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The Brexit revolution devours its children

As Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng lose authority and control, the Tories’ divisions can be traced back to the EU referendum.

By Andrew Marr

Can Liz Truss survive? The humiliating U-turn over the top rate tax cut has won her time in the party and in the markets. But within hours of the first U-turn, her premiership was unravelling further in almost every direction. In the crammed bars of the Birmingham Hyatt hotel, seasoned Tories were, during their party’s conference, discussing their future, using phrases such as “death spiral” and “doom loop”… as well as fruitier Anglo-Saxon terms unsuitable for family publications like this one.

Tory MPs, up to and including ministers, were making it clear they would not vote through real-terms benefit cuts; a weakening of environmental protection in enterprise zones; fracking; or a planning free-for-all. There is a growing move against any radical dilution by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Business Secretary, of employment rights.

Two obvious conclusions follow. First, never mind the disastrous mini-Budget: within two days of Liz Truss’s first conference as prime minister, there is not much left of her much-vaunted growth package. Second – since this is all about parliamentary numbers – it suggests that the Conservative Party’s system of imposing by vote of its ordinary members a leader its MPs haven’t elected is fundamentally flawed and needs to be scrapped.

[See also: Can Liz Truss survive?]

What has been happening in Birmingham is all about that indefinable, unmistakable and essential quality in leadership: authority. Neither Truss nor Kwasi Kwarteng, the Chancellor, are going to be taken as seriously as they were before the Budget debacle. (And that wasn’t very.)

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The tax U-turn happened because, in the oily hubbub of the Tory Birmingham conference, it was becoming clear that a putsch was under way. Michael Gove’s defiance on live television on Sunday 2 October, in making it known, as he sat only yards away from the Prime Minister, that he was prepared to vote against her finance bill, set off behind-the-palm discussions among anti-Truss MPs. A stream of senior party figures told her directly and privately that she would have to eat humble pie. She stared back, expressionless, but she was listening.

This may seem mad – but others were talking quite seriously of ways to remove the new PM without staging another leadership election. That ancient and obscure Tory behaviour of “taking soundings” might be employed to present her with some kind of alternative “unity candidate”. So far no one seems able to agree on who that might be.

Meanwhile, ten polling companies could not agree about the Labour lead. Some said just 19 points; two others went as high as 33. The Daily Mail went from a front-page splash on Saturday 24 September of “At last! A true Tory Budget” to, by Tuesday 4 October, the bellowed appeal “Get a Grip!”.

So at this time, above all, we need some perspective. Taking a longer view, the problems so glaringly evident in Birmingham started around six years ago, because the Conservatives, having created the circumstances for Brexit, could not agree about the meaning of what had happened. Was the vote for Brexit a reassertion of British traditionalism, or was it a revolutionary break? Or was it for many an expression of mass disaffection?

Almost everything that has gone wrong for the Tories since the referendum goes back to that central confusion. One small example: traditionally we have had a progressive tax system, so Gove called the scrapping of the top rate of income tax un-Conservative. Yet for the market revolutionaries in his party, it was the most “Conservative” move possible.

I was filming around the country at the time of the 2016 referendum and was struck by the discordance between what the people I was talking to said they wanted from leaving the EU and what the Brexit high command claimed they wanted.

In almost every Tory-leaning conversation, radical nostalgia came through. It wasn’t ridiculous or nasty. There was a wistful impatience about the modern world, a conviction that manners, dutifulness and efficiency had deteriorated and that this was somehow to do with the imposition of overseas authority. (I think almost none of this was true, but I’m reporting a widespread feeling.)

Some leading Brexiters agreed. Nigel Farage certainly shared a lot of that, marinated in a golf-clubby, cricket-fixated mindset that looked back to imperial measures and the old City where his father, whom he idolised, worked. Getting out of “Europe” meant returning to aspects of an idealised childhood. Or something like that.

[See also: Voters think Brexit was a mistake, but would they reverse it?]

One could almost touch and smell this nostalgic urge in small towns in Hampshire or Kent, where men affected yachting caps and raspberry-coloured corduroys and where the shops sold scale models of Spitfires and picture books of the same town in Edwardian photographs. Much of Brexit Britain was still the England of high privet hedges, cryptic crosswords and unpopular vergers – a 21st century take on a mindset George Orwell or Louis MacNeice would have recognised.

Was it racist? Yes, often enough in its jokes, though seldom face to face. It was cheerfully ignorant of other cultures except, of course, those of the Dordogne and the Algarve. “Abroad” for Brexit nostalgists meant the gentler parts of the Caribbean and European peninsulas reachable from P&O cruise liners.

