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17 November 2023

Sunak and Cameron should confront the Tory Jacobins

Anti-institutionalism has gripped the Conservative Party in a dangerous way.

By Lewis Goodall

In the modern era, British political life has rarely afforded second acts. David Cameron’s resurrection is now an exception. The motives for his return as Foreign Secretary are obvious enough; his was a glittering career which ended in catastrophe with the Brexit vote in 2016. He was always a man who felt he should serve because he was so able, and yet he found himself, in early midlife, only serving at the baseline (alongside anyone who could spare the time for an afternoon tennis game). At least partial redemption is now within reach.

Rishi Sunak’s motives are more complicated. Most straightforwardly, he wanted to distract from Suella Braverman’s sacking as home secretary, which he knew would dominate the headlines; at one stroke he could supplant her while also showing he has the capacity for boldness. But it is a curious kind of boldness that looks back and grasps at a political memory.

This is, of course, a decidedly rosy view of the Cameron era – it omits how many of the seeds of our current disorder were sown then. And in trying to revive the politics of this period, Sunak will find little comfort. He can elevate Cameron but he cannot reanimate the forces that underwrote his premiership. Simply too much has happened since. The Conservative coalition of the Cameron era has fractured and is unlikely to be reassembled. The unfinished realignments of 2016 and 2019 infused the party with a demotic energy that can’t be contained. The Farage-admiring Tory membership of 2023 is closer to Braverman than to Cameron or George Osborne. The Cameron restoration is an elite project with relatively little support among the wider party.

There’s something more important still, a cleavage that barely existed in Cameron’s day, but is now central to all politics on the right. Cameron’s return has been framed as a return for the Tories to the fabled “centre ground” of politics. This is erroneous. Cameron was never a centre-ground politician. On economics he was significantly to the right of Boris Johnson and arguably even Margaret Thatcher (who, for instance, refrained from privatising Royal Mail). Sunak, on economic and social policy, could claim to be the most right-wing prime minister of the last five years.

What, I think, people mean when they talk of Cameron’s “centrism” is that he embodies something that was once largely uncontested – the Conservative Party’s attachment to established institutions and the rule of law. This is not centrism, but the minimum we should expect of our mainstream parties, much less the party of government. It says much of the Conservatives’ slow nervous breakdown that this should be considered the politics of moderation. But it is.

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The lens of order vs disorder, institution vs anti-institution, system vs anti-system, conflict vs conciliation, is the lens through which to understand nearly all of the battles on the modern right and since Brexit. Anti-institutionalism, a belief that the established legal, cultural and political order is antithetical to conservative ends, has gripped not just the Conservative Party but the wider ecosystem of the right, including previously august right-of-centre newspapers, think tanks and commentators. 

It’s even the lens through which to understand Sunak’s chequered relationship with Braverman. Sunak had no problem with the unlawful Rwanda scheme in principle – he still doesn’t. He had plenty of opportunities to disown the policy originally devised by Johnson but didn’t do so. The split between himself and Braverman is, therefore, over means rather than ends. Sunak is unwilling to go outside the established legal order; Braverman is.

This fissure barely existed a decade ago. Today it bisects the right, in the UK, the US and beyond. This divide is the source of much of the disorder that has consumed Western democracies. The right constantly pushes the boundaries of our political institutions, culminating in the absurdity of Conservative MPs – self-professed guardians of law and order – calling for the government to defy not only convention but the rule of law itself. (The deputy Tory chairman Lee Anderson declared: “We should just get the planes in the air right now and send them to Rwanda.”)

The Republican Party has been lost to this malady. The best thing Sunak and Cameron could do is to prepare their faction for battle against these Tory Jacobins. This means arguing unashamedly for democratic institutions and for the Conservative Party as a custodian of them. It means strongly vetting Tory candidates to ensure they agree and making the party a credible opposition should it lose the next election. And it means showing the sort of spine displayed by Labour’s social democrats during and after the Corbyn years.

More likely is that both Sunak and Cameron, as they have done before, cede ground to the right and hope the problem goes away. It won’t. If they don’t fight, it will be Britain left picking up the pieces, enduring yet more disorder, long after one man has retreated to his shepherd’s hut in Oxfordshire and the other to the blue skies of California.

[See also: The Tory right’s divided tribes]

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