New Times,
New Thinking.

Rishi Sunak’s right-wing pantomime impresses no one

The Prime Minister’s performative populism and unending U-turns are acts in a music-hall farce.

By John Gray

As the Conservatives stagger towards defeat by Labour, a sense that the British party system is nearing the end of its useful life is growing more insistent. Dominic Cummings is proposing a new “start-up party” to replace a Westminster political class he sees as a vessel of delusional groupthink. The political scientist Matthew Goodwin believes a new party is needed as a vehicle for the movements he categorises as national populism. Others have already come to similar conclusions. Richard Tice’s Reform UK is based on the premise that the Conservatives are not fit for purpose as an expression of conservative values. William Clouston’s Social Democratic Party melds cultural conservatism with a left-wing economic agenda.

There may now be something approaching a British majority that is politically homeless and unrepresented in Westminster. The Conservatives have become a wing of a centrist uniparty spanning mainstream politics, which seeks to enforce a decaying progressive consensus on a restive electorate. Rishi Sunak’s performative right-wingery is a pantomime that impresses no one. His unending U-turns and resets are acts in a music-hall farce, recalling scenes in The Entertainer (1960), the classic British film in which the washed-up, dead-eyed comedian Archie Rice recites stale gags to sullen and sneering audiences.

Sunak has predicted that the local elections suggest a hung parliament. Based on the assumption that Scotland will vote as it did in 2019, it is risible reasoning. Politics in Britain is more unpredictable than it has been for some time, but Labour will assuredly fare much better in 2024 than it did then, when it held on to only a single Scottish seat. Even if there is a hung parliament, logic points to a Labour government. Aside from the DUP’s seven MPs, the Tories lack potential partners, whereas Labour – as Sunak acknowledged in his melodramatic warning against a “coalition of chaos” – could count on support from the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the SNP. In any realistic scenario, the Conservatives will soon be out of power. The question is what will become of them when the only thing that holds the party together – the perquisites of office – is gone.

There is much loose talk of a battle for the soul of the party, but political parties do not have souls. In the wake of the coming debacle, each of the main Tory factions – Trussite sub-Thatcherism, Cameroon centrism and post-liberal National Conservatism – will be driven by fear of extinction. None of them is prepared for the world in which they will land after the election.

In an age in which voters look to the state for protection from broken markets, Truss’s “popular Conservatism” is a political oxymoron. Post-liberal conservatives may be best attuned to the present in some ways, but they will be the most heavily culled in an electoral bloodbath. The largest grouping will likely be the Cameroons, who will own the Conservatives’ defeat.

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The post-Brexit left-conservatism fleetingly glimpsed in the Johnson-Cummings ascendancy was a winning political formula. A historic opportunity was lost, consumed by Boris Johnson’s vast carelessness. The failing British state is a product of the regime of austerity imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, aided and abetted by Nick Clegg, in the service of an extremist liberalism parading under flatulent slogans celebrating a non-existent “Big Society”. The end of the Conservatives as a serious party can be dated as coinciding with Sunak’s appointment of Cameron, the personification of Tory fecklessness, as Foreign Secretary.

If the Conservatives finger “populism” as the culprit in their defeat, they will position themselves on the margins of politics. Like their counterparts in other parties, “moderate” Tories interpret disaffection from the progressive consensus as mindless prejudice. When voters complain that immigration is straining social services, they are blindly obeying the dog whistles of demagogues. But the impact of large population inflows on housing supply, for example, is real. So are the polluted beaches and diarrhoea inflicted by privatised water utilities. A political class that persists in ignoring such realities has no future.

The time has not yet come for the challenger parties floated by Cummings and Goodwin. Whether it wins by a landslide or ends up a minority government, Labour will be a hostage of its progressive membership. Keir Starmer is at the door of No 10 because, following the guidance of hard-headed advisers, he has responded to the demands of voters rather than the faddish enthusiasms of party activists. In government, he and his party will be inclined to revert to type. An early marker of the shift will be pressing on with a costly, ineffective and – with its restrictive Ulez programmes and job-destroying green energy schemes – decreasingly popular net zero agenda.

 The triumph of the progressives will be short-lived. A lightly tweaked Nineties world-view has little resonance among people scrambling to survive in mounting global chaos, and voters will quickly lose patience with the uniparty’s ruling Labour wing. It will not be too long before Starmer is wearily treading the boards, another Archie Rice struggling to entertain a hostile audience.

[See also: How the SNP lost itself in hyper-liberalism]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024