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26 February 2024

The Tories have become the Conspiracy Party

As more and more Conservatives disappear down the rabbit hole, their colleagues have a duty to act.

By Lewis Goodall

Every week or so I intend on writing about something other than the radical forces reshaping the Conservative Party, but mostly I fail. Though there is much else to occupy our minds, it is this subject that looms larger, weighs heavier and troubles me more and more.

In the space of only 48 hours, three senior Conservative politicians, from a former prime minister down, said or wrote things that were either self-evidently Islamophobic, conspiratorial or both. At one time, they would all have found themselves without the Tory whip; at the time of writing, only Lee Anderson has lost it – and even then, its withdrawal was qualified.

Liz Truss’s actions were on the biggest stage. The former PM increasingly represents a reputational risk not only to her party but to her country. I cannot think of any prime minister who would have behaved in the way she did a few days ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the gathering of the Donald Trump faithful in Maryland. 

By attending a conference that is now not conservative but largely far right in disposition, she leant the legitimacy of her old office to a bunch of insurrection-excusers and Vladimir Putin apologists. She declared to a room of people, many of whom would have supported a violent attempt to overthrow democracy (and may yet again), that “conservatives… need a bigger bazooka in order to be able to deliver” and implied that the “deep state” contributed to her premature downfall as prime minister. She created a minor diplomatic headache for her government in not only stridently endorsing the Republicans (and, by association, the Nato-bashing Trump) but chastising a sitting president, Joe Biden.

Most astoundingly of all, Truss appeared with Steve Bannon after her speech at the conference. She allowed Trump’s former henchman, who has been convicted of contempt of Congress, to describe her as “Maga” and declined to chastise him for praising Tommy Robinson. I try to resist hyperbole but all of this is nothing short of astonishing. Truss even invited Bannon to come and “sort out” Britain when he was done with the US. Whether she appeared for personal gain or as a result of her own radicalisation (through trauma or zeal or both) is beside the point. There is no hint that Rishi Sunak might withdraw the whip or suspend Truss from the party.

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Meanwhile, back in London, the former home secretary Suella Braverman wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph in which she posited that Britain was now controlled by “Islamists”. No serious attempt to define what she meant was made, nor did she provide convincing examples. But despite once again indulging in Powellite language and rhetoric, Braverman remains a Tory MP. 

Soon afterwards, the former Conservative deputy chairman Lee Anderson claimed on GB News that the Muslim Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, had ceded control of the city to his Islamist “mates”. He has had the Conservative whip suspended but apparently only because of his failure to apologise rather than the content of what he said.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Oliver Dowden, refused to confirm in interviews whether he believed Anderson’s comments were Islamophobic. There is no possibility that Dowden would not have instantly condemned as racist a Labour politician who accused a Jew of being controlled by Zionists. Such “mealy-mouthed” justifications (as the former Conservative chair Sayeeda Warsi described them) cheapens anything the Sunak government says about anti-Semitism or extremism. Worse, a few days after we learned there has been a 335 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate crime since 7 October.

In recent years, there is strong evidence to suggest that racism exists in both Labour and the Conservatives. The difference is that the Labour leadership has now tried to correct this, while the Conservatives have not. Indeed, some have barely recognised they have a problem in the first place. One can be concerned about the rising threat of Islamic extremism (as one can about the dangers of the far right) without being careless or, well, extremist. But for Truss or Braverman, to do so would defeat the point.

I’m fond of referring to the proverbial frog in a boiling jar of water as a way of understanding the rising tensions in our politics. What was unsayable can now be uttered without sanction.

Politicians can divide by ideology or ideas, disposition and temperament, and character, or lack of it. I wonder if we’re heading for a world in which one of the biggest divides will be whether people believe in conspiracy theories. In some respects, this isn’t surprising: politicians fit the profile of those who are vulnerable to radicalisation. Obviously they are highly political, heavy news consumers and, in some cases, digital natives.

The difference in the case of a former prime minister or home secretary is that they have the power to legitimise those ideas and use them for their own political ends. This heightens the responsibility of politicians who believe in truth over dogma, and who seek to calm rather than inflame. They must reduce the temperature wherever possible and combat conspiratorial thinking, whatever its political provenance. A start might be for all the main party leaders to put political advantage aside and find a form of words on a Gaza ceasefire that the vast majority of MPs can support – the great secret of last Wednesday’s vote on the subject in parliament being that most sensible MPs aren’t far apart.

The ideas outlined by Truss and Braverman have the twin distinction of being dangerous but self-evidently vacuous. What on Earth does “wokenomics” mean? How could anyone with any sense of proportion seriously believe that “Islamists” now run the British state? The last who would do so are traditional, right-thinking, sceptical conservatives.

Such ideas don’t even benefit the Tories’ narrow sectional interests. Every day the party isn’t talking about the economy is a day wasted. Every day dominated not by cabinet ministers and Sunak emissaries but by the ghosts of political horrors past is a day wasted. Every day dominated by bewildering right-wing discourse rather than matters that occupy ordinary voters is a day wasted. And they don’t have many days left.

Whatever its shortcomings, the Conservative Party represents one of the great traditions of British politics and Western democracy. It has a fine history and I despair at its present direction. Sunak and all Conservatives who have not disappeared down the rabbit hole ought to combat the conspiratorial right and do so publicly – for their sake and ours.

[See also: The Tories’ self-destruction is a gift to Labour]

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