3bn per year, but it won’t feel like much to students and graduates facing ballooning debt now.

These two policies point a radiant spotlight at the Tories’ complete inability to come up with anything useful for the under-30s – of whom less than 22 per cent voted Conservative in June.

It is no coincidence that, while headline speakers have addressed half-empty halls, a fringe event by the think tank Bright Blue entitled “How to attract younger voters” was standing room only.

The answer is obvious: build more houses so young people can afford to live, reform state pensions and social care so workers are not paying for the indulgences of richer older generations, and accept and embrace social liberalism.

The first two are logistical and political nightmares, giant government projects that will take years to properly enact. But becoming more socially liberal costs nothing, and could go a long way to broadcasting that this party is not stuck in the past.

That’s not to say it won’t be a challenge. One of the favourite prospects for the leadership is traditional Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg, the backbench father of six who has never changed a nappy and who made headlines last month for declaring his opposition to gay marriage and abortion in all instances.

Rees-Mogg has a fanclub, including a new grassroots pressure group, whose leader has criticised CCHQ’s preference for “politically correct candidates to tick boxes”, and called for a return to “candidates actually being Conservatives”.

One Tory superstar who, at a guess, might not be considered to meet this criteria is “lesbian kickboxer” Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. But Davidson is exactly the kind of forward-looking Tory the party needs.

The fact that she effectively single-handedly rebuilt the Conservative party in Scotland shows Davidson’s ability to appeal to people outside the traditional Tory mould. But as well as being able to communicate and connect, Davidson is proof that you can believe in personal responsibility and the role of the individual over the state without adopting traditional views of gender and sexuality.

This is the woman who took to the airwaves immediately after May announced a deal with the deeply religious DUP, promising she would not let the party become more socially conservative.

At her panel event, she won cheers for telling the Tory party to “man up a bit” and joking about DUP leader Arlene Foster not wanting to share a bed with her. She was also one of the most compelling Tory voices of the Remain campaign.

Rees-Mogg and Davidson offer mirror images of the party’s future: old-fashioned social conservatism, or a liberal, globalist outlook that appeals to aspiring young people and offers new ideas for confronting twenty-first century challenges.

As long as these two visions are in tension, we will be left in the middle with the decidedly uninspiring May and co., pumping money into economically disastrous causes to cling to current supporters, and failing spectacularly to appeal to anyone under 71.

Read more: Tuition fees and homes: The two ways Theresa May's wooing young voters

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