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3 September 2022

Britain at the mercy of the Tory party faithful

Once again, a UK prime minister has been chosen by a cartel of Conservative members. How did the “selectorate” end up with so much power?

By Colin Kidd

What began as a summer of mid-term Conservative renewal degenerated, all too predictably perhaps, into an unedifying public auction for the votes of the Conservative Party’s 160,000 members. As the candidates to replace Boris Johnson jostled for position, the optics looked promising: a striking picture of gender balance and ethnic diversity – Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Liz Truss, Penny Mordaunt, Nadhim Zahawi, Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat. Labour squirmed uneasily, for it has few ethnic-minority politicians in prominent roles and – except Margaret Beckett on a short-term caretaker basis – has never had a female leader. 

But once Tory MPs had whittled down the list to the top two candidates, the competition took a different turn. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss pandered to what they assumed to be a selfish, Thatcher-worshipping tribe of hard Brexiters, almost completely ignoring the rest of the electorate. As first reported by the New Statesman, Sunak was caught on film boasting that he had diverted public funds away from deprived areas towards comfortably prosperous Tunbridge Wells. Liz Truss was caught on tape offending British workers, saying they needed “more graft”. For Truss, the slapdash answer to today’s economic woes is yet more sub-Thatcherite mimicry, in the form of tax cuts.

Adept politicians are usually able to craft messages that speak simultaneously to divergent groups – in this case party members, Tory voters and floating centrists – but Sunak and Truss lack the requisite skills to make such a plausible pitch to multiple audiences. And neither candidate has made much of an effort to educate either the Conservative Party or the British public about the problems we face, notwithstanding the free media coverage provided by all the televised hustings and debates.

[See also: Making the rules of government]

Unventilated saloon-bar prejudice has a long pedigree in the lower reaches of the Conservative Party, largely contained by the political elite until the 1980s, when it began to seep into party rhetoric. But it is now accompanied by a phenomenon that is even more alarming: Brexit-driven, Johnson-style boosterism. Brexit was never about practical solutions to real-world problems; it was rather about invoking populist grievance, English identity politics (variously anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-Scottish and, more recently, anti-woke) and post-imperial dreams of national rebirth. This make-believe element has completed the Conservatives’ long descent from a relatively non-ideological pragmatism, via harsh Thatcherite doctrine, to today’s tabloid Toryism: Anglo-Trumpite, jingoistic and puffed up on empty fantasy.

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Somehow large sections of the party manage to combine a cult of Thatcher – based on a distorted distant memory of their heroine – with Johnson’s utterly non-Thatcherite cake-and-eat-it policy menu: you can be prosperous without courting – indeed while antagonising – the large European market on your doorstep; you can cut taxes and have a stronger state with improved defence capabilities and better public services; the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the withdrawal treaty you yourself have negotiated – can be overridden. Cakeism is preposterous, even on its own terms, but there is something still more insidious about the current Tory idolatry of a false Thatcher. A versatile and agile politician, she was more cautious and much less direct than the battling “Maggie” of tabloid headlines.

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Thatcherism proper died in the course of our prolonged Brexit negotiations, when the Conservatives opted for an economic future outside the European single market. This was tantamount to Tory vandalism of a Thatcherite monument, for not only did Thatcher welcome the Single European Act of 1986, she recognised the single market as in large part the creation of her former Treasury minister Arthur Cockfield. For all the anti-European posturing she adopted at various points in her career, Thatcher is just as plausible an icon for Remain or the softest of Brexits.

A world of difference separates Truss’s vapid tribute act and Thatcherism itself. Truss pays homage to the gimmicks, catchphrases and slogans of a populist brand, not the serious body of Thatcherite policy analysis associated with John Hoskyns, her chief strategist in opposition and during her first three years in office, much of which remains highly pertinent to an economy where inflationary pressures fuel wage demands and strikes.

