Professor Chris Grey’s Brexit analysis – placing Truss’s ‘essay’ and Sunak’s many woes in the wider context of a ‘Brexitist’ capture of conservatism, and how that could lead to a re-alignment of the political right.
I t’s almost impossible to overstate the extent to which Brexit is bound up with the peculiarities, schisms, crises and in some parts almost madness of modern British Conservativism.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, opposition to British membership of what became the EU was the province of Bennites on the left and Powellite nationalists on the right. The inclusion of leaving the EEC in the Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto was seen as a key part of the wider political foolishness of what became called ‘the longest suicide note in history’. By the 1990s the mainstream Labour movement had entirely abandoned this Euroscepticism, and it lived on only amongst a fairly small group of what we now call Lexiters.
But Conservatism embraced ever more virulent versions of it. Within the Tory Party, that grew from the 1992 Maastricht rebels and became incubated as a ‘party within a party’ by the European Research Group (ERG) founded in 1993. Meanwhile, the Referendum Party and UKIP emerged, with the latter enduring to become a significant electoral force in votes and in European Parliamentary seats, if not in Westminster. David Cameron sought in vain to stop his party ‘banging on about Europe’, whilst describing UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”.
A tale of two parties
However, what is now far clearer than perhaps it was at the time is that UKIP developed not so much as a separate party but as a kind of pressure group within Conservatism as a whole. Thus Nigel Farage had started out as a Conservative Party member, leaving in protest at Maastricht but, ideologically, there was, and still is, little if any difference between him and the ERG. Indeed the ERG had multiple links with UKIP and other anti-EU groups and parties. There has also always been a lot of interchange at the level of grassroots party membership between the Conservatives and UKIP, and a certain amount between its MPs and MEPs.
As a pressure group, Farage and UKIP (and, later, the Brexit Party and, now, the Reform Party) were critical in getting Cameron’s Conservative Party to hold the 2016 referendum. In a similar way, during the Referendum, the official Vote Leave and the unofficial Leave.EU campaigns were, whilst at loggerheads in terms of personalities, effectively complementary. Thus Vote Leave was able to make the ‘respectable’ leave case whilst Leave.EU could run a more stridently populist and anti-immigration campaign. All the votes garnered counted equally, after all.
Then, in the 2019 General Election, Farage’s decision not to run candidates in Conservative-held seats, reversing his previous stance, helped to give Boris Johnson his majority to ‘get Brexit done’, and certainly ensured that his majority was as large as it was. That election also saw the purging of many Tory MPs who were, or were seen as, anti-Brexit, or were just of a more moderate bent than the Brexiters. Thus, all the way through the process that led to Brexit, there has been a kind of on-and-off alliance, albeit wearing the paradoxical clothes of rivalry, between chunks of the Tory Party and the Farage parties.
Why does any of this matter now? The answer is because it is not ancient history, and it’s not even just recent history: it continues to be a key dynamic in the politics of post-Brexit Britain and in particular in the battle within British Conservatism about what ‘true Conservatism’ is.
Brexitists and Traditionalists
Thus Conservatism now consists of a dominant group which is pro-Brexit, pro-low tax, pro-deregulation, lockdown-sceptic, net-zero-sceptic, anti-woke etc. It is tempting to call them libertarians, but they are only selectively that (e.g. they are lockdown sceptics but authoritarian about public protests and human rights generally). This group spans much of the Tory Party and all of the Reform Party, as well as their media cheerleaders. They might be called populists, Brexit Ultras (or perhaps just Ultras, which captures their extremism) or Brexitists, which captures their mindset. They, of course, would describe themselves as ‘true Conservatives’ or simply ‘Conservatives’, but in doing so, they deliberately ignore another kind of Conservative.
These other Conservatives are, whatever the Brexitists may think, certainly on the political right. They are not necessarily anti-Brexit and, even if some were remainers, few are now re-joiners. But they aren’t fanatical about Brexit, don’t position themselves as ‘anti-Establishment’, are pro-business, fiscally ‘orthodox’, rationalists, and support the rule of law, including international law. They might be called Traditionalists or Pragmatists. Their natural, but increasingly precarious, home is the Tory Party, and they probably don’t exist at all in the Reform Party.
It's this context, rather than the personal idiosyncrasies that she certainly possesses, which explains Liz Truss’s attempt last week to re-habilitate herself: she is the aspirant leader of the Brexitists. And it is this which explains the divisions which Rishi Sunak faces over Brexit policy and other issues, because he doesn’t really belong to, and therefore isn’t really trusted by, either group. More generally, these things show that post-Brexit politics is already changing the political right and may create an even more profound transformation.
