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29 February 2024

Rishi Sunak has been trapped by the Tory realignment

The Prime Minister has discovered that once you are on the path to populism, it is hard to turn back.

By David Gauke

In 2019, the Conservative Party made a choice. Ostensibly it was a choice about how the UK left the European Union but in reality it was much more than that. It was about what sort of party it was going to be and who it represented. Rather than being a broad-based party of the centre right, the Conservative Party chose to be an insurgent, anti-establishment, pro-Brexit populist party.

For some of us, it was a political defeat but there was a logic to the move. Being a broad-based party had led to a parliamentary stalemate over Brexit which was satisfying no one. Nigel Farage was proving a threat on the right. Centrist voters were likely to hold their noses and vote Tory because of the fear of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. The Home Counties stayed blue; the Red Wall was won.

The Tories had leant into the realignment under which working-class voters made a choice based on their cultural values rather than their economic status. This had not happened overnight.  If 1997 had been the peak of New Labour’s hegemony, the first voters to abandon them (initially by staying at home) were working-class social conservatives. The north midlands, in particular, became increasingly Tory throughout the 2010s to the extent that by 2019, once safe Labour seats in Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire were delivering larger Conservative majorities than the leafy commuter seats in the Home Counties.

If one person epitomised this transformation, it was Lee Anderson. Like many of his voters, he too had been a Labour supporter. His move to the Tories was more dramatic than most.  He did not go through the process of – over a decade or two – voting Labour, abstaining, voting Ukip and then finally bringing himself to vote Conservative. Until 2018, he was a Labour councillor. As he tells the story (and there are other versions), he fell out with the Corbynistas in his local party who told him to join the Tories. So he did.

Ashfield, his home constituency, was already a target seat for the Conservatives but, as a prominent local figure, his candidacy was a bit of a coup for the Tories. The election campaign did not go smoothly (he was caught by a television crew telling a friend to pretend not to know him) but it was not enough to prevent him winning with a 5,733 majority.

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In Westminster, Anderson quickly emerged as one of the most high-profile members of the 2019 intake. Equipped with an ability to coin a colourful phrase, outstanding comic timing, an unusual backstory and not looking or sounding like a politician, the media could not get enough of him. Nor could Conservative associations in need of after dinner speakers. By 2023, Anderson was deputy chairman of the party, a host on GB News and one of the most famous Tories in the country.

It was not inevitable that Anderson would emerge as the 2019 breakout star, but it was inevitable that someone was going to do so. Someone who could speak for the Conservatives’ new voters with authenticity, willing to upset respectable opinion and comfortable with courting controversy. That, after all, was the approach that had served Boris Johnson so well.

There was also something inevitable about it all going horribly wrong. It is all very well being an entertainer making shocking remarks – and Anderson, like Johnson, is at heart an entertainer – but politics is different. Parties must appeal to a wide range of voters, not just a niche audience. It is also a team game. Say something stupid and it is your colleagues who must go out into the broadcasting studios and defend you. Sometimes, they cannot.

That is what happened when Anderson spoke of Sadiq Khan being under the “control” of Islamists and handing over London to “his mates”. A quick retraction and apology might have spared him the charge of being Islamophobic or engaging in anti-Muslim bigotry, but it was not forthcoming. What might have been an awkward few days for Labour over the Gaza ceasefire vote has turned into yet another Tory problem. Nor is it a small problem – much of the country was appalled by Anderson’s remarks (though not all of the Tory vote). 

The Anderson debacle has something in common with the mess that the government has got itself into over the Rwanda plan (the issue over which Anderson resigned as Tory deputy chairman). In both cases, Rishi Sunak believes he cannot give the right what it wants and still act responsibly. He cannot stand by Anderson and he cannot promise to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. But by resisting these positions, he fails to satisfy a significant element of the Conservatives’ new electoral base.

Eventually, a leader must draw the line and Sunak was right to do so over Anderson’s comments. But he will pay a price when, as now appears inevitable, Anderson defects to Reform, taking a fair few Conservative voters with him. Populists want populism and if they do not get it, they will go elsewhere.

The lesson from all this is that once you are on the path to populism, it is hard to turn back. Once you have based your electoral strategy on appealing to populist voters, repudiating their positions comes at a high price. The example of the US Republicans shows that it is possible that a once mainstream party may never do so.

Five years ago, the Conservatives became the party of Lee Anderson. Take away Anderson – as Sunak had to – and it is not clear what will be left.

[See also: The Tories have become the Conspiracy Party]


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