Thatcher herself tempered prejudice with prudence, callousness with the logic of monetarism and the operations of the market. Truss’s pseudo-Thatcherism, on the other hand, is a garbled misrepresentation of the original. Is it conceivable that, in the aftermath of massive furlough-related public debt and in the face of rising inflation, a true Thatcherite would further unbalance the books by implementing tax cuts? Early on in the race, Sunak tried to speak in a more authentically Thatcherite idiom of orthodox fiscal rectitude, but flip-flopped when he realised that Truss’s spurious supply-side boosterism was enjoying greater traction with the party membership.

Among the many ironies of this debased contest, the most poignant is that both Truss and Sunak are graduates of PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) at Oxford. We have to assume that what we have seen and heard is the language of overweening ambition, and not of delusion. What we can be certain about is that process matters. If the competition to elect the leader had been limited to Conservative MPs, as it was between the 1960s and 1990s, the debate would have followed a rather different course, attending, by way of MPs wishing to be re-elected, to the needs and fears of the wider electorate. Paradoxically, by extending the franchise to the broader party membership in the late 1990s, the Conservative Party narrowed the bandwidth of debate.

There are, of course, numerous factors which account for the strange gyrations of 21st-century Conservative politics: the bias of the Murdoch press and the whims of the Daily Mail; the Farage factor; Johnson’s sense of entitlement, unguided by any consistent ideological compass; the sober miscalculations of Theresa May; Johnson’s effective purge of Remainers and pragmatic soft Brexiters; the visceral responses to EU consolidation, to Scottish nationalism, to the “woke agenda”; the distorting effect of house prices on economic well-being; the shrinking relevance of economic competence in an era of culture wars – but we should not discount the importance of the way in which the party chooses its leader. 

The selection of the leader first came into focus in the autumn of 1963 when the Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan was hospitalised with a prostate problem. At this point there was no definitive procedure for selecting a leader, merely a loose set of customary practices, untethered to fixed precedents. There were four potential leaders, Rab Butler (who had already served as chancellor, home secretary and as acting head of government during the illnesses of Churchill and Eden), Reginald Maudling, Viscount Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) and the ultimate victor, the 14th Earl of Home (Alec Douglas-Home). The informal soundings by which Douglas-Home emerged as leader – or rather the fact that the most obvious replacement, Butler, had somehow not been chosen – caused a major controversy. Indeed, Iain Macleod, a leading reformist Tory who, like his fellow cabinet member Enoch Powell, refused to serve under Douglas-Home, wrote an article in the Spectator denouncing the “magic circle” of party grandees who had effectively fixed the result. But things weren’t quite what they seemed, for it transpired decades later that Macleod had, perhaps, in secret supported Douglas-Home; cynical duplicity of the sort we now associate with Truss and Sunak can coexist, as in Macleod’s case, with a sincere and embattled commitment to a progressive, liberalising Toryism.

[See also: The provocations of Enoch Powell]

After the furore over the “magic circle”, which cast doubt on his own legitimacy as prime minister and party leader, Douglas-Home opted for a process that was more transparent and formalised. The primary begetter of the new system was the maverick Humphry Berkeley, then a Conservative MP, but later, having lost his seat in the 1966 general election, a defector to Labour, and again from Labour to the Social Democratic Party (SDP). When the SDP split over its merger with the Liberals in 1988, he jumped ship again, back to Labour. His erratic career notwithstanding, the arrangements Berkeley devised for electing the Tory leader operated successfully for three decades.

Under the Berkeley rules, Conservative MPs alone would vote for the leader, at every stage in the proceedings. In the first round, any candidate who obtained a majority and 15 per cent more of the total vote than any other candidate was duly elected. If not, the contest would proceed to a second ballot in which an overall majority sufficed for victory. In the absence of a winner, a third ballot would be held. Aside from the post-defeat huffiness of both Ted Heath after 1975 and Margaret Thatcher after 1990, the leadership elections themselves, in 1965 (when Heath won), 1975 (Thatcher), 1990 (Major) and 1997 (Hague) were good-natured, collegial contests and a decent shop window for the party to market its wares. The one exception – a harbinger of more recent woes – came in 1995 when Major, irritated by Eurosceptic troublemakers in his cabinet, put himself up for re-election and soundly defeated John Redwood, whose supporters constituted a ragtag grouping of anti-European extremists.

