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15 May 2023

Death rattle conservatism

The NatCons are poised to capture a party in terminal decline.

By Andrew Gamble

After winning a fourth term in 1992, the Conservative Party entered a deep crisis – which culminated in electoral meltdown in 1997. The party was reduced to 165 parliamentary seats. It had suffered a string of scandals and resignations, presided over major policy failures, and endured bitter factional in-fighting. By 1997 its electoral coalition had dissolved, its governing competence was questioned and it no longer dominated political discourse. The political strategy around the four pillars of the Union, the Constitution, Property and Empire – which had made the party hegemonic for so long in British politics – appeared exhausted.

Is something similar happening today? Since the summer of 2022 Labour has enjoyed 15-point leads in the opinion polls. After Liz Truss’s 44-day premiership the lead briefly touched 30 points. The Conservatives have consistently been polling below 30 per cent. These kinds of leads presaged Labour’s sweeping victory in 1997. Once again, the Conservatives have been plagued with scandals and resignations. Factional infighting has reached new levels of intensity. There have been five Conservative prime ministers since 2016; three in 2022 alone. There has been an extraordinary churn of ministers. In the 1990s the party was divided because of rebellions by Eurosceptic MPs against the Maastricht Treaty and constant attempts to undermine John Major’s leadership. Since Brexit, the scale of the rebellions has grown, and three of the last five prime ministers have been ousted by Tory MPs. Many centre-right Conservatives have left the party or been purged.

Although there are similarities with the 1990s, the turmoil in British politics in the last seven years is unparalleled in the democratic era. Its primary cause is Brexit and the inability of successive Conservative governments to manage its fall-out successfully or deliver what Leave voters think was promised to them. The handling of Brexit is key to understanding what has gone wrong. Other factors have contributed, not least the pandemic and the soaring cost of living following the invasion of Ukraine, and further back the prolonged period of austerity and reduction in public sector budgets following the financial crash of 2008. All this has led to a pervasive feeling that Britain is broken and nothing works any more. The Conservative Party has become indelibly associated with this mess.

[See also: Local election results show the Tories are in trouble]

Brexit was the culmination of a long-running civil war inside the Tory party which began at the end of the 1980s but whose origins can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s. The party of Europe ended up as the party of Brexit. David Cameron was a liberal Conservative who wanted his party to be at ease with modern Britain rather than fighting against it. Just as Blair had accepted Thatcher’s economic reforms, Cameron accepted Blair’s social and constitutional reforms. He also advised his party to stop banging on about Europe and hankering for a return to Thatcherism. Cameron restored Conservative Party fortunes after its third consecutive election defeat in 2005 by making the Tories once again a centre-right party, winning two general elections and two referendums, including on Scottish independence in 2014. But he was unable to control an anti-EU faction of up to 80 MPs. They were emboldened by the support of conservative newspapers such as the Sun and Daily Mail and by the rapid growth of Ukip, which threatened to outflank the party on the right. Cameron was confident he could win a referendum on Europe, as he had won all his previous electoral contests. But he misjudged his own voters. Fifty-seven per cent of those who only one year previously had elected a majority Conservative government now voted against that government and tipped the scale for Leave.

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Cameron left behind an impossible problem for his successor, how to reconcile plebiscitary and representative democracy. The electorate had been asked to vote Leave or Remain without any clarity about what they were voting for, especially if they voted Leave. Leave campaigners had offered a range of interpretations about what Brexit might mean. Deciding what Brexit should mean in practice was left to parliament, whose MPs had voted by a large majority to Remain, and to the next prime minister. This should have been a Leaver but all Leave candidates self-destructed, and Theresa May was elected unopposed.

May’s solution to the Brexit conundrum was to insist that it had to mean leaving the EU single market and the customs union, a much harder Brexit than many Leavers had advocated during the referendum. Having raised the spectre of a hard Brexit, May recoiled from the costs of delivering it, particularly its potential effects on Northern Ireland. She called an early election in 2017 to give her the majority she needed to deliver the Brexit she wanted, but lost the small majority she had. Parliament became deadlocked, her compromise deal failed four times to pass the House of Commons, her authority collapsed and she was forced to resign. Despite her failure, May presided over the transformation of the Conservative Party into the Brexit party: 75 per cent of 2016 Leave voters voted Conservative in 2017, while many Conservative Remainers defected to other parties. The desertion of Leave-voting Labour areas to the Conservatives, such as the north-east and the West Midlands, began under May and accelerated under her successor, Boris Johnson.