What Truss has learned: nothing
In his recent excellent essay on Liz Truss’s premiership, the historian Robert Saunders emphasises that she “did not fall into No. 10 from a spaceship, like some twin-set Mr Bean. She won the leadership because she best expressed what Conservatism has become”. It’s true that she had the taint of having supported remaining in the EU, but she readily shrugged off that skin.
Theresa May had done that too but always seemed to have embraced Brexit only as a dutiful reality. That was genuine, and Brexiters were quite wrong to doubt it, but it was not enthusiastic. In that sense, for all that she employed many of the Brexitists’ tropes when Prime Minister, and certainly shared the Brexiter hostility to freedom of movement of people, she remained a Traditionalist. Truss, by contrast, already a fervent free-market, deregulatory ideologue, became a true convert, a “born-again Ultra” as I first described her when she was Foreign Secretary. And, in my discussion of her leadership bid, I suggested she was all the more zealous precisely because of the recency of her conversion.
That zealotry was the hallmark of the defining – and in effect only – act of her short administration, the infamous ‘mini-budget’. It was, in all but name, the Brexit budget, hailed as such by Brexiter commentators and politicians. Crucially this enthusiastic greeting came not just from within the Conservative Party but from across the Brexitists, including, notably, Nigel Farage. When the whole thing fell apart so spectacularly, that same alliance was united in ascribing its failure to the Establishment, remainers and, even, ‘left-wing’ market traders, and united in urging her not to change course.
Five months later, Truss’s Sunday Telegraph ‘essay’ reprises these explanations. As an account of a political downfall, it must count as one of the least self-reflective and most complacent imaginable. It might be summed up as an assertion that if she had a flaw it was that she was right all along (Louis Ashworth of the Financial Times has provided a damning line-by-line analysis of the article). In this way it actually, if unintentionally, did explain what went wrong with her premiership, which was, indeed, her certainty of her rectitude against all reason and evidence.
Why learning nothing cements Truss’s Brexitist credentials
That lack of self-insight was widely, and rightly, mocked. However, even if her flaws are psychological their consequences, and the conclusions they lead her to, are distinctively political. Moreover, they are distinctively Brexitist, and from that perspective, her refusal to recant her beliefs in the face of the evidence of what they led to is a strength rather than a flaw. As with Brexit itself, true belief is all. Hence her insistence that she was brought down by “the economic Establishment” and, with that, what Marina Hyde calls “the sheer nonsense victimhood” of Truss’s account. That victimhood is, as I’ve stressed so often on the column, most recently last week, one of the central and defining threads of Brexitism.
A particularly revealing aspect of this ‘sheer nonsense’ is Truss’s complaint that she hadn’t been warned by officials of the risks of the mini-budget. That’s in part just another version of blaming the Establishment and of victimhood as well, but it inflects them in a particular way. It seems to suggest not just obstructionism from the civil service but also incompetence. In this way it is rather contradictory, positioning officialdom as at once all-powerful and at the same time totally ineffectual (the same contradiction is manifest in the way that the EU is depicted as both a powerful bully and a corpse on the point of collapse – such contradictions being one of the characteristics of Ur-fascism identified by Umberto Eco).
In any case, it is totally indefensible as an account of the mini-budget for two reasons. One is that it hardly needed official advice to know the dangers to sterling and the bond market. They were being written about by huge swathes of commentators at the time, even including this lowly piece. They may not have identified the particular issue of what that would mean for pension funds, which Truss refers to specifically, but even if it is true that it didn’t figure in official advice (a big if), the collapse of the bond market was calamitous enough in itself to be the cause of her downfall according to former Chancellor George Osborne.
The second reason that blaming lack of advice is an indefensible excuse is that it is abundantly obvious, and another prime example of her Brexitism, that she side-lined the advice from civil servants and others precisely because she regarded it as coming from the ‘economic Establishment’. That was evident in the sacking of Treasury boss, Tom Scholar, in advance of the mini-budget, ignoring IFS forecasts, excluding the OBR, and her hostility to the Bank of England. Conversely, it was evident in her reliance on, and total infatuation with, the advice of the small group of pro-Brexit, radical free market think-tankers and economists associated with the IEA and similar groups, and especially Patrick Minford.
In a way, this is the story of Brexit as a whole, albeit written on a smaller canvas, with the warnings of civil servants and others dismissed and derided as ‘Project Fear’, ‘declinism’ or obstructionism and then, when things go horribly wrong, blame it on the very people whose warnings were ignored. It was on display last week in David Davis’s assertion that the civil service had done a “really crap job” of negotiating Brexit. Again it’s an account that shows precisely zero self-awareness but, again, its political importance lies in the underlying failure to accept that Brexit, like the mini-budget, foundered on realities. For even If it were true that civil servants were anti-Brexit and wanted to obstruct it, and even if they had been replaced wholesale with ‘true believers’, those realities would not have changed. For a particular example, no official could have enacted Davis’s own claim that there was a way to have “the exact same benefits” of the single market and customs union without belonging to either. It was impossible.
