This is the final part of our series on the decline and fall of the Conservative Party. Part one is available here.
Under Michael Howard as leader, the Conservatives lost the 2005 general election albeit gaining 33 seats. Howard resigned in December 2005 and was replaced by Cameron. The new leader urged his party in 2006 to stop “banging on about Europe” and focus on the numerous concerns that voters ranked above the EU. Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ divisions over the EU ended up defining Cameron’s term as prime minister.
Cameron’s authority began to be undermined when 81 of his MPs rebelled against him on an October 2011 parliamentary motion for a referendum on EU membership – a concept Cameron had ruled out as the price of forming the coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
Cameron’s first mistake
Cameron made his first serious mistake in 2005 when, as part of his party leadership campaign, he promised to remove the UK Conservative Party’s members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the main centre-right European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament, members of the largest power bloc in the European Parliament wielding considerable power.
The policy was designed to appease the hardliners in Cameron’s party but, in removing his MEPs to the smaller European Conservatives and Reformists grouping, Cameron reduced the power and influence of a large bloc of UK MEPs. He also angered key European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and reduced their inclination to help Cameron when, after winning the 2015 UK general election outright, he promised to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership prior to holding an in/out referendum.
Brexit puts Europhobes in charge
Cameron himself was a moderate Eurosceptic and, when he gambled on a referendum on the EU, he had no answer to the hardliners in his party (and Nigel Farage outside it) once immigration and sovereignty became defining arguments in the referendum campaign.
His attempts to sell the EU as the best thing since sliced bread were undermined by his known opposition to further European integration and were far too little and too late, not helped by the refusal of Jeremy Corbyn to collaborate on a Remain campaign, the political opportunism of Boris Johnson and the disloyalty of other key cabinet members such as Michael Gove. Cameron did not tackle this internal opposition until it was too late, in a futile attempt to keep his party united. However, he made his true feelings clear in his subsequent memoirs.
This is the point at which the hard-line Europhobes effectively gained full control of the Conservative Party and set the party (and country) irreversibly on a course which has continued and evolved to the situation we find ourselves in come late 2022.
Theresa May tries appeasement – and fails
When Cameron resigned as prime minster after losing the 2016 referendum, Theresa May was anointed to replace him when her final opponent withdrew. May tried to play both sides of her divided party by building a cabinet composed equally of Remain and Leave supporters. But she became yet another prime minister to be defeated by the Conservatives’ deep divisions over the EU and was forced to resign after she failed to get parliament to back her proposed EU withdrawal deals. In the resultant leadership contest Boris Johnson overwhelmingly defeated Jeremy Hunt and duly became prime minister.
One of Johnson’s first acts as party leader was to expel 21 MPs who opposed him on the question of ‘no-deal’ Brexit. A 2019 editorial in The Guardian presciently foretold the adverse long term effects of this policy:
“Conservatives have harboured suspicion of the European project since the UK joined in 1973, but the party has mutated into something more extreme than was ever advocated by orthodox Tory Eurosceptics. Brexit is no longer a conservative programme for economic or constitutional reform. It is a faith-based revolution in the way the UK is governed.”
Rampant ‘entryism’ of the Conservative Party by former UKIP members and other hard-line pro-Brexit figures had significantly increased the appetite amongst party members for a no-deal Brexit, a tactic encouraged by Nigel Farage’s main pro-Brexit ally Arron Banks.
Johnson ‘gets Brexit done’
Brexit impasses were resolved when parliament agreed to an early general election to be held in mid-December 2019, comfortably won by Johnson and the Conservatives. Johnson wasted no time pushing an EU withdrawal agreement through parliament, aided by his 80-seat majority.
However, soon after knowingly signing what was described as ‘an oven-ready Brexit deal’ with the EU, Johnson and his government began to try to wriggle out of the hardest fought part of it – the Northern Ireland Protocol – a move that risked breaking international law.
Johnson’s purge of the Conservative MPs who rebelled against him had removed many potential successors and internal Conservative figures around whom opposition to him could coalesce. This and his large majority bought him time and a stay of execution when his tenure was dogged by scandals including multiple allegations of corruption over the awarding of Covid contracts, his former chief adviser Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown laws with an impromptu trip to County Durham, and ‘Partygate’.