Promising to “get Brexit done”, Johnson gave all Leave voters – particularly those who had begun defecting to Nigel Farage’s Ukip – an incentive to unite behind the Conservatives when he called another election in December 2019. The Remain vote by contrast was split between several parties. The first-past-the-post system did the rest, rewarding the Conservatives with an 80-seat majority, the largest the party had secured since 1987, with many gains in Labour heartlands, such as Bassetlaw, Bishop Auckland, Blyth Valley and Bolsover. Johnson was ascendant in a way no Conservative leader had been since Thatcher. There was much talk, not least from Johnson himself, about the Johnson decade.

Johnson’s premiership collapsed in ignominy and scandal after only three years. His character – irresponsible, narcissistic, dishonest, self-serving and incompetent – may have been the main thing that undid him, but his policies also managed to upset every part of the party. Brexiters became disillusioned because of the slow progress in delivering any tangible benefits. Libertarian conservatives were appalled by the restrictions on personal liberty introduced during the pandemic. Free-market Conservatives were dismayed by the growth in public spending and taxation, and his enthusiasm for intervention. Centre-right Conservatives deplored his hard-line Brexit policies and his willingness to disregard the rule of law.

Yet Johnson seemed to offer the Conservatives something no other prospective leader could. He alone could hold together the disparate coalition that had come together as a result of Brexit, former Labour voters who wanted protection, subsidy and strict immigration controls, free-market Conservatives who wanted a bonfire of regulations and a drastic reduction in government spending and taxes but also free trade and higher immigration, and socially liberal and eco-friendly Conservatives who wanted to preserve and extend the gains of the Blair-Cameron era. Johnson managed this extraordinary political feat by being all things to all people and carrying opportunism and absence of principle to heights and depths rarely seen before in British politics.

Chaos under Johnson was succeeded by debacle under Truss, who, elected overwhelmingly by Conservative members as Johnson had been, promised a return to an uncompromising free-market Brexit, and at first received rapturous notices from the Tory press. Kwasi Kwarteng’s tax-cutting mini-Budget in September 2022 was welcomed by the Daily Mail with the headline: “At Last! A True Tory budget”. The editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Allister Heath, called it the best budget he had ever heard a British Chancellor deliver. But the message received by the markets – that the government was prepared to unbalance the budget through tax cuts to boost growth – led to a spectacular collapse of confidence that ended with the abrupt departure of first Kwarteng and then Truss.

The dramatic collapse of Truss’s dash for growth destroyed the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence as surely as Black Wednesday in 1992, when Britain was forced to leave the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Both events had a seismic effect on the Conservatives’ poll ratings. Truss was succeeded by Rishi Sunak. He was a Leaver but not a born-again Leaver like Truss. Together with his Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, Sunak gave priority to financial stability and tackling inflation. This meant ruling out tax cuts until close to the election and keeping tight hold on public spending by resisting public sector pay claims. This is cautious, pragmatic, business-as-usual conservatism.

Sunak has settled one major dispute with the EU by concluding the Windsor framework, which amends but does not fundamentally change the Northern Ireland protocol. The DUP voted against it, as did 22 Conservative MPs including Johnson and Truss. But they were isolated in parliament. Sunak has been careful to mollify the Brexit right by keeping Suella Braverman at the Home Office and encouraging her to pursue a hard-line policy on asylum seekers crossing the Channel, while maintaining Johnson’s liberal policy on legal immigration. He has also allowed ministers to dabble in cultural politics to test out new dividing lines with the opposition parties on race, gender, free speech and history.​​ In the seven months since Sunak became PM, Conservative fortunes have improved, if only slightly. The cost-of-living crisis remains acute, and memories of Tory incompetence strong. The possibility of limiting their defeat or even snatching an unlikely victory from Labour in the next general election is raising Tory spirits. But after the rollercoaster of the past seven years voters might be forgiven for wondering what the Conservative Party now stands for, and whom it is seeking to represent. 

[See also: The Conservatives are facing a nightmare electoral scenario]

There are two main answers to that question within the contemporary Conservative Party. The first is Sunak’s, although he has not yet explicitly elaborated it. This argues that the party is best-placed to secure a winning electoral coalition by reconnecting with the liberal centre-right tradition of Cameron and Osborne; Major, Clarke and Heseltine; and Macmillan, Butler and Heath. This is a pragmatic politics of adjustment and compromise, seeking clear dividing lines with its political opponents, but also anchoring the party within the key institutions and organising assumptions of the state, and governing from the centre. This has been the traditional Tory approach to winning hegemony.