I’m caricaturing a specifically Conservative Brexitism; of course, there was the Brexit of the much angrier and poorer north and Midlands. This was a Brexit more about distant power, wage suppression, neglect and inequality. But the mild, mainstream Tory Brexiters talked a lot about parliamentary sovereignty, which the Whig tradition had taught them was responsible for British greatness.

Among the Birmingham faithful at the conference, many were still in that camp. If you wanted to be philosophical about it, you could connect it to the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott, as in preferring “the familiar to the unknown… the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant…”

But living alongside that was a very different Brexit. It was a theoretical, ideological Brexitism. It believed that by freeing Britain from EU regulations the United Kingdom could then tear down the social democratic consensus that had been built over the 20th century. Revolutionary Brexit wanted to return us not to 1953 but to an unfamiliar Americanised world of ceaseless change and raging markets. It was chary about describing this publicly but the position had a certain logic. What was the point of leaving the EU, with all the disruption and friction that involved, without taking a radically different turn?

Much of the thinking in this version of Brexit came from the world of free-enterprise think tanks so brilliantly anatomised recently by Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman (“Liz Truss and the rise of the libertarian right”, 28 September 2022). In terms of pure style, it was exemplified by the smash-the-establishment, non-party radicalism of Dominic Cummings. Unlike nostalgia-Brexit, this was metropolitan, Atlanticist and deeply critical of the role the British parliament had played in public life. (“Westminster has let the whole country down for many years” – Dominic Cummings.)

“Revolutionary Brexit” is a loose term, and many of its adherents fell away or were expelled in the profound political feuds of post-Brexit London – all revolutionary movements spew out splits and traitors. But it describes something that exists and is now insecurely in power. David Cameron was grandly contemptuous of it. Theresa May struggled vainly to discover a compromise with it. Boris Johnson agreed with it, but only on occasional mornings when his breakfast was disagreeing with him.

If its Silicon Valley, tech-derived motto was “Move fast and break things”, revolutionary Brexit certainly did that. It has kept breaking things until there was nothing left to break. Except, it turns out, the Tory party itself.

This story was confused at a crucial point by the idiosyncratic influence of Johnson. His great political trick was that, uniquely, he could reach across the opposing ideas of Brexit, mixing big-state actions with rhetoric about throwing off chains, using familiar words and homely jokes for Hampshire and reassurance for the Red Wall. But he was also prepared to impose the illegal prorogation of parliament. Johnson gave a personality answer to a philosophical conundrum – until, of course, his personality (and character flaws) brought him down.

To be fair to Johnson, the pandemic confused the battle lines, giving the state a far more intrusive role than any Brexit revolutionary would have found tolerable in ordinary times. But the fall of Johnson and the rise of Truss marked the final victory of the small-state revolutionaries over the conservative nostalgists.

And – surprise, surprise – they aren’t popular. The country has never voted for this revolution and doesn’t want it. Even Tory MPs didn’t and don’t. This is a revolutionary clique, not real Conservatives, and in Birmingham the party realised it.

So what happens next? As usual, the revolution is devouring its children. Truss can survive but probably only by changing course in a way that leaves her as a poor communicator without a message. Westminster will be more dangerous than Birmingham. She badly needs to buy herself time by postponing impossible confrontations.

I don’t know how or when, but politics is now so fragile that a sudden collapse and an early general election cannot be ruled out, perhaps triggered by some issue we haven’t yet noticed. That would be Tory suicide. One of the ironies of this is that the worse the polling is for the party, the safer Truss may be from a coup (probably botched) that would finish with voters and pencils. Yet as soon as the polling improves, Downing Street will celebrate it as evidence that the policy, whatever the policy is, is working.

Anyway, after the victory of the Brexit revolutionaries over the mainstream Conservatives, who could bring the Tories back together now? Rishi Sunak – the economic arguments he made during the leadership campaign vindicated – would face the hatred of the other half of the party. Boris Johnson won a general election just three years ago, but wounds are too raw for his comeback.

Anyway, personnel is not really the issue. A politics that rejects redistribution and celebrates devil-take-the-hindmost is unpopular and unsustainable in modern Britain. It doesn’t lead to long-term growth. Or social cohesion.

Revolutionary Brexit feels not only like a source of instability but a national dead end. It has divided us in new ways. It has made us turn our backs on natural allies – the Dutch, Germans and Irish, as well as the French. It has made the international markets look at Britain far more aggressively.

No, this only ends one way. In Liverpool we learned that Labour is getting ready for power, offering that interesting programme – a bit less mayhem. In Birmingham, it seems that the revolution is over, and is now greedily devouring its children.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s speech showed he is a prime minister in waiting]

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!