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  1. Comment
19 January 2024

The myth of Tory pragmatism

Ideological dogmatism has destroyed the opportunity the Conservatives had to realign British politics after 2019.

By Lewis Goodall

Westminster is a hall of political mirrors, of false realisations. Its residents – the politicians, pundits, journalists who walk its streets – conjure fake patterns and truisms to make order of the chaos around them.

A few well-worn examples: “he who wields the knife never wears the crown” haunts virtually every opinion column, no matter how often Tory leaders emerge from regicide. “Parties only win from the centre” similarly endures, despite successive Tory prime ministers winning elections from the right and Jeremy Corbyn nearly winning from the left. Similarly, the idea that the Conservative Party is “pragmatic”, that it is willing to do whatever it takes to win, and traverse the ideological spectrum, clings to life. 

The Rwanda debacle should lay this hackneyed notion to rest. Rather than developing practical, multilateral solutions to the growing challenge of population movements, the Tories have chosen yet another field on which to fight their favourite battle: the meaning of parliamentary sovereignty. It is essentially the argument that the party has had for much of its long stint in office, through Brexit and beyond. What matters more – parliamentary sovereignty or the established international and domestic legal order?

When former immigration minister Robert Jenrick rises in the House of Commons and declares that the law must be parliament’s “servant, not its master”, it is this fissure which he is prising open. It is the idea that the people’s will (which the Conservative Party, in its own mind, is best and perhaps uniquely able to read) must always triumph. 

These two sides clashed again in the Commons this week, with those from the One Nation group arguing that the party is either the custodian of law and order or it is nothing. The disruptors argue that these things are secondary to parliament’s will, let alone “foreign” courts. Sunak, as always, straddles the two sides uneasily. Both sets of MPs believe that their own approach represents authentic conservatism. 

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When historians reflect on the long march of Conservative governments since 2010, and Tory thinking since the 1990s, they will likely conclude that a principal source of instability was the inability to digest this tension and decide which form of conservatism matters most. To put it another way, the Tory party has been punch-drunk on populism, and it can’t stop drinking. 

Sunak is part of this story. In his pointless press conference on Thursday (18 January), he ordered the House of Lords not to interfere with “the will of the people” (again, as divined by himself) and said it was time to “take back control of our borders”. In his bones, he is probably a pragmatist but he feels he must pretend to be more stupid than he is, hence standing in front of a large sign saying “Stop the Boats” (as if the public hadn’t heard him the first thousand times and witnessed his failure). 

Of late he’s added another phrase to his mangled rhetorical offering – the idea that Britain must not “go back to square one”. As always, his botched communications don’t inspire, but reveal. They advertise one of Sunak’s biggest political frailties, which has weakened his premiership from the beginning: what exactly does he mean by square one, or even more importantly, when? Is square one Truss? Johnson? Pre-Cameron? Sunak has never told a story or defined himself against his immediate predecessors, too worried about aggravating Tory splits. 

There is a world in which he could have repeatedly cast himself as the anti-Truss and Johnson, as the teller of hard truths. Instead, he has ignored Truss and persevered with some of Johnson’s most fevered policies (such as the Rwanda plan), repeatedly boxing himself in. Now, when voters hear about going back to “square one”, it invites them to think of a time before the Conservative Party took office. With good reason, they might conclude that really doesn’t sound so bad. 

But there’s a more substantial way in which the Tories have repeatedly shown their new rigidity: their response to the 2019 general election result. The Conservative Party had the opportunity to permanently realign British politics through its supposed political dexterity. But it has wasted it. 

At various points since 2019, it has disowned the winning coalition that Johnson assembled, seemingly uninterested in finding ways to hold it together. Like the Labour left at its worst, the Tories have looked at the voters who delivered them victory in 2019 and decided they don’t much like them. Both Truss and Sunak sought, in different ways, to distance themselves from that winning electorate, offering ersatz versions of Thatcherism or early Cameronism. 

The Tories glimpsed a path that could have led to repeated victories but, like all ideologues, they weren’t willing to be that flexible. This, as much as anything else, underpins Conservative malaise and listlessness.

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