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The new Tory tribes

Rishi Sunak’s MPs are already competing to define the party’s purpose and shape its future.

By New Statesman

The Conservative Party is recovering slowly from Liz Truss’s farcical premiership and its poll ratings have improved. Since entering Downing Street six months ago, Rishi Sunak has done enough to cast doubt on the general assumption that the Tories were heading for a landslide defeat at the next general election. Labour’s poll lead, which previously averaged 20 points, has fallen to as low as 11, while Mr Sunak’s approval ratings have even exceeded those of Keir Starmer. The Prime Minister has confounded those who predicted that his would be a zombie premiership. He defied his recalcitrant backbenchers to achieve a Brexit deal for Northern Ireland, he has outflanked Labour by announcing a £4bn expansion of free childcare, and he and Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, are sober and serious in their approach. What the Prime Minister has not done is resolve his party’s ideological tensions and contradictions.

Rather than waiting for the Conservatives to return to opposition, MPs are already competing to define the party’s purpose and shape its future. Ms Truss and her acolytes still herald tax cuts and deregulation as a panacea for the British economy. They are deluded. Others in the party, meanwhile, champion what they are calling “national conservatism”. This is a more pessimistic, authoritarian, explicitly Christian and anti-woke world-view, closer in spirit to some of the national populist movements in Europe than to neoliberalism.

[See also: The humbling of the SNP]

In an essay published on the New Statesman website, as part of our series on the crisis of conservatism, Danny Kruger, the Conservative MP for Devizes and a former political secretary to Boris Johnson, argues for a renewed commitment to the nation state and “traditional social forms”. A social conservative, he calls on the party to take inspiration from Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Ron DeSantis in Florida. He wants the government to “break the cartel of the property developers” through the establishment of community land trusts and denounces the “unearned wealth” created by quantitative easing (QE). Mr Kruger strongly opposes open borders and high immigration.  And he calls for the UK to review its membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, as part of action against asylum seekers, and condemns the Equality Act for fostering “division and antagonism”.

Such ideas may unsettle the left and liberals – and, indeed, some Tory MPs – but they enjoy support among a significant section of the electorate and will be central to the next Conservative leadership election.

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A third Tory faction, grouped around the Onward think tank and close to Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary and great survivor of Tory politics, supports a renewed focus on public services, regional inequality and living standards.

Mr Sunak uneasily straddles all three of these groups. He is an alumnus of Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley and, like Ms Truss, he wants lower taxes and a smaller state. But he also has national conservative instincts: he is a Brexiteer and has made firm action against Channel crossings one of his five priorities. He does not share the interest of early Cameroons in civil liberties and liberal social policy.

Above all else, he is a pragmatist: Mr Sunak has approved the highest tax burden since the Second World War and the highest sustained public spending since the 1970s. He has accepted a continued role for EU law in Northern Ireland and refuses to guarantee that his pledge to “stop the boats” will be met by the next election (describing it as a “complicated problem”).

If anything defines Mr Sunak’s strategy, it is perhaps Michael Oakeshott’s observation that the “enterprise” of politics “is to keep afloat on an even keel”.

In truth, the Prime Minister’s task is to save his party from a heavy election defeat – he does not have time or space to reinvent it. But, as Andrew Marr writes, the animated intellectual debate on the right has no centre-left equivalent. For a party that remains most likely to form the next government, Labour lacks ideas and intellectual ambition. Nor does it have a thriving ecosystem of think tanks and ideologues to support it. Where are the equivalent of the New Right thinkers and think tanks who, in the 1970s, created the conditions for Thatcherism? For now, British politics is defined by stasis. But the opportunity remains to create a new settlement. Labour should grasp it.

[See also: The quiet consensus]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats