The influence of Brexit on the Conservative Party has bolstered populism and pushed the party further from moderate conservatism towards the influence of Nigel Farage, which is characterised by detachment from reality and ideological purity.
I ’ve written several times about the problems that Brexit has caused the Labour Party. More recently, it has become increasingly obvious that it has had far more profound and damaging consequences for the Tories, and I wrote in some detail last February about how ‘Brexitism’ is eating Conservatism. Now, although Labour continues to agonize about not alienating leave voters in the ‘Red Wall’ seats, it is beginning to craft some kind of post-Brexit stability for itself. Whereas Brexit has driven the Tory Party mad, as their party conference last week made abundantly clear.
The two things are not completely separate, as illustrated by the Tory Party’s thuggish Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson. A former coal miner and long-time Labour Party member, who also served as a Labour councillor, his early political heroes were Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn. Now a Tory MP and GB News presenter, he is not just ferociously pro-Brexit but a cartoonishly ‘prolier than thou’ populist, espousing the predictable litany of ‘things we’re not allowed to say’, from supporting the death penalty to telling asylum seekers to “f*** off back to France”.
So, to the extent he represents a certain segment of the traditional Labour core vote, he is indicative of part of the problem Brexit poses for Labour. But Anderson’s greater significance is that he fits perfectly into the post-Brexit Tory Party alongside those, from Jacob Rees-Mogg through to Suella Braverman, with whom he might otherwise have little in common. At the same time, there’s really no discernible difference between his beliefs and those of the Reform Party, as illustrated by his cringingly fawning ‘interview’ of Nigel Farage on his very first GB News show.
In one way, there’s nothing new about this. Populism has always brought together certain kinds of far-right and certain kinds of far-left people. What is new is what it has done to the Tory Party, and at the heart of that lies Brexit.
Farage and the ‘UKIPisation’ of the Tory Party
There are multiple dimensions to this, and they are interconnected and difficult to put into sequence. Perhaps the first of them is that, in using the referendum to outflank and marginalise UKIP, the outcome of the vote has ironically been to ‘UKIPise’ the Tory Party. That started to happen even before the 2017 election and has solidified since, so that by last week, as Lewis Goodall of the News Agents remarked, “you could have been at a UKIP or Brexit Party conference”.
That seems to apply not only to its grass-roots membership but to many, perhaps most, of its MPs, with almost all ‘remainers’ having been pushed out before the 2019 election. With them, the more socially liberal wing of the parliamentary party has also been very significantly eroded. That matters electorally, because those MPs, the David Gaukes and the Dominic Grieves, represented a certain kind of Tory voter the party is now liable to lose, potentially threatening its ‘Blue Wall’.
Yet, also ironically, the UKIPisation of the Tory Party has failed to reduce the fear its leadership has of the threat it faces from UKIP’s successor, the Reform Party, and especially the threat it would face if Farage returned to lead some version of that party. The Tories ‘getting Brexit done’ has by no means got rid of the Farage threat. That is partly because, inevitably, he spearheads the idea that Brexit has been betrayed by the Tories. It’s also because he and the people he represents will always depict Tory positions, especially on immigration and asylum seekers, no matter how extreme, as not going far enough.
But what is feared by the Tory leadership is loved by many, perhaps now most, within the party, including those jostling to take it over from Sunak, and the not unrelated seething mass of groupuscules advocating various versions of New and True Conservatism including National Conservatism, Common Sense Conservatism and Conservative Democracy. For them, Farage is not an external threat but a welcome friend. Hence the warm welcome he got at the conference, which apparently – no sniggering at the back, please – he attended in his capacity as a ‘journalist’. Indeed, the Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie observed that “party members would choose him as leader if they could”.
That may be unlikely to happen, but Farage clearly, and correctly, sees himself as a significant player in influencing the party’s direction and its future leadership, which he opined was “the real debate this week”. That framing of the conference was in itself an act of hostility towards Sunak, as was his enthusiastic endorsement of Liz Truss’s approach to economic policy. Yes, it’s astonishing that anyone could think that, but Truss herself certainly continues to do so, as, presumably, do the “huge crowd”, which included Farage, who came to hear her speech to the conference fringe, given less than a year after her ignominious downfall.
