Today’s Tory Party is Several Parties in One

Image Source: Philip Halling – CC BY-SA 3.0

“I can’t believe that a young Margaret Thatcher leaving Oxford today would join the Conservative Party led by David Cameron. I think she would get involved in UKIP, and no doubt topple me within 12 months or so”.

– Nigel Farage, then leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in 2013

The Conservative Party’s annual conference was held last week in Manchester, England. It confirmed that there is a royal road leading from Mrs Thatcher to the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), as Nigel Farage implies in the above quotation, and then a similar road leading from UKIP to today’s Tory party. Truth be told, the Tory party on display at the conference has morphed into UKIP 2.0.

Nigel Farage claimed as much during the conference when he attended a talk given by Liz Truss, who was prime minister for a mere 49 days after Boris Johnson resigned— the agenda she announced on taking office was unfettered free-market idolatry (tax cuts for the rich and corporations, drastic cuts to a social-welfare system already on its knees, all her proposals uncosted) that tanked the UK economy overnight and led to her resignation.

Truss is attempting to make a comeback of sorts by leading one of the warring factions at the conference. Her Growth Group advocates the same policies that threw the UK economy into a downward spiral when she was prime minister— cutting taxes and public spending, a so-called smaller state, more fracking, half-a-million new houses (somehow built by her scaled-down state with its greatly reduced tax take). Unbelievably, 60 Tory MPs (out of a total of 322) found this junk economics sufficiently persuasive to join Truss’s group, thereby opting for a likely reprise of the economic debacle that was the centerpiece of her failed premiership.

Nigel Farage, unsurprisingly, is a fan of “Mad Lizzie”, and said to reporters trailing him that while he had stayed the same, the Tory party moved towards him. This was evident as he strutted around the conference venue like a conquering potentate.

Sensing he was the conference’s man/emperor of the hour, Farage, who left the Conservatives in 1992 after a dispute over the EU’s Maastricht Treaty, scorned the Tory party leader and current prime minister Rishi Sunak’s hint on TV that Farage would be welcomed back in the party, boasting: “I achieved a lot more outside of the Tory party than I ever could have done from within it”.

Another Tory faction is the inappropriately named New Conservatives, seeing as their main figures are old parliamentary lags–  Bill Cash (2024 will be his 40th year as an MP), John Redwood (36 years in parliament), and Iain Duncan Smith (also an MP for 36 years). The Who have a celebrated song about meeting the new boss….  Given that Sunak as party leader will have his own election manifesto, the New Cons (same as the Old Cons, with that hat-tip to The Who) launched their alternative manifesto, containing some of the same snake oil vended by Truss—such as unfunded tax cuts for the rich and corporations; but since these old codgers aren’t full-on libertarians like Mad Lizzie, their prospectus contained large gestures to the Tory’s xenophobic base, which served as a reminder of their party’s traditional nickname, to wit, the Nasty Party.

That is, leaving the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) which would allow the UK to have its Guantanamo equivalent for asylum-seekers; “raising” education standards by stopping A-level failures from going to university (A-levels being the standard matriculation requirement for English universities, currently waived in exceptional circumstances); and maintaining a “hostile environment” for immigrants who look a darker shade of pale.

Another grouping is formed by those who adhere to old-fashioned “One Nation” Tory paternalism (Mrs Thatcher called them “wets”). They now form a largely pro-EU rump in the party— Boris Johnson drove them out of his cabinet because they would be a thorn in his side when he tried to implement Brexit.

Faced with his party’s civil war, Sunak lost control of the chaotic conference and wasn’t seen much until his conference closing speech.

Sunak’s speech simply served as a fire accelerant for the Tory civil war.

The keystone in his speech was the cancellation of Stage 2 of the high-speed rail project (HS2) intended to run from London to Birmingham (Stage 1), and then from Birmingham to Manchester (Stage 2).

HS2 was a white elephant from the start. It would reduce travel time between London and Birmingham by a mere 30 minutes, though of course with probable rip-off ticket prices in tow.

With huge delays and cost overruns, opinion was divided on what to do with HS2. Continue doggedly with the project to its culmination point in Manchester, or scrap it now and lick the financial wounds thus involved?

Sunak chose the latter.

His problem is that the strategy behind Boris Johnson’s 2019 election victory relied on a largely fictitious notion of “leveling-up” for the North of England (which had voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016), by purporting to reduce inequalities between it and the far more prosperous South. Johnson made HS2 the core of this flight of fancy.

Cynics on social media now say a “serious” Johnson (albeit a description seen these days as a contradiction in terms) would have given the HS2 contract to Japan, South Korea, or China, widely regarded as the best railway builders in the world, though China would be fraught for geopolitical reasons. In any case, HS2 would probably not have been bungled by a company from Japan or Korea.

Politicians, many of them Tories, in the North of England accused Sunak of betrayal, which is certainly true, but then this has been the North’s fate for centuries in the UK’s London-dominated politics. Sunak senses the northerners will moan and groan, but resign themselves to their “destiny” eventually. Given historical precedent, the wealthiest prime minister in British history may not be wrong. But when that proving time comes, he will be long be ensconced in his luxury compound in Santa Monica.

Given the opinion poll results for a long time, the Tories will be wiped out at the next election, which will probably be held by this time next year. Notwithstanding Keir Starmer’s lackluster and certainly non-transformative leadership of Labour.

What a choice for Brits—an assortment of nasty far-right Tory nutcases who will replace Sunak, or the timid but sly Starmer who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, and certainly not to Rupert Murdoch.

Back to the Tory party conference.

It was left to the outsider Frank Luntz, a focus-grouper for the US right, to deliver a somber truth to his conference audience: “I want to scare the shit out of you. You know the average age of the Labour voter? 38-40. The average age of the Tory voter? Deceased”.

Nervous audience titters greeted Luntz’s statement— a truth was somehow in the process of being recognized even by those who found it unpalatable.

At every “future of the party” event at the conference, speakers quoted the recent YouGov poll showing only 1% of 18-24s intend to vote Tory. For those who believe age predisposes voters increasingly towards conservatism, this figure barely rises for the under-50s. The anti-Tory young are thus adhering to anti-Toryism even as they grow older.

So: a sliver of good news perhaps.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.