Napoleon was history on a horse. Since the Brexit referendum, Britain has been history in a clown car. We are now on our fifth prime minister in the six tumultuous years since that fateful vote. Some describe this revolving door of chaos as the “Italianisation” of our politics. Many have marvelled at how a country that used to have an international reputation as boringly predictable has so often resembled a banana republic with crap weather. And these years of almost unremitting mayhem have been unleashed by the Conservatives, a party that traditionally marketed itself as made up of hard-headed realists who could be relied on to provide stable, credible and professional government.
A lot has been written about what the Brexit misadventure has inflicted upon our country. Here, Tim Bale, one of the very best of our political historians, examines what it has done to the Conservative party. He contends persuasively that the Brexit virus has transformed the Tories from a mainstream party of the centre-right into an unstable amalgam of radical rightwing populists, hyper-libertarians and market fundamentalists.
The Conservatives – the clue was in the name – used to be the party that revered and defended the institutions. Now Tories act like – or at least think it convenient to pose as – an anti-establishment outfit. Which requires epic amounts of cheek, given they’ve been ruling for nearly 13 years. They rage not just about “the woke” and “lefty laywers”, but also against the judiciary, the civil service, parliamentary scrutiny, the universities, the BBC, the Bank of England, the CBI and “any of the other shadowy forces determined to deny ‘the people’ the ‘common sense’ policies they supposedly long for”. Traditional Tories used to flinch at ideological fanaticism, thinking both themselves and Britain best served by the pragmatic adaptation to circumstances. Juvenile zealotry and extreme partisanship have become very prevalent in today’s Tory party.
The author is an expert, deft and fluent guide to the story. He brings clarity of explanation to even the most tortuous twists of the tale while offering penetrating and frequently caustic commentary on the consequences, many of them never intended by their architects.
One of his compelling themes is the disproportionate power of what he calls “the party in the media” by which he principally means the rightwing press. They have been significant actors by being hugely influential over Tory members and MPs as well as possessing an outsize voice in the national conversation. Without their clamorous support for the enterprise, which had been preceded by years in which they fomented hostility towards the EU, you can make a strong argument that Brexit would not have happened at all. The rightwing media also played a critical role in propelling the UK towards a much harder form of Brexit than could be rationally justified by the closeness of the referendum result (52-48) or the great economic hazards entailed in opting for an especially severe form of rupture with the UK’s most important trading partners. It was in part to pander to them that Theresa May embarked on the withdrawal negotiations with delusionally uncompromising positions. When she declared, to the horror of key members of her cabinet, that she would be prepared to walk away with no deal at all, the rightwing press was ecstatic. “STEEL OF THE NEW IRON LADY” blared the front page of the Daily Mail, with an accompanying cartoon of May standing in defiant pose on a chalk cliff, the union jack fluttering on a flagpole behind her and the EU flag underfoot. Even the usually more temperate Times went with: “May to EU: give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed”. As Bale drolly notes, it “was never convincingly explained” how the UK was going to “crush” the collective strength of the EU’s 27 member states.
The Tory party in the media played an equally baleful role during the pandemic by allying with the anti-lockdown libertarians in the Conservative parliamentary party and amplifying their opposition to life-saving restrictions. On the telling of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson regarded the Daily Telegraph as his “real boss”. It was not just Johnson’s own libertarian impulses, it was also fear of provoking opposition from the rightwing media that resulted in him introducing measures to curb the virus later and more feebly than he ought to have done.
Another theme of these torrid years is weak prime ministers presiding over hideously dysfunctional regimes at Number 10. The “strong and stable” May became flimsy and ever more wobbly after an atrocious election campaign in which she threw away her parliamentary majority. Johnson won a near-landslide in December 2019, but had little idea what to do with office other than pig out on its perks. Truss was an excruciatingly bad communicator with a calamitously dreadful plan. A run of low-calibre leaders has been accompanied by a collapse in the deference Tory MPs used to display towards their chiefs to the point where it is now regularly suggested that the party has essentially become “ungovernable”. The factionalising of the parliamentary party has seen its MPs divide themselves up into an alphabet soup of agitative groups. There’s the belligerently “anti-woke” Common Sense Group. The anti-lockdowners organised themselves into the Covid Recovery Group. Then there’s the Northern Research Group, representing “red wall” Tories. These titles were adopted in conscious imitation of the most potent of the parties-within-a-party, the European Research Group, the voice of the Brextremists. The ERG has often been lampooned as a collection of monomaniacs, oddballs and fruitcakes, but by god, have they been successful in imposing what was once a very fringe agenda on the government and therefore on the country. At the time of the referendum in 2016, the great majority of the Cameron cabinet and most Conservative MPs backed remain. By the time of the exit from the EU, the cabinet was packed with Brexiters and the ERG had played an instrumental role in impelling the UK into a rock-hard form of departure that had never been on the original prospectus of the leavers.
Yet what exactly has their triumph been for? The penalties for Brexit are as legion as they are more and more manifest. Pollsters report that increasingly large majorities of the public now wish the UK had never left the EU. Even the fiercest advocates of the enterprise struggle to enumerate any tangible benefits. This excellent book opens with an apposite quotation from Polybius: “Those who know how to win are much more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of their victories.” May interpreted Brexit as being centrally about “taking back control of Britain’s borders”. For Johnson, it was, at least rhetorically, if not much in reality, about “levelling up” the “left-behind” areas of the country that had expressed their discontent by voting leave. For Truss, it was all about purging Britain of the EU-inspired rules and regulations that had purportedly been holding back the UK’s growth potential for decades. She grabbed the premiership by persuading Tory party members that she knew where to find the end of the rainbow and the pot of Brexit gold that had eluded her predecessors. At the time of the maxi-disaster of the mini-budget, the rightwing media was in raptures. “AT LAST! A TRUE TORY BUDGET” enthused the Daily Mail in gushing admiration of Truss and Kwamikaze Kwarteng and their slug of recklessly unfunded tax cuts. “KWART’S NOT TO LIKE?” asked the Sun. Financial markets answered that question by dumping UK debt, crashing the pound and pushing mortgage costs up to levels not seen in decades. Truss sacked her chancellor. A few days after that, she was obliged to sack herself. The foundational myth of Brexit, that British governments would henceforth have “the freedom to do pretty much what they wanted”, ought surely to have been exploded by Truss’s self-immolating experiment.
Mad Queen Liz gained the unenviable distinction of becoming the briefest prime minister in our history. That was not the only dismal new record set in this period. Bad King Boris was the first to be sacked as prime minister by his own MPs for lacking the basic probity to hold the office.
The arrival of Rishi Sunak at Number 10 has prompted debate about whether we are witnessing a reversion to something more resembling an orthodox Tory government. “Boring is back,” claims Michael Gove. Bale cautions us against investing too heavily in this idea that the Conservatives are morphing back into a more conventional centre-right party. He registers the irony that they are now led by an incredibly rich Atlantic-hopping member of the global elite, precisely the kind of “citizen of nowhere” scorned by May in her first conference speech as prime minister. Yet Bale also notes that in his appointments, such as Suella Braverman as home secretary, and in some of his rhetoric, Sunak is as ready as May, Johnson and Truss to try to exploit populist tropes at the same time as being ultra-Thatcherite in many of his attitudes towards society.
Bale concludes with another warning, this time for all those who ache to see them out of office: support for the Tories in their current incarnation “might just prove more resilient than many of their opponents imagine”. He would not yet “bet the farm” on them losing the next election. However dreadful they so often are at governing, the Tories have a history of being scarily successful at winning power.
Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer