Scott Benton MP wants the death penalty. Not just for terrorists but for people who murder children. He’s not alone, of course. Large numbers of conservative-minded voters want to bring back hanging. No doubt they would respond to objections as Mr Benton did, describing them as “liberal leftie hysteria” by the “liberal media elites”.
Thankfully, reality has now blown up in Benton’s perpetually angry face. He faces a no-confidence motion from Tory councillors in Blackpool South, where he sits, after promoting council candidates who had to be sacked for obnoxious social media posts.
One had claimed that the Labour Party “likes to abuse children and see Britons killed”; another had threatened civil war against “Marxist tw*ts” during the prorogation crisis and posted a graphic likening Joe Biden to the paedophile Jimmy Savile. Both were pictured hugging Mr Benton, who described them as “brilliant candidates”. Neither were properly vetted by the Conservative Party, which failed to spot these obvious far-right tropes.
In Westminster, meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has at last achieved something statesmanlike. Calling the EU deal over Northern Ireland the Windsor Framework was a genius move: how can the DUP, the most fervent royalists in the United Kingdom, be against it? Yet if they’re for it, then just to exercise their right of veto over EU laws, they have to take part in an Assembly whose first minister is from Sinn Féin.
I hope, for the sake of the country, that the revolt of the sensibles in Blackpool, and Sunak’s sudden conversion to competence over Europe are linked. If we’re lucky, they might go down as the first moves in a Tory campaign to avoid electoral oblivion.
Why do I, a left-wing Labour member, say “lucky”? Because we need the Tory Party to survive – preferably as a permanent opposition party – in order to contain and suppress the kind of politics that drive Mr Benton and his council mates.
The auguries are not good, though. A Savanta poll last week put Labour 24 points ahead, giving them a 358-seat majority, with the Tories vying with the SNP for the role of HM Opposition. The same poll put Reform UK on 8%, reflecting the slow but steady gain in traction for this son-of-Ukip party.
Because Sunak is sitting on the remnants of an 80-seat majority delivered by Boris Johnson in 2019, it’s easy to forget how fragile the Tory vote was before Johnson inspired an influx of Ukip and Brexit Party voters, and how easily it could again produce a right-wing populist fracture.
Given what happened between Brexit and the 2019 election, with the Brexit Party at one point surging to 25% in the polls, the following scenario is not impossible. Johnson – or a piqued Suella Braverman – cuts loose from Sunak and launches a new, pre-emptive leadership bid. It fails, and – once the election defeat happens – we see a new right-wing “anti-woke” party emerge from the wreckage.
To understand why, take a look at the map generated with the Savanta prediction. British politics have become so volatile that we could see a Conservative wipeout in Wales, Scotland and everywhere north of Birmingham in England (apart from the Brexit strongholds of Grimsby and Boston).
That would, overnight, turn the Tories into the party of the Home Counties, Shropshire, Somerset and Dorset. These, with some exceptions, are the places where Toryism retains its polite, patrician soul. Where the average Tory member wouldn’t be seen dead with a figure like Scott Benton MP.
All the Red Wall Tory MPs would be gone. And since many never bothered to build local party organisations beyond a few tens of ex-Ukippers, they would be highly vulnerable to the emergence of a Trump-style right-wing party or movement.
From a pure electoral point of view, progressives should revel in the prospect of Tory disintegration. But it would be dangerous. Because, as the Knowsley riot against asylum seekers showed, there is a volatile public mood being fanned by right-wing disinformation on social media.
GB News and Talk TV have produced a whole cadre of far-right celebrities who, though barely recognised by most people who vote Liberal or Labour, are becoming cult figures in the online world. If your teenage son has, to your shock and dismay, heard of the misogynist activist Andrew Tate, it’s a fair bet they will also be familiar with self-styled “Rev” Calvin Robinson, who mobilised protesters against a drag storytelling event in south London last month, and who opposes abortion.
Wherever I enter a TV studio now for a political discussion show, there is nearly always someone cast from the far right. Their shtick is to avoid logic and evidence, and at the first opportunity accuse everyone else of being “woke liberals” who are afraid of “free speech”. The broadcasters go along with it.
It’s the same shtick Benton has perfected. Which is why I hope Sunak can go on winning the battle for seriousness, technocracy and restraint in politics.
I don’t think the Tories can recover enough support to make the next election a cliffhanger. But they can avoid disintegration. If they don’t, after the next election we will be in uncharted territory.
If it’s as bad for them as Savanta predicts, that’s yet another argument for adopting PR in Westminster elections. The electoral system is delivering results that, over time, are destabilising to democracy: the Blair landslide of 1997 gave us the Iraq war and numerous scandalous lapses in governance. The 2019 landslide gave us Partygate.
Right-wing extremism, boosted often by money from America and even Russia, is now a non-negligible force in British politics, and if we don’t want it to become normalised we need to make the game of electoral politics fairer and its outcomes less catastrophic.