It isn’t as if this is unusual behaviour. The Conservative Party has gone missing before, staying out long past its curfew before dragging itself home days later in a sorry state. This time, though, it looks like it might run away for good.
Theresa May’s premiership began with a repudiation of David Cameron’s legacy, both in rhetoric and personnel. She chucked out most of his cabinet, and told the UK’s biggest commercial interests they were harbouring “citizens of nowhere”.
Cameron’s project was dressed in social liberalism, on issues like the environment and gay marriage, but on welfare and education reform, and crucially in fiscal policy, it was faithful to core conservative values.
May borrowed the outfit with her talk of solving burning injustices, but the shop mannequin that filled it was carried out to skip in the alley.
In its place, we were promised a revival of reforming liberal conservatism in the mould of Joseph Chamberlain, delivered by May’s top adviser Nick Timothy.
It always seemed unlikely, against the economic and political backdrop of Brexit, and after the 2017 election, those ambitions left Downing Street with Timothy.
Even though I’m writing this before the final two candidates for the Tory leadership are confirmed, we know the next Prime Minister is going to be someone who, if necessary, is willing to take the UK out of the EU without a Brexit deal, despite the risk that poses to the Union and the economy.
We also know the next Prime Minister is likely to pursue deep tax cuts. Boris Johnson, the prohibitive favourite to step into 10 Downing Street in a month’s time, says it’s his “ambition” to cut tax for higher earners on between £50,000 and £80,000.
He has also explicitly rejected the appeal from the current Chancellor to keep to the current policy of continuing to reduce the deficit.
Other than Rory Stewart, every candidate has stood on a platform of both offering tax giveaways and promising to turn on the spending taps, calculating that the disaffection expressed in votes since 2016 can be blamed on austerity, and at least partially fixable with cash.
They are probably right. But it isn’t particularly conservative – and Brexit can be called many things, but it certainly isn’t a One Nation pursuit.
Privately, many of Johnson’s supporters admit that they’ve been driven to him out of fear of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. They ask for him to be given a chance to govern. He listens to advice, they say, and has the personality to hold his party and the country together. They’re probably going to get the chance to test those pleadings out.
Anyway, are there even any small-c conservatives left out there? Are they voting for the Brexit Party or the Tories – and which of the two requires them to hold their noses tighter? It isn’t clear. When even George Osborne as editor of the London Evening Standard is willing to back Johnson, as he did yesterday, you have to question whether the traditional framing of conservatism works anymore.
But given the country is probably going to get a Tory Prime Minister reported to have said “f*** business” in response to the concerns of the UK’s biggest employers and taxpayers, whoever and wherever they are, those sorts of conservatives can’t be under the illusion that their values are setting the political agenda.
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats made it easy to argue that the centre-left has been hollowed out; since the European elections it looks more like the centre-right has gone missing, lured away by the thrill of nationalism.
Analysis of the European election results shows the Conservatives have as much, if not more to fear from the Liberal Democrats than the Brexit Party. The Lib Dems have a party machinery and a base across the south of England to build on, while parties led by Nigel Farage have won just one Westminster seat in general elections.
Whoever it is that leads the Tories back home again, they may find that the electorate has changed the locks.