So in these various ways, Truss showed in her ‘rehabilitation essay’, just as she did in her premiership, the Brexitism that unites the Farageists outside the party and the dominant Brexitist strand within her own. Her capacity to do so might not have lasted had she stayed in power because it is highly likely that, sooner or later, it was a unity that would have fallen apart on the familiar rocks of ‘betrayal’ and ‘purity’, and schisms would have emerged.
In particular, had she survived in office she would have faced exactly the same issues as Boris Johnson would have over the Northern Ireland Protocol. If she did a deal, she would have been turned on by the Brexit Ultras within and outside the Tory Party. If she did not, she would have faced both the practical consequences and also, possibly, rebellion within her party if the outcome were to break international law by unilaterally disapplying the Protocol.
That last point is an important one, reflecting my argument that whilst Brexitism is in the ascendant within British Conservatism, a rump of traditionalism or pragmatism endures within the Conservative Party. And, rump though it is, it remains large enough to defeat the government, despite the ostensible size of its majority in the House of Commons.
It is exactly this dynamic that Sunak now faces. Despite leading the Tory Party and despite being pro-Brexit, he is not regarded by the Brexitists as being a ‘true Brexiter’ or, by extension, a Brexitist. Instead, they regard him, much as they did Cameron, as a ‘socialist’ and a ‘globalist’. And, of course, he was not the choice of the party membership, largely for these reasons. Indeed, the main supposed quality that brought him to power was the ‘pragmatism’ which, to the Brexitists, is code for compromise and betrayal.
The most obvious flashpoint will, indeed, be over the Protocol. With rumours of an imminent deal growing, so too are the signs of a Brexiter rebellion (using, ironically given their constant denunciations of remainer parliamentary ‘chicanery’, the mechanism of a ‘prayer motion’ to force a debate on the construction of border posts). Reportedly as a means to head off such a rebellion, Sunak is floating the idea of derogating from the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) as “red meat” to satisfy them. And, indeed, this is one of the various things the ‘true Conservative’ axis yearns for.
Yet if Sunak thinks that any amount of red meat will ever satisfy them, he hasn’t been paying attention: nothing will ever satisfy them. Beyond that lies the absurdity that if this is a plan to distract from doing a pragmatic deal on the Protocol, easing relations with the EU and the US, it would immediately provoke a new crisis in those relations since derogating from the ECHR would very likely violate the Good Friday Agreement.
At the same time, it would also be very likely to trigger the opposition of the Traditionalists, who are already making noises to that effect. This perhaps explains why there are contradictory briefings about the government’s intentions, with some reports saying that there are ‘no plans” to derogate. Overall, the effect is both an illustration of Sunak’s dilemma but also adds to it, since to one side it gives the message that he is not really committed to this policy and to the other that he might just pursue it anyway, thus alienating both. So he is now caught in a vice: his supposed pragmatism is anathema to the Brexitists, whilst the concessions he makes to the Brexitists mean that the Traditionalists suspect him of lacking the pragmatism which is one of their defining values.
A very similar situation obtains with the Retained EU Law Bill (REUL). It began, of course, under Truss’s premiership, and Sunak’s reported enthusiasm for it, and especially for the time frame for sunsetting EU laws, has waxed and waned. Nevertheless, it was passed unamended in the Commons and is currently being debated in the House of Lords. That debate again shows the clear split – clearer in the Lords than the Commons – between these different kinds of Conservatism.
It is a split which isn’t so much, despite what Brexiters try to claim, between Brexiters and remainers as between Brexitists and Traditionalists. That distinction is well-captured by a phrase used by Michael Heseltine – a remainer, most certainly, but, equally certainly, a Conservative – in the Lords’ debate, when he spoke of the “Robespierrian fanaticism” of Brexitists like Jacob Rees-Mogg, and invoked Margaret Thatcher’s role in creating the single market. It’s that Jacobin fanaticism that marks the divide in modern Conservatism, for all that both lay claim to the mantle of Thatcherism. And it is in evidence not just in relation to specifically Brexit-related issues but also in relation to net zero, say, or even the debates about current legislation of public protests.
Is a fundamental re-alignment in prospect?