The electoral disaster of 1997, when the Tories were reduced to a mere 165 MPs, prompted the party’s new leader, William Hague, to reform the process. Asking an out-of-touch party membership to elect the leader from the top two candidates chosen by Tory MPs was the brainchild of two former management consultants, Hague and Archie Norman, the party’s deputy chair, who had both worked at McKinsey & Company. The reasoning was clear: giving those who joined the party a say in the election of the leader was designed to attract more members. But the new system’s success was itself predicated on the party membership growing, broadening beyond a subsection of the white and elderly to become more representative of the public at large. Growth and rejuvenation never happened, and, as a result, the parliamentary party has been tempted to circumvent the self-defeating procedures introduced in 1998.

So badly had the system worked during its first outing in 2001, that in 2003 Tory MPs unilaterally installed a successor without reference to the wider party. In the final ballot of MPs in the 2001 contest to choose Hague’s successor the two candidates with telegenic star quality and experience of high office, Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo got, respectively, 59 and 53 votes from colleagues, while Iain Duncan Smith, a hard-right Eurosceptic backwoodsman, got 54 votes, just enough to edge out Portillo. Given a choice in the run-off between Clarke, whose Europhilia negated his obvious appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, and a stalwart Eurosceptic, the membership plumped for Duncan Smith, who proved a disaster as leader. Appointed in 2001, Duncan Smith was voted out of the leadership by his fellow Conservative MPs in a confidence vote in 2003. More significantly, the MPs – by now distrustful of the wisdom of the wider party membership – elected Michael Howard as leader unopposed.

A variant of this workaround occurred again in 2016 when David Cameron stood down after the Euro-referendum result. After the initial rounds of voting the competition was whittled down to a contest between Theresa May, a candidate of competence and seniority, and Andrea Leadsom, a fervent Brexiter though much less experienced. The membership was – yet again – excluded from the final part of the process. Leadsom gave an interview in which she suggested that her having had children gave her a greater stake in the future of the country than the childless May. Such was the blowback from her comments that Leadsom was forced to withdraw from the contest.    

The quirks of the Conservative Party’s internal machinery go some way towards explaining the Tories current travails. But we still have to ask how the party – once renowned for competence (however heartless), ruthless pragmatism and a capacity for creative reinvention – has lost its appetite for sensible governance, yet has continued to be re-elected into office. The public’s assessment of Labour’s fitness for government, under the far from obviously prime ministerial Jeremy Corbyn, is a crucial part of the story. But Labour’s recent woes do not explain the sudden transformation of the Tories. How did a party of fiscally prudent Thatcherites, whose instincts were held in check by a substantial grouping of One Nation paternalists, mutate so rapidly since 2016 into a pseudo-Thatcherite body dominated by anti-European culture warriors? Why did the party that had conspicuously led British integration with European institutions – under Heath, Thatcher and Major – become so intolerant of Remainers and oblivious of its own traditions? 

The Conservative Party has historically offered a big tent for a variety of just-about-compatible ideological positions – ecclesiastical, hierarchical, imperialist, fiscally dry – as well as a gentlemanly ethic of service. The party has its roots in Anglican churchmanship and the interests of landowners, later broadening out into a more generalised support for property, including businesses and middle-class home ownership. No single version of political economy enjoyed enduring dominance. Agricultural protectionism and then imperial tariffs were, for long periods, just as influential as free trade. The absorption of dissident Liberals – first the Liberal Unionists at the turn of the 20th century, and later the National Liberals, who had seceded in the 1930s – added non-Tory flavours to the party’s pick ’n’ mix culture. In bygone days the Conservatives also provided a vehicle for upper-caste worthies committed primarily to service rather than to any overt ideology. Indeed, ideology itself was suspect: the party’s traditional preference for piecemeal tinkering sprang from a deep-seated scepticism about grand designs, abrupt changes and the unintended consequences which ensue.  

