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9 February 2024

The Tory right’s radicalisation should trouble us all

One of the main anchors of our politics has become increasingly unmoored from reality.

By Lewis Goodall

Time is the great lubricant of politics. How else to explain the sudden turning of the wheels of the Northern Ireland peace process, with Stormont finally sitting again? Little has changed for any of the players, save for the attrition of will. What they thought they cared about a few years ago they feel that little less zealously today. They, like their constituents, are exhausted of the process – of Brexit and backstops and protocols. 

But time can also do strange things to political lives and trajectories, it can inflame as well as soothe. The Conservatives, facing a potentially apocalyptic election defeat, are engaged in a long process of radicalisation. This week’s Popular Conservatism launch was the latest landmark on this journey. It is partly born of an inability to contain the kinetic, relentless energy of Brexit and the dying embers of the Thatcherite project. Both reshaped the Conservative psyche and left a faction within the party always hungry for combat: craving enemies, seldom conserving and reflexively aggressive.

But it is also born of necessity too – the Tory right have been ever more desperate to account for how, after 14 years of Conservative government, the country is less conservative. Rather than turning their gaze inwards, rather than asking whether the world can really be remade as they wish, they look outwards, they look anywhere else. They blame the courts, they blame the civil service, they blame the media, they blame quangos, universities, schools, Natural England, the National Trust, the BBC and, most of all, Tony Blair: a permanent political Prospero, who incredibly still exerts more influence on 2024 than they do. Everywhere they see a shadowy virus of wokeism and leftism which has infected every body of the state, all because conservative leaders have been willing to compromise too much, too often. 

If this sounds frenzied it’s because it is. The less arresting but more accurate explanation is too horrible for them to contemplate, so they don’t: it isn’t that Britain’s stodgy state apparatus has been radicalised, it’s as unimaginative and narrow as ever. Rather they have been. They are the proverbial frog in the jar. They don’t know just how boiling the water has become. It has never occurred to them that it isn’t that the rest of Britain and its institutions have become more left-wing, it’s that they have become more and more eccentric, more and more off centre, less representative of the country they claim to love but largely lament. To be at PopCon, as with other Tory factions – the National Conservatives, the Conservative Democratic Organisation – is to see the emergence of a Bennism of the right. Unlike Tony Benn, its advocates seek to dismantle much of the British state not to achieve socialism but to remove people and institutions which frustrate and prevent the emergence of an imagined conservative polity. 

It’s an extraordinary development for a party which once prided itself on both its pragmatism and scepticism. There were few sceptics at PopCon, instead there was only fire and brimstone, with the sermon on offer neither conservative nor popular. 

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There were glimmers of the early Tea Party in some of its invective and attitudes, but while the former was a genuinely grassroots movement this is neither. Instead, it was a gallery of Conservative ghosts past. Alongside Liz Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg, I spotted Toby Young, Michael Ashcroft, Andy Wigmore, Tim Stanley, Mark Littlewood and David Starkey, hardly an exciting roster of new beginnings. A truly rigorous outfit would grapple with the reality that many of PopCon’s positions – public spending cuts, aggression towards institutions, obsessive culture wars – are either esoteric, unpopular or both. 

But none of that cuts through to the PopCons – why would it? The media, both new and old, which should act as a guard against eccentric thought, is often where these ideas germinate. It would once have seemed unlikely that a prime minister would make a vulnerable minority group the butt of a joke as Rishi Sunak has with trans people. But there’s been a slow normalisation of such behaviour. It shows the right has the ability to slowly set the terms, within and without the Conservative Party, to take us a few notches down the rabbit hole ourselves. 

At PopCon I asked Rees-Mogg about the many contradictions of his new project. I asked how he could credibly rail against “Davos man”, the ultimate economic elite, when he himself has made millions in the City. He didn’t take kindly to it. He proceeded instantly to go on the attack, to try and delegitimise my questions by labelling me a “left-wing journalist” who was not “duly impartial.” The exchange went viral, and you can make up your own mind about it. 

I’ve interviewed Rees-Mogg many times and typically he’s courteous. But the intensity of his hostility took me by surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t have done. For a movement based on a deep populism, the most dangerous idea is that they themselves are elite. But it’s more than that – one of the signs of the radicalisation of the Tory right is their deep hostility to the media in a way which is genuinely new in British politics. They knowingly seek to delegitimise journalists and civil servants by conflating being a completely impartial person (which does not exist) with acting impartially (which does). 

This is straight from the US right playbook. It’s no surprise that many of the PopCons, including Rees-Mogg, have embraced a Trump restoration while also burnishing their credentials as great protectors of Ukraine and western security. The two positions are incompatible. Perhaps they’re not so bothered about Ukraine after all. 

I worry about the direction of British politics. At present we seem a redoubt of some stability in a darkening western political landscape. I wonder how long that will last. One of the main anchors of our politics has become increasingly unmoored from reality. No good can come of it. I worry where time is taking us next.

[See also: Kemi Badenoch sticks to the facts]

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