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15 May 2023

The Tory right is reaching new heights of self-delusion

The more unpopular the Conservatives become, the more they lash out at imaginary enemies.

By Martin Fletcher

So this is how 13 years of increasingly rotten, incompetent Conservative government ends – with its luminaries fighting like proverbial rats in a sack.

In the wake of the Tories’ rout in this month’s local elections, they appear to have abandoned all hope of winning next year’s general election. They have instead embarked on an unseemly bout of finger-pointing and a scarcely disguised battle over the party’s future direction.

As Tobias Ellwood, one of the few sensible Tory MPs left, wrote in the Times last week: “A drag anchor of a right-wing caucus is in our ranks, and it has already written off any prospects of victory in 2024. As statecraft finally returns to No 10, guiding us into far calmer waters, less-than-subtle plots are afoot to shift our party to the right during the blame game that invariably follows electoral defeat.” It would end, he feared, in “civil war”.

Thus, on Saturday (13 May), a cabal of diehard Johnsonites convened in Bournemouth to demand yet more power for the party’s grassroots membership as a means of restoring the leadership to a man Priti Patel called “a vote-winning political giant”.

Can the so-called Conservative Democratic Organisation be serious? Does it really think it wise to give yet more power to the tiny, wildly unrepresentative clique of crusty activists who imposed not only Boris Johnson on the country, but Liz Truss too? Can they really not see what a huge electoral liability their lying, rule-breaking, scandal-plagued hero has become in the country at large?

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Thus too, from Monday to Wednesday this week, right-wing Tories including Suella Braverman, Michael Gove, David Frost, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson will address a “National Conservatism” conference in Westminster that is organised by a right-wing American think tank, and whose purpose is to swing the party behind an even more extreme version of the shameless nationalist populism that it has practised since Brexit.

The conference will preach a neo-Trumpian agenda of national independence, a return to traditional family values, lower taxes and a fierce opposition to globalisation, supra-national institutions, multinational companies, immigration, liberal elites and wokery in all its guises. “Conservatism in Britain has lost its way,” the promotional video declares. “It’s as if we’ve forgotten what we really believe.”

Come again? Do the Conservatives genuinely think this is the way to revive their fortunes? Do they truly believe that the British people are yearning for such a divisive, xenophobic, resentful, exclusionary, illiberal, backward-looking programme? Do they really think this would appeal in an essentially tolerant, diverse, progressive country like the UK that regards America’s culture wars and polarisation with horror?

The short answer is yes, many of them do. To understand just how blinded they are by their own ideology, look at their reaction to Kemi Badenoch’s retreat on the Retained EU Law Bill last week. No matter that scrapping 4,000 pieces of EU legislation by the year’s end was hopelessly impractical, potentially very damaging and risked all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Hard-line Brexiteers were livid, crying betrayal, accusing the Business Secretary of capitulating to her civil servants, and warning that she had destroyed forever her chances of leading the party.

The lower the Tories’ fortunes sink the more the right blames not Brexit, but the government’s alleged failure to exploit it. 

The more unpopular the Conservatives become, the more the right lashes out at imaginary enemies – at a supposedly hostile civil service that they label the “blob”, at “leftie lawyers” and judges bent on thwarting the “will of the people”, at the “liberal metropolitan elite” and, increasingly, against the legions of the “woke” with their allegedly “Marxist” agenda. Sadly for the Brexiteers, they can no longer blame the EU.

The worse their electoral prospects look, the more they are blaming Rishi Sunak too, although he has been Prime Minister for scarcely six months and is hardly a moderate. Yes he has made peace with the EU and raised taxes to salvage the economy, but he has also taken a draconian stance on immigration, rowed back on net zero, cut foreign aid, supported curbs on protests, endorsed restrictions on voting rights and much more besides.

The truth, if only the Tory ideologues could see it, is staring them in the face. The electorate is heartily sick of them because 13 years of Conservative government have delivered nothing but sky-high taxes, rampant inflation, plunging living standards, collapsing public services, crippling strikes, soaring illegal immigration, social strife and filthy rivers and beaches. 

Voters are rejecting the party because all those promised Brexit benefits – billions more for the NHS, an economy unleashed, taking back control, levelling up, Global Britain – have proved utterly illusory. They are rounding on the Tories because they want urgent, practical answers to real and pressing problems – to economic stagnation, the collapse of the NHS, the social care crisis, climate change, housing shortages – not further ideological posturing by politicians who appear to be ever-more divorced from reality.

Sunak seems to understand that, but he faces the very real prospect of becoming the fourth leader in five years to be deposed by his increasingly anarchic party if the Conservatives lose in 2024.

And here’s the really frightening thing. Where is the centrist pushback to this latest muscle-flexing of the terminally deluded Tory hard right? Where is the personable, articulate, inspiring Tory moderate who can purge the ideological poison from his or her party and begin steering it back towards pragmatism, competence and the political mainstream? Where is the “compassionate Conservative” ready to take on the right’s new standard bearer, the heartless Suella Braverman?   

Nobody springs to mind. Too many good and decent Tories have either been expelled from the party or left it in disgust. Penny Mordaunt? Forgive me, but I hardly think that holding a sword upright for 51 minutes qualifies her for such a crucial role.

[See also: Against race essentialism]

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