The second answer is given by those on the right who have begun calling themselves National Conservatives, or NatCon. They are holding a major conference in London this May, where some of the speakers include Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove. Taking their inspiration from Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph, Thatcher and Truss, they answer the question about conservatism’s future in a very different way to those on the centre right. NatCons place the nation-state, its sovereignty and independence, at the heart of Conservative politics. For them the Brexit revolution has only just begun. Leaving the EU is only the first step in a fundamental transformation of the British state, British civil society and Britain’s place in the world. To complete Brexit, what is needed is a Conservative government that will take back control of the state and reshape the national culture. This is a new project for restoring the political hegemony of the Conservative Party in a way that Thatcher might have understood. It means not being content to assume power within the existing state but prising loose the grip of the global liberal elite and “the blob” by reshaping the state to serve Conservative purposes and weaken opposing forces.

At one time the Conservative Party felt itself to be at the heart of most of the circuits of power and influence in the British state and civil society, whether the monarchy, the Church, the civil service, the law, universities, the House of Lords, major companies and business organisations, the BBC and the rest of the media. Today, the pages of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are awash with complaints of how this or that institution is anti-Conservative or dominated by “woke” thinking. In the NatCon imagination, the civil service, the universities and the BBC have become dominated by active enemies of Conservative values and purposes. The left has succeeded in its long march through the institutions and progressive causes such as net zero are now said to shape the thinking of civil servants and leading corporate executives, even of the new King.

The cultural and constitutional agenda of National Conservatism is heavily influenced by currents on the right in the United States (the US Republican senator JD Vance will be a keynote speaker at the NatCon conference). Rebuilding the political fortunes of British conservatism requires a reconstruction of the British state and a purging of the institutions that have been taken over by liberal elites. Many National Conservatives no longer believe in public service in the way that earlier generations of Conservatives did. High Tories had an instinctive veneration of public servants who were seen as serving a purpose higher than themselves. Many free-market National Conservatives are cynical about the motives of public servants and have a transactional view of the state. The circumstances of Dominic Raab’s resignation in April, they argue, shows the need for radical reform of the civil service, drastically reducing its size and abandoning the idea of a neutral career civil service. Similarly, they want to end the concept of public-service broadcasting and public funding of the BBC to assist the rise of outlets that promote National Conservative thinking, such as GB News.

National Conservatives want to dismantle the constitutional reforms of the Blair era, on the Union, human rights, the House of Lords and the judiciary. They want to roll back devolution, greatly restricting the autonomy of the devolved administrations. They want to take back control of the judiciary by leaving the European Convention on Human Rights and repealing the Human Rights Act. They want much tighter legal control of what can be taught in schools and universities to combat “woke” ideas on gender, race and empire. They want an end to the culture of “victimhood”.

[See also: National Conservatism: the new Tory movement against globalism]

There seems to be broad agreement among National Conservatives that the war on the global liberal elite should be central to their programme. But there is less agreement on how Britain’s restored sovereign powers should be used to control borders and manage the economy. Two tendencies are forming. The first represented by Nick Timothy and Matthew Goodwin support strict immigration controls to promote social cohesion and representation of local communities. Since the Brexit referendum, net immigration has doubled, despite the promises of the Leave campaign. These National Conservatives also reject unconditional globalisation, which they associate with the Davos transnational elite, as well as too great a focus on individualism rather than communities – which they argue was typical of Thatcherism and New Labour. They support the levelling-up agenda, a much more interventionist role for the state to protect communities which have not benefited from globalisation, and extra spending on key universal services like the NHS, another central promise of the Leave campaign. This strand of National Conservatism wants to reject economic as well as social liberalism as a basis for Conservative politics. They argue that the new Conservative electoral coalition made up of middle class Leave voters from prosperous areas of the south and working class Leave voters from small towns in the north and the Midlands which emerged after Brexit is the future of conservatism, and it can only be held together if the state is prepared to be more interventionist in support of the working-class communities which voted for Brexit. This interventionism must be both economic and cultural to satisfy the aspirations of these new Conservative voters.

This tendency draws inspiration from Joseph Chamberlain and the social imperialist tradition which was so powerful in Conservative politics in the first half of the 20th century. It gave priority to security and welfare, supported an interventionist state, and appealed to the patriotism of the working class. The idea of a national politics transcending class divisions was key to the successful hegemonic politics the Conservatives pursued.

The other tendency represented by David Frost and Rees-Mogg dismisses the arguments for more state intervention. It wants to revive the Thatcherite emphasis on reducing public spending and regulation to reduce taxes and set individuals free to make their own choices. They argue that former Labour Leave voters want low taxes and new enterprise rather than high taxes and subsidised jobs. Frost accepts the case for tighter border controls, but other Tories such as Daniel Hannan and Truss are relaxed about high levels of immigration if it boosts growth. For Brexiters like Hannan, leaving the EU was never about immigration and borders, but about the capacity to diverge from EU regulation. Free-market National Conservatives like the Telegraph’s Allister Heath also want to see privatisation extended throughout the public sector, particularly in health and education, completing the unfinished agenda of Thatcherism.

The second Thatcherite tendency strongly outnumbers the first at present among MPs and Conservative commentators. The same is true for the fringe libertarian anti-lockdown and pro-free speech tendency, but all can co-exist happily under the broad umbrella of National Conservatism. Support for Brexit is the unifying principle. Few are tempted by the eclectic vision of conservatism’s future that Johnson flirted with. Truss’s vision is much more popular. But to the extent that the free-market movement prevails there exists a gap on the right of British politics for a populist, statist, protectionist, anti-immigrant party modelled on the American GOP.

National Conservatives have little to say on Britain’s post-Brexit position in the world. They all want strong defence but disagree on free trade. If “Global Britain” means anything, it suggests an emphasis on improving existing cultural, economic and security relationships with the Anglosphere and with Asia, while accelerating disengagement and divergence from Europe. Many NatCon commentators hailed the recent announcement that Britain would join the Comprehensive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (adding 0.08 per cent to British GDP over 15 years) because they think it makes rejoining the EU more difficult.

Is National Conservatism the future of the Conservative Party? Its two recent champions, Johnson and Truss, failed. The centre right is back in charge of the party and the government. Any competent Leave ministers seem to mutate into centrists, while the incompetent find their way to the backbenches. Conservative newspapers rage endlessly about betrayal, feebleness and backsliding, and are perpetually dissatisfied with how Conservative governments perform. The Conservative fate in the next election depends on how successful the current experiment in centrist government is in reassuring voters and tempting back those who have deserted the party.

If the Conservatives lose, and especially if they lose badly, then Sunak will be under pressure to resign as Conservative leader. On past form, Conservative members will elect a National Conservative as leader, such as Braverman or Kemi Badenoch, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Some commentators think the take-over of the party by National Conservatives is inevitable, in line with what is happening in many other countries – including Italy, Hungary, Poland and the US. Out of the ashes of Brexit a new hegemonic project on the right is struggling to be born. Whether it will succeed in creating a durable basis for future Conservative government as Thatcherism did, or whether it risks marginalising the Conservatives by repelling both supporters of the centre right and younger voters remains to be seen. At some point the Conservatives will need to win back some of the 48 per cent who voted Remain. They cannot all be counted as part of the global liberal elite.

In a longer historical perspective the problem the Conservative Party faces is that for much of the last hundred years, the party has been associated with failure: first economic decline and imperial retreat, now Brexit and economic stagnation. Its political dominance traditionally rested on its command and understanding of the British state, but the slow foundering of that state in the last century, with the weakening of the ties which bind the Union, the relative decline of the economy and the absolute decline of British power, has eroded that dominance. The party has seen two ideological convulsions to reverse these trends, the first associated with Thatcherism and the second with Brexit. But neither transformative project has succeeded in putting Conservative hegemony on a new and stable foundation or in recapturing the state.

In recent years, the Conservatives have gone to war with many different institutions of the British state – the BBC, the civil service, the Treasury, the Bank of England – but each time they have lost. They have not succeeded in fundamentally changing any of them. The Conservative press is awash with dark forebodings of national decline and castigations of political failure, which it blames in part on the liberal elite, and in part on Conservative leaders. After the disappointments of Brexit there is little sense that the party any longer has a compelling vision of the economy or knows how a brighter economic future for everyone can be achieved. This may in part explain the pivot to cultural issues. In the past culture and economics went hand in hand, but now cultural issues tend to dominate Conservative discourse. Culture for many Conservatives has replaced patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel.

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