Farage, whose political instincts are as acute as they are malign, was right about the central theme of the conference, and it wasn’t Sunak’s announcements about there being extra trains on the Dullchester to Snoreham line in ten years’ time, even though these dominated the reports of his less than visionary speech. It was, as Sam Coates of Sky News put it, “the existential questions about what the next iteration of the Conservative Party stands for”.
That Farage is now openly playing a role in these questions, inside the party he left in 1992 and has tormented ever since, may also seem astonishing. But to many in the current party he is not a torment but an inspiration. So is the GB News channel he fronts, as Priti Patel aggressively asserted at the Conservative Democratic Organization’s dinner before dancing with him, the would-be Princess to his irredeemably ugly frog. For that channel is now the mouthpiece for what the bulk of the Tory Party, quite as much as the Reform Party, believes in, and its studios are awash with Tory MPs interviewing each other.
The enemy at the top
To the New and True Conservative Jacobins, the enemy is neither Farage nor the Reform Party, it is Rishi Sunak and the remnants of moderate or even vaguely pragmatic conservatism. It is a curious fate for Sunak, a fiscally conservative Thatcherite, not to mention a supporter of Brexit. When he became an MP in 2015 that put him towards the right of the party. Just seven years later, the new Tories regard him as a ‘globalist’, even a ‘socialist’ and, of course, a ‘betrayer of Brexit’, if not a ‘closet remainer’.
His clumsy attempts to placate them – from his new-found scepticism about the Net Zero agenda, to his insane embrace of the ’15-minute City’ conspiracy theory – have no impact on that. And they will, correctly, see it only as a sign of his weakness that he accepted the possibility Farage might be allowed rejoin the Tory Party, and as a further humiliation that Farage immediately rebuffed the idea (though, interestingly, he hasn’t entirely ruled it out for the future).
As many of his predecessors as Tory leader found, the more Sunak tries to please the extremists, the more they demand. His situation differs from them in two ways, though. One is that the extremists are no longer a fringe group within the party but becoming its mainstream, and include members of the cabinet like Braverman. The other, which is all that is saving him for now, is that even the extremists, such as Rees-Mogg, reluctantly realise that it is impractical to depose him before the next election. Clearly, these two things point in different directions, but they are both bad for Sunak. If and when he loses the election, of course, he will be ousted. But if, by some chance, he wins it then they will continue to attack him, though I suppose if he won by a large majority they might hold off doing so for a few weeks. The True and New Conservatives aren’t going away.
If and when Rishi Sunak loses the election, of course, he will be ousted.
Brexit sowed the wind
The present state of the Tory Party isn’t all about Brexit, but Brexit lies at its heart. It is what started the rampage of populism, with its imagination of a singular ‘will of the people’ and, with that, the hunt for heretics and traitors, the denunciations and the witch-burnings, the suspicion of any hint of a lack of true belief. Hence, to give just one example, former Chancellor Philip Hammond, who, like Sunak, was a hyper-wealthy, almost stereotypical Thatcherite Eurosceptic as well as a spreadsheet technocrat, ended up being accused of “betrayal” for not supporting ‘no-deal Brexit’, and even facing calls that he be “tried for treason”.
Yet alongside such ferocious dogmatism lies the constant disappointment with Brexit. That was always going to exist, but Sunak’s relative ‘pragmatism’ has provided a new excuse for the Brexiters. To them, the Windsor Framework, the climbdown over scrapping all EU Retained Law, the resumption of Horizon membership, and the various other ad hoc accommodations he has made, all feed the Brexiters’ sense, itself the flip-side of their revolutionary purism, that Brexit hasn’t worked because ‘it has never been tried properly’. To take just one recent, but spectacularly stupid, example, the Telegraph’s Tom Harris last week foot-stamped about how “this useless government is destroying the Brexit dream”*.