Sunak is certainly too weak to resolve any of this. It goes beyond anything that can be resolved by the usual tricks of balancing political factions, such as he showed last week in appointing the tandem act of Greg Hands and Lee Anderson as Chair and Vice-Chair of the Party. Indeed the immediate rows about Anderson’s support for the death penalty and his views of food banks simply served to demonstrate the depth of the Brexitist-Traditionalist schism.
But even a less weak and more accomplished leader would fare no better because, fundamentally, it isn’t soluble without a complete restructuring of the political parties. To a large extent because of Brexit, what has emerged is a situation where the Tory Party is no longer contiguous with the dominant ideology of British Conservatism and can no longer act as a broad coalition of different factions.
I say ‘no longer’ because this isn’t an entirely new situation. It has echoes of the way that Thatcher herself presided over a party split between ‘wets’ and ‘dries’, and which gradually, if not entirely, marginalised the ‘wets’. But the differences between Brexitists and Traditionalists inside the current Tory Party are more existential. They don’t just rest on different apprehensions of Conservatism but on entirely different approaches to the conduct of political life, perhaps even to the meaning of political life.
Even if that distinction with previous splits is overstated, the other difference is that, now, there is an artificial split between the Tory Brexitists and the Reform Party Brexitists which has no analogue in the Thatcher years. In those years Tories may have been internally split in the move from its one-nation tradition to Thatcher’s far more ideological and market-orientated approach. But there was no powerful, lurking external grouping of Thatcherites claiming to be the voice of ‘true Thatcherism’, and able to mobilise perhaps 15% of the electorate, mainly at the Tories’ expense, as she wrought those changes on her party. Nor, of course, was there an equivalent external grouping of the old-style, one-nation wets. Plus she was in government and winning elections as she changed the party – a very different prospect from being in opposition after, perhaps, a heavy election defeat and after having been in power for over a decade.
Taken together, this suggests there is a logical case for a fundamental re-grouping to occur on the right of British politics assuming such an electoral defeat. There will certainly be an almighty battle at that point and, if my analysis is right, that is very likely to lead to one of two scenarios. The Brexitists might combine into one ‘new Conservative’ party, making the Reform Party redundant and routing the last remnants of Traditionalism to the wilderness, or in some cases to the LibDems or even Labour. Or, though perhaps less likely, at least in the immediate aftermath of electoral defeat, the Traditionalists might win out within the Tory Party, shedding the Brexitists to a Farage-type outfit.
The strange death of Conservative England?
In either scenario, everything would then depend on how voters responded, especially in the context of changing political demography which is likely to prove unfavourable to any configuration of Conservatism. Would enough of them back whichever of those parties emerged, making it a viable future government? Or would there be a permanent or near-permanent split on the right which would keep them out of power forever (unless the first-past-the-post system is changed)?
If that last situation is the outcome, we might just be witnessing the start of what will come to be called ‘the strange death of Conservative England’. Admittedly this is not the first time this has been predicted, and the prediction has proved wrong. Even so, it is hard to resist the thought, voiced last week by David Gauke, the former Tory Minister who in my terms would be a Traditionalist, that “Brexit is slowly killing the Conservative Party”. Many will not mourn that, though they may be dismayed by what replaces it.
I recognize the many difficulties with the Brexitist and Traditionalist framing of this piece. For example, it might be said that a certain kind of ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ Tory traditionalist has much in common with, say, Lee Anderson who on my account is a Brexitist. Likewise, those who fall within my use of ‘Traditionalist’ would include ‘Cameroonian’ Conservatives who sought a more diverse and less ‘nasty’ party, as well as old-school grandees of an almost Macmillanite hue.
Nor does the Brexitist-Traditionalist distinction entirely map onto Brexit support. For example, Lord (Michael) Howard is certainly a Brexiter, but his opposition to the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill marks him out as a Traditionalist rather than a Brexitist. It would also, no doubt, be true that there are different factions within each of the categories of Brexitist and Traditionalist, as well as people (David Davis? Bill Cash?) who don’t sit very well within either, Sunak being a particularly important and interesting case, as discussed in this post to an extent. Even so, I think these terms, or something like them, capture the primary divide within current Conservatism.
There’s also a lot to be said about how Thatcherism relates to these categories and, perhaps, the way that she was able, for a while anyway, to yoke together a certain kind of populist and insurgent politics (somewhat akin to Brexitism) with a certain kind of pragmatism and respect for institutions (somewhat akin to Traditionalism). This partly explains why, as I mention in passing, both are able to iconise her, in the same way as both pro- and anti-Brexiters are able to invoke her.
But this is a column, not a PhD thesis!
— AUTHOR —
▫ Professor Chris Grey, Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and previously a professor at Cambridge University and Warwick University.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 17 February 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Adobe Stock/ink drop.