What did for Johnson in the end was his inability to withstand allegations that he knowingly appointed Conservative MP Chris Pincher to a senior post despite knowing of serious allegations of misconduct against Pincher stretching back several years.
Johnson thus became the first Conservative leader for many years not to be brought down by party infighting over Europe, but by the persistent divisions and scandals which eventually ended his MPs’ confidence in him and with that his time as prime minister.
Divisions not solved by Brexit
Brexit did not however put an end to divisions.
The proponents of Brexit within the Conservative Party all had different motivations for wanting Brexit and different expectations of what it would yield.
Negotiations with the EU were dogged by party disagreements as to whether to aim for a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ Brexit. Then, was Brexit about ‘sovereignty’, ‘breaking free from the EU and making our own laws’, a reassertion of ‘traditional British values’, a means of curtailing immigration, or was it a ‘cry for help’ from the regions ‘ignored by Westminster’? It all depended on who you talked to and the 51.9% of the electorate on one day in 2016 who voted for it couldn’t agree on one meaning either.
In the end nobody got everything they wanted.
The real winners: 55 Tufton Street
One group did emerge unambiguously victorious from all the post-Brexit wrangling: the many shady think tanks who happen to co-habit the building at 55 Tufton Street, Westminster.
Strong advocates and financial backers of Brexit, these are made up of the hardest of hard-right libertarian ideologues, keen to rip the UK out of the EU so that they could finally enact the agenda of low-tax and small-state economics, with funding sources that remain decidedly opaque. Over the years they have worked tirelessly to secure the time of government officials to press the agendas of Big Oil, private healthcare, climate change denial, and wealthy, powerful US right wing interests.
Liz Truss and a disastrous libertarian experiment
In 2012, Truss had co-authored a controversial political treatise, Britannia Unchained, arguing for widespread deregulation, tax cuts and a smaller state, music to the ears of the Tufton Street think tanks with whom she had a close association. Her support for ‘Reaganomics’ and ‘trickledown’ economics, for which we are all now paying a price, was also fostered there.
Even as far back as October 2021 she was noted as being “on constant manoeuvres” for the party leadership. Now a born-again Brexiteer, Truss presented herself as a Thatcher reincarnation during the eventual leadership contest, which she won against Rishi Sunak thanks to the votes of party members.
The disastrous mini-budget designed by Truss and Kwarteng, welcomed by the right-wing press and the Tufton Street think tanks but derided by political opponents, did not survive on impact with the real world. The chancellor was sacked, new chancellor Jeremy Hunt reversed most of the tax-cutting measures, and, finally, Truss resigned.
The downward spiral that began with Euroscepticism
So how did we get here? How did one of the major European if not global centre-right parties become enthralled to a hard-right, economically disastrous and ill-thought-out ideology? The contention of these articles has been that the answer lies in the downward spiral from Euroscepticism to Europhobia that led to Brexit.
Ironically, Boris Johnson, who actually ‘delivered’ Brexit, didn’t really believe in it and, as is well known, wrote two columns for The Daily Telegraph supporting each side of the argument before deciding to back Leave for the sake of his political career. His eventual choice was an acknowledgement of the fact that Europhobia had become the sine qua non for achieving power in the Conservative Party.
So, where to now for the Conservative Party and the country?
In an atmosphere where the Tufton Street ideologues have been wounded and Brexit is being questioned by Conservative Party insiders, new PM Rishi Sunak’s best chance might have been to act on his promise to restore a sensible balance. However, his decisions to recreate the harder-right-leaning cabinets of Johnson and Truss and his reappointment of Suella Braverman to the Home Office, have been questioned, particularly by opposition parties. His reference in his first Downing Street speech to “the opportunities of Brexit” reveals that the delusions of the Europhobes still hold sway. It’s worth noting too that Sunak himself was one of the earlier supporters of Brexit.
But perhaps it is all too late for the Conservatives. Sunak is attempting to resuscitate a party that, having been eaten from the inside out by ultra-right-wing opportunists, may be approaching its final death throes.
Let’s hope they don’t take our country down with them.
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