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21 October 2022

The madness that has entered the Conservative soul started with Brexit

Liz Truss’s leadership was the product of a party that has become addicted to ideological fervour.

By Philip Collins

Liz Truss, it’s sad to say, was exactly the right leader for the Conservative Party during its 44 days of shame. A politician comes to lead a party when – and only when – they come to embody either its beliefs or its hopes and desires. For a long time, the Conservative Party was defined by a belief in administrative competence and a desire to win or retain power. Liz Truss would never have become its leader in those circumstances. But replace them with a test of ideological purity and she becomes a symbol of all that the party truly wants.

Now she has gone, the test will be replayed. If the Conservatives return the answer of Boris Johnson, we will know that they have truly given up.

Madness has entered the soul of this party and it all derives from Brexit. This is not to say that Brexit is itself a stupid assignment. People had their reasons and there is no point getting back into that. No, it was never Brexit itself that was unhinged but the preposterously exaggerated importance that senior Conservatives attributed to it. It was their fervour on the issue, not their opinion, that revealed something strange and uncontrollable was happening.

The argument about the economic impact of Brexit will go on eternally and it will never truly be settled. Money flows in an elusive way and it is hard to isolate the precise effect of Brexit from other contingent factors. Politically, though, Brexit has been a calamity for the Conservative Party – a calamity which has been well disguised by the fact that it also brought them a significant electoral victory in 2019. Brexit gave the Tories what they had never had before: it gave them a cause and it turned them into rebels, which is exactly the opposite of what Conservatives really ought to be.

Hence we have witnessed Conservative governments since 2019 attacking the judiciary and the BBC, sacking Treasury officials who were thought not to toe the line, denouncing expert opinion, bemoaning fantasy “globalist” and “Remainer” conspiracies, shouting incoherently about the “wokerati”, proroguing parliament and being a bit economical with the truth to the Queen. When Rishi Sunak ran to be prime minister in a different era a couple of months ago, his strategy was to tell his party the economic facts. It would have worked in most eras, the Tory party generally priding itself on being hard-headed. But not now. Instead, the members opted for Liz Truss, the perfect candidate for a party that has lost the ability to think straight.

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This descent into intellectual dissidence started with Brexit, which has roots going back to at least the Maastricht debates in 1992, and accelerated with the selection of Boris Johnson as leader in 2019, which will be seen, in the fullness of time, as a fatal mistake. It is true that Johnson is the best political communicator the Conservative Party has had since Margaret Thatcher. He won an election by taking seats that had previously been thought out of reach to the party. But you cannot admire the goods without looking at the cost, and Johnson has proved to be excessively expensive because he was always bound to divide the party and he was always bound to blow up. His legacy of tribal nastiness created the conditions in which he was followed by an ideologue of no great ability.

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[See also: Who could replace Liz Truss as prime minister?]

Just contemplate, for a moment, the counterfactual. Suppose that the Conservative Party had chosen Jeremy Hunt in 2019 rather than Johnson. Hunt would have taken a more moderate Brexit deal through the House of Commons because, despite all the absurd sound and fury on all sides, there was always a majority for Brexit in the end. He would not have held a general election in 2019, which would have had the effect of prolonging the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. There would have been an election in mid-2022, which the Tories would have won on the slogan of “the one Jeremy you can trust” and Labour would, right now, have just emerged out of its latest leadership crisis. Instead, the total lack of Tory discipline has accelerated the recovery of the Labour Party to the extent that an opinion poll has just been published that puts Labour 39 percentage points ahead of the Conservatives.

Brexit, though, meant the Tories had become addicted to ideological fervour. They traded good government for tribalism. The art of balancing a cabinet, for example, used to be an indispensable political skill. David Cameron had to carry it off across two parties, as well as taking care to include the left and the right in his own party. He wasn’t always very good at it but the fact that the Tory right constantly complained at being shut out demonstrated that balance was the expectation. Tony Blair spent a long time ensuring that Gordon Brown’s people were in prominent enough positions. Thatcher was always careful not to alienate the wets in her party by purging them entirely, and Harold Wilson spent a political lifetime balancing the views of his rivals.

Boris Johnson could not be bothered with anything as subtle as balance. He dispensed with, among others, Dominic Grieve, Rory Stewart, David Gauke and Amber Rudd because they voted the wrong way on the toxic European question. Political wisdom and administrative competence suddenly counted for nothing at all. The only currency was ideological affinity on the defining question.

That is the attitude that conservatives have always criticised in the left. It makes no sense, conservatives have always argued, to decide every question by referring back to a fixed ideological point. It was always a good argument and it is now totally lost on the Conservative Party. That is how they ended up with Liz Truss – and why they are at risk of making a very similar mistake again now.

[See also: Political friendship is a liability – just ask Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng]