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10 August 2022

The Tory party has been infected by a purist brainworm

This summer’s leadership contest has taken place in a parallel ideological universe.

By Martha Gill

You may not have heard of Euhaplorchis californiensis. It is a parasite that enters a fish through the gills and heads to the brain, where it triggers a huge rush of dopamine. This probably makes the fish feel amazing, but also compels it to act completely against its interests. Overcome with ecstasy and confidence, it wriggles around aggressively at the surface of the water, where it is inevitably eaten by a bird in which the parasite can finally lay its eggs.

It struck me that there is a parallel between this tragic fish and the present state of the Tory party. A sort of behaviour-changing parasite has infected it – in much the same way that it infected Labour in recent years. Call it a purist brainworm. The ideological fervour that kept Jeremy Corbyn in post long after it was obvious he was horribly damaging Labour’s electoral prospects has now gripped the Tories too. Now, nothing real matters to the party – not the country’s finances, not the real-life concerns of its people, not even its prospects at the next election – only its obedience to the purist brainworm.

That is why the Tory leadership race feels as if it is operating in a parallel universe. The party’s neural chemistry has been altered. It is no longer acting in its own interests. The dapper member of the metropolitan elite, Rishi Sunak, no longer even seems to be acting under his own volition: he recently attacked “lefty lawyers” for exploiting the European Court of Human Rights. Some unseen right-wing force has taken over his brain. 

It is strange because the Tory party has long been known for its practicality (“ruthless”, I think, was the word). But now, as has been laid painfully bare in this leadership contest, it has become obsessed with signalling – signals that will likely ensure it gets eaten. The party signals that it is against the woke – or in other words, the kind of social liberals who make up a large chunk of its voter base (while another chunk, when polled, didn’t know what the term meant). It signals that it worships Margaret Thatcher – or in other words, the bogey figure of post-industrial constituencies in the Midlands and the north that the Conservatives won from Labour in 2019 but are now struggling to hold. It signals that it is no longer fiscally conservative, and that the BBC is not to be trusted, and that the civil service is hopelessly diverse, and that lawyers are bad, and that it does not think the rule of law should always be obeyed by the prime minster – or in other words, that it does not share the values on which its wide coalition of voters tend to agree. It signals that it regrets the disposal of Boris Johnson, who had become so deeply unpopular that the Tories were losing by-elections in long-held seats. As Labour once ignored crucial voters in the Red Wall, the Tories are ignoring important groups all over the map.

How did this happen? The parasite first crept into the Conservatives in 2016, through the wound created by Brexit. You could say it is the spirit of Brexit that has been eating away at the party ever since. It was Brexit that first set it on a course that was increasingly divergent from reality. The problem, in a nutshell, is that leaving the EU will make the country poorer; but, having won an election on that platform, it is now impossible for the party to say so. Instead, the more it becomes obvious that Brexit was a mistake, the more boosterish and confident Tory leaders have had to become. First Theresa May, then Boris Johnson and soon, probably, Liz Truss – all pointing with increasingly manic certainty at the sunlit uplands just over the horizon. When those sunlit uplands do not appear, the party simply appoints a more confident leader.

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Once you start detaching yourself from reality it is hard to stop. The party’s policies are no longer assessed on their real-life popularity with voters, or on their value to the country, but on how “Brexit” they feel. The Economist columnist Duncan Robinson used the term “unpopulism” to describe how MPs project “their own neuroses, fetishes and obsessions onto an imagined people”. In 2020, Tory MPs slammed footballers for taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter justice movement, even though a majority of fans supported them. Most people do not care about statues or “no-platforming” controversial speakers at universities – which have been the preoccupation of the party’s “warriors on woke” over the past couple of years.

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Some MPs on the right of the party have tried to stir up anti-net zero target sentiment, but Tory voters feel similarly to Labour voters and are broadly in support of cutting carbon emissions. Winning an election will require holding together a broad and diverse group of voters, no longer bound by their support for Brexit. Traditionally, that has meant moving to the centre. But the Tory party is infected with a purist brainworm. It is no more likely to move to the centre than fly.

I suspect that in coming elections even those who once voted Brexit will start to look suspiciously at the party’s religious attachment to the policy and its cultural spirit. An Opinium poll last December found 42 per cent of Leave voters felt Brexit had gone worse than expected. At some point, promises by some grinning politician to “fully unleash the benefits of Brexit” are likely going to ring so hollow that it will actively turn voters off. Perhaps at that point the party will finally reconnect with reality and be cured.

Or perhaps not. Both Labour and Tory parties contain a fatal weakness when it comes to infection by purism: their memberships. Members, unlike MPs, are not tethered to the reality of constituents’ opinions, and their views are likely to be reinforced and pushed onward by similar ones around them. They are, therefore, particularly vulnerable to purist brainworm. And as long as members are responsible for making the final decision on leaders, so will the parties.

[See also: Inside the Tory grassroots: what do Conservative Party members really want?]