The transformation of the Tory party leaves surviving MPs feeling uneasy
IMAGINE A CONSERVATIVE MP and your mind’s eye might conjure up Philip Hammond. The former chancellor is tall, grey and with a sense of humour that matches his fiscal policy: extra-dry. If not Mr Hammond, then perhaps a figure in the mould of Kenneth Clarke. The rotund, cigar-chomping jazz enthusiast has served in practically every senior government job bar prime minister in a 49-year stint as a Tory MP. Failing that, consider Sir Nicholas Soames, a former defence minister. He has a Churchillian manner, largely because Winston Churchill was his grandfather. The three embody the parliamentary Conservative Party in different ways. Yet they are no longer in it.
The trio were among 21 Conservative MPs to have the whip withdrawn and be barred from standing for the party again after they supported a plan to make Boris Johnson, the prime minister, seek a delay to Britain’s scheduled departure from the European Union on October 31st (see next story). The purge was only the most visible part of a revolution that is transforming the world’s oldest political party. Those who advocate
- fiscal prudence,
- social liberalism and an
- orderly departure from the EU have been routed.
Those who demand free-spending authoritarianism and a “do-or-die” escape from the yoke of Brussels are ascendant. ConservativeHome, a blog for party activists, described this week as “the end of the Conservative Party as we have known it”.
The revolution has required ideological flexibility from those who wish to survive it. The cabinet is full of MPs who are historically small-state Conservatives. Four of the five authors of “Britannia Unchained”, a paean to small government published by ambitious young Tory MPs in 2012, when fiscal austerity was in fashion, now sit in a cabinet intent on opening the public-spending taps. A spending review on September 4th included measures that will increase the size of the state as a percentage of GDP for the first time since 2010. Sajid Javid, the chancellor, is a fan of Ayn Rand and hangs pictures of Margaret Thatcher in his office. Yet on Mr Johnson’s instructions he announced an extra £13.8bn ($16.9bn) in election-friendly giveaways, paid for with extra borrowing.
There is also new thinking on law and order. Another 20,000 police officers are to be hired, and a review of whether prison sentences are too soft is expected. Priti Patel, who has called for a clampdown on immigration and once supported the return of capital punishment, is home secretary. It is a far cry from what some in the party thought Mr Johnson had in store. “Expect a liberal centrist,” advised one MP, who now sits in the cabinet, before Mr Johnson became prime minister. Wags have dubbed the new Tory domestic agenda: “Fund the NHS, hang the paedos.”
But the hardest line is on Brexit. Conservative MPs appreciate that they must get Britain out of the EU if they are to keep their seats. Yet Mr Johnson’s approach, which seems most likely to end in no-deal, leaves a quiet majority of the parliamentary party uneasy. And it is not just former Remainers who fret. A member of the cabinet who enthusiastically campaigned for Brexit admits that no-deal would be a catastrophe. But MPs are willing to serve, partly because Mr Johnson seems determined to move things forward one way or another. “They may not agree, but they are happy for the direction,” says one cabinet minister.
Setting the route is Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, who will not even say whether he is a member of the Conservatives. When running for office, Mr Johnson promised an inclusive, “one nation” style of government. Instead, he has set about shaking the country’s institutions, suspending Parliament for the longest period since 1945 in order to reduce the time MPs have to debate Brexit. Hitherto unimaginable tactics, such as asking the queen to veto anti-no-deal legislation, are now openly discussed. “This Conservative government…seems to not be very conservative, fiscally or institutionally,” noted Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue, a liberal Tory think-tank.
The strong-arm techniques are in stark contrast to the days when David Cameron ran the party, and rebels ran amok. Mr Cameron was unwilling to crack down on an increasingly daring Eurosceptic fringe, which eventually bullied him into holding the referendum. Under Mr Johnson, such sedition is not acceptable, as this week’s purge was intended to show. Figures from Vote Leave, the main campaigning group behind the Brexit vote, call the shots in Downing Street, causing long-serving Tory MPs to shake their jowls at the state of affairs. Sir Roger Gale, an MP since 1983, declared: “You have, at the heart of Number 10, as the prime minister’s senior adviser, an unelected, foul-mouthed oaf.” Mr Johnson was reportedly given a rough ride at a meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers on September 4th.
Yet for all the fury over the deselections, Mr Cummings’s strategy remains just about intact. The prime minister and his aides want an election in which Mr Johnson is portrayed as the champion of a people defied by wily politicians, with the promise of a cash tsunami about to break over Britain’s public services if people vote Tory. “He gets the election he wanted and the framing he wanted,” says one former Downing Street aide. Nor will the revolution necessarily be permanent. A socially conservative offer to voters tempted by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party may last only until the next general election, says Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London.
“What this country needs is sensible, moderate, progressive Conservative government,” declared Mr Johnson during a stilted performance in prime minister’s questions on September 4th. Yet with the Tory party in its current state, Britain will have to wait.
Trump himself has already undercut his national-security claim by exempting most major exporters of steel to the US. Canada, for example, is exempted on the condition of a successful renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement,
.. effectively threatening the country unless it gives into US demands.
But there are a host of issues in contention, involving, for example, lumber, milk, and cars. Is Trump really suggesting that the US would sacrifice national security for a better agreement on these minor irritants in US-Canadian trade? Or perhaps the national-security claim is fundamentally bogus, as Trump’s secretary of defense has suggested, and Trump, as muddled as he is on most issues, realizes this.
.. As is often the case, Trump seems to be fixated on a bygone problem.
- .. Recall that, by the time Trump began talking about his border wall, immigration from Mexico had already dwindled to near zero.
- And by the time he started complaining about China depressing its currency’s exchange rate, the Chinese government was in fact propping up the renminbi.
- .. Likewise, Trump is introducing his steel tariffs after the price of steel has already increased by about 130% from its trough, owing partly to China’s own efforts to reduce its excess capacity.
.. But Trump is not just addressing a non-issue. He is also inflaming passions and taxing US relationships with key allies. Worst of all, his actions are motivated by pure politics. He is eager to seem strong and confrontational in the eyes of his electoral base.
.. what matters is the multilateral trade deficit, not bilateral trade deficits with any one country.
.. Reducing imports from China will not create jobs in the US. Rather, it will increase prices for ordinary Americans and create jobs in Bangladesh, Vietnam, or any other country that steps in to replace the imports that previously came from China.
.. In the few instances where manufacturing does return to the US, it will probably not create jobs in the old Rust Belt. Instead, the goods are likely to be produced by robots, which are as likely to be located in high-tech centers as elsewhere.
.. the Republican Party, standing in solidarity with Trump, seems suddenly to have forgotten its longstanding commitment to free trade, much like a few months ago, when it forgot its longstanding commitment to fiscal prudence.
.. while Trump claims to be looking out for US industrial workers, the real winner from “successful” negotiations – which would spur China to open its markets further to insurance and other financial activities – is likely to be Wall Street.
.. The EU, for its part, seems highly concerned with protecting data privacy, whereas China does not. Unfortunately, that could give China a large advantage in developing AI.
.. In the years ahead, we are going to have to figure out how to create a “fair” global trading regime among countries with fundamentally different economic systems, histories, cultures, and societal preferences.
The danger of the Trump era is that while the world watches the US president’s Twitter feed and tries not to be pushed off one cliff or another, such real and difficult challenges are going unaddressed.