[See also: Why Dominic Cummings was the main obstacle to his own revolution]

Tory Brexiters now tout a network of kith and kin in the “Anglosphere” (the United States and Commonwealth) as a healthy alternative to the unnatural constraints of the European Union. But in the immediate postwar decades, Conservatives were oblivious of any incompatibilities between overlapping commitments to the Anglo-American special relationship, the Commonwealth and a diffuse Churchillian vision of a United States of Europe.

Sometimes it was impossible to reconcile all of these divergent causes, but the fault lines weren’t always in the obvious places. Anthony Eden’s unsuccessful Suez venture of 1956 involved an Anglo-French partnership to bolster Britain’s wider imperial interests, which was thwarted by political pressure from the US. Macmillan’s son-in-law Julian Amery, arguably the last Tory imperialist, combined a deep commitment to what remained of the empire with the goal of joining the European Common Market.

Only in the late 1980s and early 1990s did Tory commitment to Europe begin to fray, with the unhappy near-conjunction of Thatcher’s Bruges speech in 1988; her removal from office in 1990; the pound’s humiliating exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992; and the controversial transformation of the European Economic Community into the European Union. These events begat both a healthy Tory scepticism about the utopian pretensions of the EU and a decidedly unconservative zeal to free the UK from the constraints of our political and economic entanglements with Europe.

This is the background to the series of false starts, dangerous swerves and wrong turns we have witnessed over the past decade. The biggest mistake of all was Cameron’s decision to allow a referendum on EU membership, an abdication of the responsibilities of representative government for the sake of party advantage. But what had probably more effect on the future shape and character of the Conservative Party was Theresa May’s reluctance on taking office to articulate the reality of what had happened at the Brexit referendum of 2016. Some things she got right, such as the implications for economic and social policy. Guided by her adviser Nick Timothy, a communitarian in the tradition of the Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain, she perceived Brexit as a plea for a more statist, interventionist conservatism. But she misconstrued the 2016 referendum result.

Leave had attracted voters from across the political spectrum, against the Remain-supporting Conservative establishment. May succumbed to the temptation to make Brexit a Tory project, when she might more plausibly have conducted the process of leaving the EU on a cross-party basis. Her eventual downfall – though hastened by her decision to call a snap election in 2017 – derived ultimately from this initial misstep; not that it has done the party itself any harm with the wider electorate. Identity politics – Leave vs Remain, trad versus “woke” – detach voting preferences from policy outcomes. That’s why the Tories could make a mess of the Brexit negotiations, and, under Johnson, still win the general election of 2019.

More generally, the relentlessness of the news cycle, compounded by Twitter and other forms of social media, blurs the distinction between campaigning and governance. That’s why, as we have seen in the recent Conservative leadership contest, identity signalling now seems to matter more than coherent policy formation. For all their faults, Truss and Sunak were responding rationally to an environment defined by irrational identity politics – and in particular to the demands of a contest to win the votes of a bizarrely atypical subset of the wider electorate.

It was the drift from class alignment and perceptions of competence towards identity-based populism that enabled Johnson’s rise. It made a potential vote-winner of a charismatic clown. There were other portents of Trumpification: Johnson prorogued parliament and removed the party whip from moderate MPs who were unable to countenance the ramifications of a no-deal Brexit. Effectively, Johnson thereby purged the party of the most immediate threats to his own leadership, from the competent, the pragmatic and the capable. Yet enough talent and decency remained on the front benches to furlough workers during lockdown, procure vaccines, and, eventually, contrive Johnson’s removal from office.

However, the need for the top two Tory candidates to woo an illiberal membership has significantly set back any hopes that the party might be repurposed as an engine of pragmatism. Worse still, Johnson has given various hints that he sees his future role as a disruptive king over the water, waiting for the opportunity to topple his successor and return to office – just as he used Brexit as an instrument to eject his immediate predecessor, and her predecessor before that.

[See also: The twilight of the Union]