It is also Brexit which has led the Tory Party to all but turn its back on the business interests that used to be at its core. Boris Johnson’s ‘f*** business’ comment may have been a throwaway remark, but it had a deep resonance. Most businesses, whether large or small, were opposed to Brexit, and many are now deeply concerned about its effects. So, with Brexit the primary test of purity of belief, business is now – not entirely, but to an extent which would have been unthinkable a few years ago – positioned as the enemy. And that is not just for lack of Brexit belief, but for the now associated sins of ‘wokeness’ and being part of the Establishment or ‘the Blob’.
Something similar applies to huge swathes of professionals, civil servants, and just about every established institution including the Bank of England, the judiciary, the Church of England, many charities, and perhaps even the King. Like the evisceration of social liberals from the Tory Party, and to some extent overlapping with it, this has electoral consequences because many of those written off so disparagingly were the kinds of people whose interests the Tory Party used to represent and upon whose votes they could usually rely.
The new ‘politics of envy’
Again, this is not just about Brexit but it started with Brexit. Being a remainer is invariably first on the list of features, usually followed by ‘wokeness’ and university education, defining the ‘new elite’. This is the term repetitively ground out by the Conservative populists’ academic cheerleader Matthew Goodwin, himself a speaker at this year’s London NatCon conference, who has made the astonishing social scientific discovery that there are quite a lot of middle-class people in economically advanced societies. Even more astonishing, and apparently deeply sinister, he has discovered that they “live in the most affluent and trendy districts” and “marry and socialise” with each other.
It’s worth reflecting how remarkable it is that, as with the hostility to business and professionals, populist Tories now regard the educated and affluent middle-class in general as being amongst the enemies of the people rather than being part of their core vote. In a similar vein, Suella Braverman’s ugly and depraved conference diatribe against immigration linked opposition to her bigotry and incompetence not just to those who “are desperate to reverse Brexit” but to those rich enough to have “luxury beliefs”, to employ gardeners and cleaners, and to have second homes. It is again remarkable that what used to call itself ‘the party of aspiration’ should now have such disdain for the well-to-do, to the point of regarding them as ‘unpatriotic’. It is equally striking that it now practises the ‘politics of envy’ that it used to disparage.
But this is the true face of the populist Conservatism that is engulfing the Tory Party, with Braverman also having been one of the speakers at the NatCon conference, along with Anderson, Cates, Rees-Mogg, David Frost and other Tory politicians. And it isn’t just about calibrating to different kind of voters from those who have traditionally supported them. It goes right to the heart of how these populist Tories govern, or do when they get the chance.
This was exemplified by the Truss mini-budget which, as I discussed at the time, was not just a ‘Brexit budget’ because it was hailed as one which would deliver Brexit, but because it was constructed in explicit rejection of the institutions and advice of ‘the Establishment’. They had opposed Brexit with their ‘Project Fear’ warnings, but Brexit had been voted for and done anyway. So Brexit morphed into ‘Brexitism’ where almost all institutions and most expertise are suspect. The market reaction to the mini-budget showed the recklessness of that, and very briefly shocked the Brexitists into relative silence. But they have quickly forgotten all that.
The influence of Brexit on the Conservative Party has bolstered populism and pushed the party towards a detachment from reality and ideological purity.
Brexitism: a different kind of ideology
It is something of a myth that the Tory Party used to be pragmatic rather than ideological. Thatcherism was nakedly ideological, and even before 1979 there were plenty of Tories who held her beliefs. Nor was Thatcher averse to populism, especially in relation to immigration. For example, her infamous remark about British people fearing they might be “swamped by people of a different culture” was similar to the kinds of things Braverman said last week.
But Brexitism is ideological in a different way, by being detached from almost any commitment to reality or truthfulness. Thatcherites had ideological positions, for example on the privatisation of nationalised industries, but there was nothing fantastical about them. Those industries existed and, rightly or wrongly, it was possible to privatise them, as the Tories did. The claims Tories made for what that would do for their efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, or investment may have been flawed, and the flaws may have flowed from their ideological assumptions about markets and the state. But they were not delusions or lies in the way that characterised Brexit, for example in the denial that it had any implications for a Northern Ireland border, or the assertion that post-Brexit trade with the EU could be frictionless. In this sense, Brexitism, unlike Thatcherism, is a distinctively post-truth ideology.
