George Orwell’s memorable take on Dickens, “rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles”, didn’t really fit the Conservatives – until recently, that is.
For most of its history, the party – run by relatively pragmatic leaders unconstrained by rank-and-file members and fuelled by no-questions-asked donations from business backers – might as well have been precision-engineered to win elections. Meanwhile, very few of the Tories we used to love to hate ever proved sufficiently nasty (or sufficiently comical) for us to call them to mind decades after they’d departed the scene.
But all that has changed. The architectural rot set in when, at the turn of the century, the then-leader William Hague persuaded his colleagues to award the final say in leadership contests to the grassroots. And it spread when some of the Tories’ biggest donors – instead of contenting themselves with simply paying an insurance policy against a Labour government and letting the politicians get on with it – began to demand a little more for their money: access, influence on the direction of the party (particularly over Europe), and honours, however controversial. The party in the media, too – proprietors, editors and columnists – became ever more ideologically vociferous.
As a result, any MP hoping to lead the Tories will need to please not only their Commons colleagues but the Conservative crowd too – often by appealing, in an increasingly 24/7 and polarised public sphere, to its most atavistic opinions. And that – along with the need to stem any bleeding of support to its Faragiste flank – has shifted the party’s centre of gravity firmly to the nationalistic and authoritarian right.
At the same time, the gargoyles have grown wonderfully grotesque – none more so, perhaps, than the ultras of the European Research Group and the so-called Red Wall: step forward Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Lee Anderson and Nadine Dorries.
But the greatest gargoyle of all, of course, is Boris Johnson – a populist politician so morally ugly that, in the end, not even his ardent fans in parliament, in the press and among the grassroots were able to save him from himself.
Johnson’s early exit from the Commons, however, has arguably come too late to save the party he seemed to see as little more than a vehicle for his own all-consuming ambition. Rishi Sunak – too spineless to come to parliament and endorse the Privileges Committee’s excoriating judgement on his predecessor – shows no sign, for all his tech-bro bonhomie, of wanting to move beyond the culture wars. If anything, he looks increasingly likely to double down on the anti-woke, anti-migrant rhetoric as his promises to “deliver” on the economy look less and less likely to produce results.
Defeat at next year’s general election may, of course, be the moment the Tories are mugged by reality. But don’t assume as much. That rotten architecture and those wonderful gargoyles will likely push Sunak’s successor even further away from the mainstream. How long will it take the party get back there?