This month, we contextualise the Tory crisis by looking at the bigger picture and taking the longer viewby Tom Clark / June 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Secretary of State for Home Affairs Theresa May delivers her speech to delegates in the third day of the Conservative Party annual conference last year. Photo: PA Britain is gripped by the theatre of the absurd. The dialogue is rife with Alice in Wonderland arguments about the meaning of “meaningful,” and whether or not to back up the “backstop date.” The colourful chancers controlling the plot threaten to walk if they don’t prevail on such arcane distinctions, and warn of a “meltdown.” Meanwhile, pinstriped oddballs in the wings mutter darkly that they could any day bring it all crashing down by “weaponising” letters they claim to have tucked away in a drawer. It is, in its way, compelling drama. Bizarrely, it’s also important. For underneath all the frivolity of the Brexit farce, what’s at stake is a nation’s prosperity, indeed its place in the world. But until you escape the parliamentary ping pong and breathless claims of reassurances being ratted on, there’s no hope of making sense of how the Conservatives got into this mess, or how they might get out. So this month, we contextualise the Tory crisis by looking at the bigger picture and taking the longer view. Andrew Gamble sees Brexit as one manifestation of a nationalist-populist global insurgency against the moderate right. Donald Trump is the unmissable embodiment of that. Less noticed, but no less important, is the waning of Europe’s centre-right. It is very recent: long after the financial crash, the likes of David Cameron and Angela Merkel could thrive. Only in the last year or so have the French Gaullists been walloped out of contention and Merkel’s mighty CDU begun to slide. And it’s not the old left that’s cashing in: Italy’s new government is a mix of “kick it all over” populists and “shut the ports” chauvinists. An anaemic recovery has cost the mainstream right its trump card: a reputation for hard-headed competence. Exclusive new polling confirms Britain’s Conservatives are now acutely vulnerable on this front, and also finds that they are seen as on the side of bankers and billionaires, rather than that of the farmers, small firms and thrifty pensioners on whom they traditionally relied. All this suggests a frailty to populist challenge, but in reviewing their remarkably successful history I’m struck by how many scrapes they have survived before by moving with the times. The difference with Brexit is that, if they go with a nationalist line, they risk falling out with the core business interest, something which really could sink them. They need to compromise, and it is going to be painful. But there will, as Tory MP Lee Rowley points out, come a time when Brexit is no longer the only issue. So we explore a few ideas which might just give the old bulwarks of the liberal order a future.