Likewise, every single budget under Thatcher – every budget under any Prime Minister of any party, for that matter – was ideological, but Truss’s ‘true Brexit’ mini-budget was ideological in a different way in its refusal to accept the realities of what it meant. That was demonstrated not simply, or not so much, in its formulation as in the response to its consequences, which Truss and her supporters still ascribe to Establishment plotting rather than market sentiment. And this detachment from reality now goes right down to such things as the ridiculous claims from the Environment Secretary Claire Coutinho that she has put a stop to a ‘meat tax’ that never existed.
Even Sunak engages in a degree of this post-truth Brexitist ideology, including the ‘no meat tax’ calumny. More importantly, in his conference speech extolling the pragmatism and honesty he claims to bring to politics, Sunak quite brazenly lied about the benefits of Brexit, including making the absurd suggestion that it has boosted UK economic growth, for which there is not a shred of evidence. There’s no surprise in that, as no Tory leader can speak the truth about Brexit, but it shows that Sunak has little interest in addressing the concerns even of Tory voters, of whom a not negligible 29% think leaving the EU was a mistake, 38% think it has been more of a failure than a success, and just 22% think has been more of a success than a failure. The ‘Brexitists’ certainly don’t have any interest at all in doing so.
Is populism popular?
Indeed, at one level, it seems as if the Brexitists no longer care about winning elections, and all that matters to them is ideological purity. But, though there may be an element of this, I think the truth is more that their ideological purity leads them to believe that it offers a route to winning elections. They see the Conservatives’ current weak position in the opinion polls and refuse to recognize that it derives from voters’ gradual disenchantment with Johnson and sudden disenchantment with Truss. So they conclude, according to taste, that if Johnson had stayed or if Truss had toughed it out then their poll ratings would have risen. And, now, they urge Sunak towards ‘true Conservatism’, certain that it will be popular and, if the election proves it not to be, waiting to ascribe that to him not going far enough and not being a true believer. At that point, they will install a Braverman, or some other New and True Conservative, in the expectation that this will bring them to power again in 2029.
In short, I think they have mistaken populist policies for popular policies, especially given the changing demography of the electorate. The core reason, again, is Brexit. It was the moment when the longstanding populist belief that they speak for ‘the silent majority’ seemed to be vindicated, and they saw further vindication in the 2019 ‘get Brexit done’ election. Indeed the Tory MP Miriam Cates, who is one of the NatCon’s rising stars, explicitly locates British National Conservatism as emerging from these two events. It is a massive over-reading, and over-simplification, of those votes, and especially of the narrow referendum victory, but it gave them licence to claim ownership of the ‘will of the people’ and to depict their opponents as ‘enemies of the people’. It made politics toxic and, in the process, they poisoned themselves.
Of course, perhaps their analysis is right, and when they get their New and True Conservative Party it will prove wildly popular, or at least popular enough to deliver an election victory in 2029. That could be especially likely if they face a Labour government which has been lacklustre or worse. Certainly, there is no cause for complacency, and still less for amusement, about what is happening to the Tory Party. In his weekly Guardian column, Rafael Behr, touching on many of the themes I’ve written about in this piece, rightly concludes that “there is something disturbing about a regime that is too ridiculous to trust with power yet too powerful to be written off with ridicule”. That will continue to be true even if, as looks increasingly likely, they lose the next election and become completely taken over by Brexitist populism, if only because, even out of office, they will have much media backing.
However, the difference between my analysis and that of the populists isn’t just about the content of the prediction. It is also about a difference that goes to the heart of the irrationality of Brexitism. That difference is that if they prove to be right then I would accept that my analysis was proved wrong. But if I prove to be right then, without a shadow of a doubt, they will deny that their analysis has been proved wrong. They will say it just means that it wasn’t true ‘True Conservatism’ and insist that the answer is to do it again, but this time properly. Exactly as they do of Brexit, the ultimate source of the madness that now afflicts them.
(*) This headline was later amended to the less punchy one of “The Government risks destroying the Brexit dream”, but the original lives on in the URL.