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27 July 2022

What Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are getting wrong about Brexit

Editor's Note: In their race to the right, the Conservative leadership candidates are misreading the times.

By Jason Cowley

The Conservative Party has one purpose above all others: to win and hold power, at which it excels. Most Tories are shape-shifters and Boris Johnson was a particularly dangerous opponent for liberals and the left because he didn’t really believe in anything. He was non-ideological, flexible and, though he promised to “level up” and “get Brexit done”, he had no governing mission. So long as he was at the centre of the political drama, he was content to raise taxes and expand the role of the state.

Those competing to succeed him are, in one sense, running against his legacy. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are both self-styled Thatcherites. They ultimately want to reduce taxes, limit the role of government, roll back the state, and embrace the opportunities presented by Brexit, as they see them. But the ideas and policies associated with “Thatcherism” were a response to a particular historical moment as the postwar social democratic settlement unravelled; over time they hardened into a universal belief system, neoliberalism.

Sunak and Truss seem to have learnt the wrong lessons from Brexit, which for many was an expression of mass disaffection. In his book The Future of Capitalism, Paul Collier likens the vote for Brexit to a mutiny driven by social divergences. “Think of the most famous mutiny: on HMS Bounty in 1789,” he said to me in 2018. “What happened to those sailors was that they ended up on an island in the middle of nowhere. That wasn’t their objective when they mutinied. They didn’t mutiny with a view to the future but because the conditions they were living in had become intolerable. Mutinies are angry reactions to neglect.” In James Graham’s film Brexit: The Uncivil War, Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) speaks about people’s “wells of resentment, all these little pressures that have been building up, ignored over time”. He goes on: “We can make this about something more than Europe. Europe just becomes a symbol. A cipher. For everything. Every bad thing that is happening, has happened.”

Theresa May expressed similar sentiments when she became prime minister in July 2016 and identified seven “burning injustices” that were destabilising British society. No senior Tory speaks like this today; the moderate Europhiles have been banished and the communitarians are silent. In their race to the right, Sunak and Truss are seriously misreading the times; fearful about economic collapse, people are not looking for some neo-Thatcherite social revolution but to the state for protection and security. Whoever becomes prime minister will inherit a mess; the wells of resentment will be overflowing.

[See also: Thatchermania won’t save the Conservative Party]

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This item is from the Editor’s Note in the New Statesman’s Summer Special. It appears alongside Chris Pilcher: An inspirational teacher

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special