As a new addition to the long list of battles for the Conservative Party, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak launched in July a tirade against what he described as being ‘rip-off’ degrees. Putting aside the merits of his argument, it represents a continuation of a new Conservative trend of fighting ‘woke’ culture and a subsequent shift to right-wing populism. Another recent example of this has been transgender issues; Conservative MPs and newspaper outlets have tried to forge it into a partisan social issue, despite it facing less than 1% of adults.
British conservatism has long been successful, winning a majority of elections since WWII and being in power since 2010, and has traditionally served as the laissez-faire party of the establishment. However, developments since the Brexit vote, which have accelerated recently, have altered its ideological composition, leaving the current state of British conservatism tumultuous.
Part of the change can be attributed to a global trend in right-leaning parties; populism and charismatic leadership appeal to an ever-widening class of people who feel ‘left behind’ by the establishment. The British Conservative Party has been no exception, with Boris Johnson’s pioneering of an interventionist ‘neo-conservatism’ appealing to the disenchanted in his 2019 victory. The Eurosceptic faction has evolved and merged with the anti-woke culture warriors and traditional social right-wingers. Their evolution has brought about a change, an anti-establishment ethos, who now represent Brexit radicals, nostalgic imperialists, conspiracy theorists, and the nostalgia of a mythical past to which must be returned. It pays tribute to the ‘MAGA’ slogan which captivated the suburbs and towns of America under Trump and their enemies are of the same fashion; the graduate globalist city elite who are perpetuating a new world order. This broad and unspecific definition allows for anything to become the scourge of this new faction; from the civil service to vaccines, all can be shown to be imposing progressive ideologies on ordinary people. A prime example of this was the government’s plan to remove all retained EU law by the end of the year; it was unfeasible and unnecessary but it appealed in its symbolism to the neo-conservatives.
This right-wing bloc has increased in influence recently, so much so that someone like Suella Braverman, who has launched a tirade against the ‘Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati’ in Parliament, is the current Home Secretary. Sunak, once associated with the moderative bloc of the party, has acquiesced to populist demands. He took the unprecedented step of vetoing a Scottish parliamentary bill to pick a fight over the rights and freedoms of transgender people in Scotland, and three months later, he launched a crackdown on asylum seekers so draconian that it provoked condemnation from the United Nations. Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP, remarked on this right-wing shift in the Times last week: “A drag anchor of a right-wing caucus is in our ranks, and it has already written off any prospects of victory in 2024”. This right-wing caucus has and will continue to clash with the traditional base of the party, resulting in a situation where ‘today’s enemies are the very groups that conservatives once existed to defend’. Traditional conservatives as a result have fled the party in record numbers, a trend that can be viewed by record swings to the Liberal Democrats in by-elections. If the Tories are to lead, they will need to fix the ideological fractures that have appeared. However, the Neo-Conservatives interventionist nature reconciling with small-staters who are also less socially conservative means is no easy job. Furthermore, as Boris Johnson learned, promising Red Wall voters ‘leveling up’ and investment as well as lower taxes for the traditional conservative results in an incoherent economic model.
It may be that, as Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London, puts it, ‘these gestures are compensatory: a last-ditch attempt by a desperate prime minister to unite an ideologically fractured and failing party’. That after a period in opposition, the Conservatives will stop tolerating the ever-right-wing caucus in its ranks. However, if the neo-conservatives are here to stay, it will require an ideological reinvention that may irrevocably split the party.
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