Gavin Jacobson: Let’s start with Suella Braverman. Many people found her column in the Times last week, in which she attacked the Metropolitan Police over its response to pro-Palestine demonstrations, incendiary. There were mass demonstrations and protests over the weekend, with nationalist thugs “guarding” the Cenotaph along Whitehall on Remembrance Day. What’s your take on her political career and the political moment?
John Gray: I think Braverman has achieved what she wanted to achieve – to be sacked. That was the subtext of everything she said. Braverman is not a gifted politician, but she must have realised that publishing that column in the Times would bring her position into serious question. She’s anticipating the Conservative leadership struggle after Rishi Sunak loses the general election next year, which is even more likely now given his appointment of David Cameron as Foreign Secretary.
Who could be more redolent of failure than Cameron? Not only did he call the Brexit referendum, he led the country into a disastrous war in Libya – which is now often forgotten but had enormous consequences for the country and Europe, with human trafficking flourishing in its aftermath. His extraordinary bad judgement was further demonstrated by the Greensill affair [a pandemic-era scandal in which the former prime minister lobbied Sunak, then the chancellor, on behalf of a financial services company].
He’s also the man, more than any other, who deconstructed the British state to the point at which it can’t contend with the underlying economic and social issues that were largely responsible for Brexit.
By restoring Cameron, Sunak has essentially given up and reverted to an orthodoxy and to a person who embodies everything that failed. If there is a moment in history in which this kind of conservatism represented by Cameron has reached its terminus it would, ironically, be now, with his return to government. It’s the endgame for Sunak.
Gavin Jacobson: Where do Braverman and the Tories go from here?
John Gray: I don’t think she stands much of a chance of becoming leader of the Conservative Party. She’s too coarse and raw a politician, too transparently opportunistic, almost an Enoch Powell figure, to lead a parliamentary party. So, these events leave the question of Sunak’s succession wide open. The only thing that is certain is that this reheated conservatism, the kind of spiv conservatism beholden to neoliberal dogma, the conservatism of Cameron and George Osborne, won’t have much of a lifespan beyond 2025.
Gavin Jacobson: What do you think the response will be from pro-Brexit parts of the country to Cameron’s return, given that he represents the kind of worldview that they rebelled against?
John Gray: I don’t see that it could possibly be received with any positive attitudes; it’s hard to know who would be pleased by this. The main thing about Cameron is that he smacks of failure in every pore. Brexit, Libya, the economy: all of the problems that are faced in public services were aggravated by years of austerity. Cameron’s appointment is almost certainly because Sunak is at the end of his rope and is already thinking about how northern California will be a sunnier climate for his [post-prime ministerial] ambitions. His recent interview with Elon Musk was a job application.
Gavin Jacobson: Perhaps one way to understand Cameron’s return is whether it indicates any change in Britain’s position with respect to China, since, when he was prime minister, Cameron rolled the red carpet out for Xi Jinping.
John Gray: From the moment he became PM, Sunak adopted what he called a more balanced view of China and never followed the hard-line hawkishness of the previous Tory government led by Liz Truss. Cameron’s appointment might be a consequence of this. It’s also the case that the Biden administration in the US is beginning to take a slightly softer line towards Beijing now than it was even just a few weeks ago – because what’s taking place in the Middle East puts additional pressure on American policy in Ukraine and China. The White House will now want to hold their international relations in some kind of temporary equilibrium. What’s being realised in Washington and now London is that China does pose a significant security threat, but it’s not a rerun of the Cold War because of the co-dependency between the economies.
But I don’t think this in any way vindicates Cameron’s policy on China, which was wildly naive. When I was in Beijing in 2015, the people I met referred to Cameron and Osborne as “the two posh boys”, which was open contempt. But his restoration does come at a time not of a thaw but when Western policy towards China is being reconsidered both because of the penetration of Chinese economic interests in the Western economies, but also because the Gaza war has imposed another set of strategic urgencies on the US and, to a lesser extent, on the UK.
Gavin Jacobson: There’s a kind of irony in having the modern symbol of austerity as Foreign Secretary who now must confront China, the size and power of which is leading to a revaluation of economic policy around the world in terms of industrial strategies and a kind of state capitalism.
John Gray: Cameron is a time-warp figure. His appointment is a bafflingly inept move, the only rational explanation of which is that it represents exhaustion and fatigue on the part of the government. There’s nothing for anybody. Where was the constituency in Britain chanting, “BRING BACK CAMERON! BRING BACK CAMERON!” There’s now just a constituency of mass incomprehension, asking “why the hell are they bringing back this has-been, this loser?” It’s a suicide letter on the part of Sunak.
Gavin Jacobson: How do the events of the past 24 hours fit into your broader thesis on the crisis of liberalism, particularly liberalism’s inability to escape from its own cycle of failures, where it seems caught in a doom loop?
John Gray: It’s a failure of reinvention. We’re stuck in this sort of Nietzschean eternal recurrence of liberal fiasco, with all kinds of symptoms of the failure of the market, liberal regime around us, every single day, and penetrating every aspect of everyday life. And yet, there is an inability to get beyond it, the ability to transcend it or even to significantly mitigate the effects of these failures. This will be Labour’s problem in government, but even then Starmer hasn’t produced a vision of escaping the nightmare – merely to soften it and make it more tolerable.
[See also: The Tory right’s divided tribes]
There is now an emerging consensus among people, even if they might not articulate it in these terms, that the principal defect of neoliberalism was its narrow conception of the state as an enabler of the market. What Cameron and Osborne’s austerity agenda did – an agenda that was based on flawed economic theory – was to damage the economy and establish an erroneous conception of the state that doesn’t satisfy the needs of the population. That view has been discredited everywhere, it seems, except among the central political elite. Cameron’s neoliberal ideology regarding the state has run out of road.
But in Britain, there is still the fantasy that the free market can sustain hugely expensive and complicated long-term investments, even more so than the US, where Biden has pivoted to a more protectionist approach to political economy. Britain has a uniquely severe doom loop that we’re not able to escape from. Rachel Reeves has indicated how Labour has moved away from the deep simplicities of Blairism, especially about how the state has to be more active in providing economic security for citizens, but it’s not clear how, as chancellor, she would do this. As Wolfgang Münchau recently pointed out in the New Statesman, Bidenomics isn’t transportable outside of the US because Britain can’t replicate the kind of semi-autarkic neo-mercantilism that underpins it. And it can’t be protectionism masquerading as green policy. But there is a widespread sense that something is required, that there is a big problem that needs a solution, even within a capitalist framework. Otherwise, you just have the continued decline in public services and in everyday life that eventually produces some kickback.
Gavin Jacobson: You recently said that we’re moving away from living in an age of tragedy to living in an age of absurdity. Doesn’t Cameron’s restoration support that idea?
John Gray: In one sense, it is a tragedy that British politics has reached this point. But in another sense, it can’t be taken seriously. It’s absurd. The only question is how long we have to endure that absurdity? This might be why Kemi Badenoch, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, is the one to watch when it comes to the future of the Conservative Party. She has been making cryptic gestures towards a more nuanced populism, a populism that is adapted to British conditions and not American ones. That’s where, for the most part, the National Conservatives, the NatCons, fall down, because they try to transplant American discourse and even American policies into a national environment where they simply don’t fit, where they don’t have historical roots and when they won’t work. So, Badenoch has the freedom of mind and political instincts to do that more successfully. She’s the one to watch.