The Independent

The Tories seem lost but don’t rule out a comeback


Sometimes you need an academic’s longer perspectiv­e to make sense of what is happening in the here and now. The cover of Prof Tim Bale’s new book The Conservati­ve Party After Brexit makes the point visually, with the faces of the four prime ministers since

the EU referendum across the top: May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak.

The story of those four faces is told in full inside, but a glance at the cover gives it in condensed form: deadlock, chaos, unreality and calm. The subtitle of the book is Turmoil and Transforma­tion, but the startling conclusion is that it is fundamenta­lly unclear what the Tory party has transforme­d itself into.

When I spoke to Bale he pointed out that, since the referendum, the party has increasing­ly taken to posing as the defender of “the people” against the elites. However, at the same time it has tried to avoid the “logical correlativ­e” of such a strategy, “namely, a more redistribu­tive economic nationalis­m”.

The party’s electoral base has become more working class since the Brexit vote, while Labour has become more middle class, as the party of graduate Remainers. Theresa May and Boris Johnson tried to fit the party’s rhetoric to this change: she went to battle on behalf of the “just about managing”, while his “levelling-up” slogan allowed him to be lionised by engineerin­g workers in Middlesbro­ugh.

But now the message is confused. Sunak is “a super-rich, supereduca­ted member of the global elite”, as Bale puts it in the book, “exactly the kind of green-card-holding, Atlantic-hopping hedge fund manager whom Theresa May might have labelled a ‘citizen of nowhere’ back in 2016”. He sometimes strikes some of the poses of anti-elitism, but he does it with less brio than Johnson, ending up sounding inauthenti­c, such as when he called Keir Starmer “another lefty lawyer standing in our way” this week.

Bale’s book is a rattling good read through seven years of turmoil, full of sharp observatio­ns and telling details. I had forgotten, for instance, that the first opinion poll of Conservati­ve Party members after the referendum in June 2016 put May ahead of Johnson by 55 per cent to 38 per cent in a theoretica­l run-off between the two. That does help to explain why Johnson pulled out of the contest so quickly when Michael Gove announced he was running against him.

Johnson has never been as popular, even with Tory members, as his personal myth pretends. The party really did turn to him in 2019 only out of desperatio­n, and as soon as he had “got Brexit done” in the sense of extricatin­g Britain from the EU single market, it had no real loyalty to him or to his ill-defined vision.

There is one thing you can be sure of with the Conservati­ve Party, before anything else – they have a grand sense of where the votes are

Enoch Powell

Bale’s previous volume, The Conservati­ve Party from Thatcher to Cameron, is a coherent story of the party’s attempt to come to terms with the historic success of Margaret Thatcher. It was resolved in the end by David Cameron, who was able to blend economic liberalism, as modified by New Labour’s emphasis on public services, with social liberalism. But that resolution lasted only six years before it was blown up by the EU referendum.

Since then, the party has struggled to make sense of itself. Bale notes in passing the eclipse of Cameron’s reputation, saying it was “possibly” a tribute to Johnson’s success in presenting his government as a “clean break from the administra­tions that had run the country for the last decade” that the party suffered little damage from the revelation­s about Cameron’s lobbying for Greensill.

But the collapse of Johnson’s premiershi­p has rendered the party’s central purpose even more incoherent than before. Johnson was able, like Walt Whitman, to contain multitudes – through force of personalit­y, he could pursue a pro-workingcla­ss economic policy at the same time as claiming to be in favour of tax cuts. The furlough scheme was the biggest redistribu­tive state interventi­on since the war, and yet Johnson

somehow managed to avoid being identified with the tax rises needed to pay for it.

After the revolt of the party membership against high taxes that powered Liz Truss’s seven-week interregnu­m, the party is left thoroughly unclear as to what it stands for. Sunak’s calm reasonable­ness and his attention to managerial detail have provided a welcome respite for the party from the turmoil, but he has failed to resolve any of the contradict­ions.

In the end, Bale hedges his bets, saying this may not matter. “If the Conservati­ves post-Brexit really have slipped their moorings as a mainstream centre-right party, that need not mean they are doomed to go down to defeat – either in the short or the long term.”

He quotes Enoch Powell (“perhaps the ultimate neoliberal populist”) who said in 1981: “There is one thing you can be sure of with the Conservati­ve Party, before anything else – they have a grand sense of where the votes are.”

But if Bale’s book tells us one thing, it is what an extraordin­ary achievemen­t it would be if Sunak were to find where those votes are in time for an election in October next year.

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 ?? (PA) ?? A new book on the recent history of the governing party suggests it has slipped as a mainstream centre -right party
(PA) A new book on the recent history of the governing party suggests it has slipped as a mainstream centre -right party
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