Cameron needs to worry about the Tories' Tea Party tendency

The drift of some Tory MPs into a moralising absolutism is as big a threat as Ukip to the party's election chances.

There has been a fair amount of commentary around today about Lord Ashcroft’s latest jumbo opinion poll. The Tory peer's particular area of interest on this occasion is the views of people who vote Ukip or consider doing so. The top line conclusion – literally the headline that Ashcroft puts on his blog – is that hatred of the European Union is not the chief driver of support for Nigel Farage’s party. Crime and immigration are much bigger factors.

That confirms previous findings as does the excavation of data to show that it isn’t just Tory voters defecting to Ukip. The party is peeling away support from Labour and the Lib Dems too, although not at the same rate as it secures Tory defectors. (The Times led this morning with its own poll showing a Ukip surge eating into David Cameron’s base.)

There is a lot to digest in the report but one point leaps out. Ukip supporters know theirs is a protest vote, in the sense that they want to send an explicit signal of anger to Westminster mainstream parties. They believe Farage says things that no-one else has the courage to say about the decline, decay and corruption of British life. Voting Ukip, in other words, is to some extent a qualitatively different kind of electoral participation to voting for Labour, the Lib Dems or Tories. It is an act of ballot box rage, not necessarily a granting of permission to govern. Ashcroft summarises some of his focus group responses as follows:

“They are pessimistic, even fearful, and they want someone and something to blame. They do not think mainstream politicians are willing or able to keep their promises or change things for the better. UKIP, with its single unifying theory of what is wrong and how to put it right, has obvious attractions for them …

[They are] part of a greater dissatisfaction with the way they see things going in Britain: schools, they say, can’t hold nativity plays or harvest festivals any more; you can’t fly a flag of St George any more; you can’t call Christmas Christmas any more; you won’t be promoted in the police force unless you’re from a minority; you can’t wear an England shirt on the bus; you won’t get social housing unless you’re an immigrant; you can’t speak up about these things because you’ll be called a racist; you can’t even smack your children.”

The list of complaints will be familiar to anyone who has ever spoke to BNP voters. It is a mix of misconstrued and exaggerated claims about “political correctness gone mad” with quite paranoid delusions. (Where can you not fly a George Cross, for goodness sake? During a major football tournament is hard to avoid one.) There is also a whiff of hostility to the idea of an arrogant do-gooder government meddling in people’s life, expressed in Ashcroft’s list as a frustrated urge to smack children.

I have come across the same sentiment when speaking to former Labour voters who backed the BNP in 2010 with regard to the smoking ban. It wasn’t a big electoral issue in Westminster but it plainly got right on the nerves of some people who thought depriving them of a fag in the pub was adding insult to the wider injury of  opening the floodgates of immigration and handing out council houses to foreigners. Ukip has found a special niche in the British political market place for a far right party that looks respectable.

These anti-politics, anti-government ideas are becoming quite deeply embedded in parts of British society. It is worth pointing out that, while Ukip is clearly causing the most anxiety for the Tories at the moment, a cultural phenomenon that sees government as pernicious and politics as an expression of arrogance and venality is bad news for the left.

Ed Miliband is finding it hard enough persuading people to trust Labour with their money when so many think the party splurged it all the last time they were in power. That task is not going to be made easier when people also think any government by a mainstream party will make self-serving choices and can’t be trusted. Conservatives have at least developed a way of speaking to the public that concedes the basic point that state action is more likely to be pernicious than helpful. Labour has to rehabilitate the whole idea of government intervention before it can sell itself as the most desirable interveners on the shelf.

There is every chance that a lot of those voters currently saying they support Ukip will drift back to a mainstream party for a general election. In that case, it is a reasonable assumption that of those returning to more established political homes, a majority will go to the Tories. Combine that with some trickle back from Labour to the Lib Dems (as is not impossible if the economy picks up a bit and memories of old tuition fee perfidy fade) and Ed Miliband’s lead looks quite vulnerable.

It is also quite possible that there is now a permanent fracture between those who think politics is a creditable pursuit practiced by established professionals and those who think it is all villainy. The emergence of an anti-Westminster cult – a new political hierarchy that puts moral distance from the capital at its apex – is strongly reminiscent of the American Tea Party movement with its histrionic abhorrence of Washington elites (and its tendency to conjure up fictional conspiracy against the mainstream white Christian culture).

The Tories would be well advised to consider the comparison. Lib Dems already like to deride a “Tea Party” element on Cameron’s back benches. It has been out in force in recent weeks during debates over Europe and gay marriage. There lies the greater long-term threat to Conservative election chances. Defection of Conservative supporters to Ukip is plainly a problem for the Prime Minister, although many can be won back once they have given Brussels a kicking in 2014 elections to the European parliament. As big a danger is the drift of some Tory MPs into a moralising absolutism. They brook no compromise and eye with unhidden envy Ukip's basking in anti-politics outrage. It isn’t just the angry voters Cameron needs to worry about, it is the Tea Party tendency that the anger brings out in his own party.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on December 19, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder