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Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them

Geoffrey Wheatcroft analyses the turmoil of the Tory party.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft24 June 2024

Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them

Even if Sunak had originally offered sheer relief after his predecessors, by the end of his first year as prime minister he seemed increasingly out of his depth. In October, the Daily Express, a shadow of what it had been in its heyday, selling four million copies but now acting as a faithful stooge to the government, splashed the headline ‘PM: I’ll tear up rulebook of 30 years of broken politics’. On this occasion Osborne was right, not to say stating the obvious, when he said that Sunak couldn’t ‘pull off being the change candidate’. Change from what? From thirty years for most of which the Conservatives have been in office?

Not surprisingly there were intermittent calls for Sunak to be replaced, and even talk of plots to do so, although the slowest-witted Tory must have sensed that to depose a fourth leader in five years would destroy the faintest pretense they were a serious party. But still, there was an increasing air of desperation when Sunak spoke. Early in his prime ministership he had made five ‘pledges’, which common sense would have told him were unlikely to be met and were anyway beyond his control, notably his promises to reduce inflation and NHS waiting lists. 

Indeed by February 2024 he admitted that the waiting lists had not come down. Another policy was always doomed to backfire. A deleterious recent development was the lectern outside 10 Downing Street adorned with the latest fatuous slogan, latterly ‘Stop the boats.’ As everyone could see, the boats crossing the Channel had not been stopped, and the government’s boasted stratagem for deterring them had come to nothing. In 1994 an unseemly joke could be heard in Washington: ‘Mr President, what are we going to do about Rwanda?’ ‘That Rwanda’s a lying bitch. I never laid a finger on her.’ But now Rwanda became a bad joke in British politics, with the government’s weird plan to deport asylum seekers to a remote tropical African country whose human rights record even now was such that England was admitting asylum seekers from Rwanda, the country to which it was proposing to send asylum seekers. In February Sunak was interviewed on television by the bumptious Piers Morgan, who bet the prime minister £1,000 that no one would have been deported to Rwanda before the election. Sunak had little choice but to accept and console himself that it will be easier for him to pay up than it would be for most citizens.

Through all this turmoil the Tories were ailed by something they couldn’t shake off. Margaret Thatcher was an astonishing creature who dominated a whole decade, who changed the country, who could be called a world-historical figure. Even after her eviction in 1990, her shadow fell for many years over Labour governments as much as Tory. The malady from which the Tories now suffer is of a different character. If some patients unluckily suffer from ‘long Covid’, when the effects of the virus linger, the Tories were afflicted by ‘long Boris’. They had known what he was like when they chose him as a leader. They cheered his initial victories, they watched with dismay his hopeless incompetence when the pandemic came, and they finally ejected him, not because he was a scoundrel, which they knew anyway, but because everyone else could now see that he was.

He continued to heckle from the sidelines by way of a column in the Daily Mail for which he was paid not much less than £1 million a year, and it was the same old same old, the perky, fatuous performance he had been putting on for twenty-five years, entirely devoid of any sense of public duty while delighting in the idea of Big Things he might have done: ‘Cancel HS2? Cut off the northern leg? We must be out of our minds . . . Opponents said Australia’s small boats plan was cruel and crackers . . . until it worked. The same will happen with Rwanda . . . Rugby doesn’t risk young people’s lives, it can save them. Don’t let the finger-wagging twaddle merchants of Weedy-Wetsville University tell you otherwise . . . Why can’t every freeborn Briton burn his Christmas tree on Twelfth Night in his own hearth?’ and so on and on.

A particularly odious example was a column praising the good old spirit of adventure and love of the unknown which had been exemplified in the last dive of the submersible called Titan. This scandalous affair saw a millionaire not only book himself aboard an unseaworthy craft but cajole his nineteen-year-old son, who hadn’t wanted to go, to join him in a terrifying death and in a watery grave, as it proved. What sort of person could admire that father? Even when appearing in Putin vs the West, the latest of Norma Percy’s brilliant television documentary series, in which many other leaders spoke gravely and seriously, Johnson couldn’t help smirking as he described his telephone conversations with Xi. ‘He kept dead-batting. More dead bats than in a Yuhan cave.’

By early 2024 it was increasingly likely Donald Trump would win the American presidential election in November, and even more likely that if he did so he would abandon Ukraine. And yet Johnson could write another column in his inimitable, not to say ineffable, manner: ‘The global wokerati are trembling so violently you can hear the ice tinkling in their negronis . . . but a Trump presidency could be just what the world needs.’ That entirely contradicted another column – ‘Our support for Israel is as important as that for Ukraine’ – which at least provided comic relief with its joint byline of Boris Johnson and Bernard-Henri Lévy neatly pairing two of the prize preening boobies of the age.

In February there were by-elections in two safe Tory seats, except that ‘safe Tory seat’ was by now what logicians call a closed category, like ‘a square circle’. The Wellingborough by-election had been forced by accusations of bullying and sexual misconduct against Peter Bone, the sitting member, and then a recall petition, and the new Tory candidate appeared to be his partner or mistress or whatever the latest Tory term is. Even the prime minister couldn’t be persuaded to say that he would vote Tory himself in that by-election, but party optimists could bet on the Tories retaining both seats at combined odds of an 89–1 double. 

A hackneyed old phrase had once said that the Tories were a ‘broad church’, although that must be true of any party under the present British electoral system, which encourages large parties with the character of internal coalitions. But now the Tories seemed less a church than a variety of squabbling sects. It was hard to keep up with them: One Nation, New Conservatives, European Research Group (the innocuously named faction which had been driving force behind

Brexit), Common Sense Group (which sounded almost contradictory in the present Tory party), National Conservatives. Those last held a conference in London in the spring of 2023 where some of the then darlings of the Tory Right appeared, such as Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the historian David Starkey for light relief, and Suella Braverman, who said that large-scale immigration undermined the ‘national character’. She might also almost have been giving a practical demonstration, since she, the daughter of immigrants, had conspicuously failed to acquire that wellknown English characteristic, a sense of irony.

Finally there popped up the Popular Conservatives, launched in February under the banner and leadership of Liz Truss, which again suggested a lack of any sense of the ridiculous after her brief but disastrous prime ministership. Apart from her, its first event was graced by Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and the former deputy chairman, Lee Anderson, personifying respectively the would-be gentlemanly side of Toryism and its brutish foul-mouthed saloon-bar wing.

Nigel Farage was in the audience, but then he was everywhere, haunting the tour wherever they turned. More dangerous in electoral terms was the new Reform Party, very much the latest incarnation of Ukip, which had already briefly been transmogrified as the Brexit Party. Its animating force was Richard Tice, a rich businessman, and its main attraction was Nigel Farage. Reform intends to run candidates in as many constituencies as possible and can only draw support from disaffected Tories. There was even talk of Farage joining the Conservatives. Several Tories insisted that was unthinkable, but Rees-Mogg said he would be delighted. He had also welcomed the return of Cameron, claiming it was good to have an Etonian in the Cabinet again: ‘It was very remiss not to have one.’ But then another Etonian MP was Danny Kruger, an evangelical Christian, who had earlier claimed that the Tories needed to introduce ‘a period of creative destruction in the public services’. 

If that wasn’t much help to Sunak, then nor was Kruger’s latest quite plausible lament that the Tory government would leave the country ‘sadder, less united and less conservative than they had found it’. That the Conservatives would be leaving the country, or at least office, was something very few disputed by the spring of 2024. They were spooked by Reform UK, the latest iteration of Nigel Farage’s destructive political career, whose threat to run a candidate in every constituency would certainly be ruinous for the Tories. Many Tory MPs expected to lose their seats and were making plans for the future – the latest to say he was leaving as I write was Kwasi Kwarteng, perhaps hoping that his thirty-eight days as chancellor would be an attraction for future employers – while predictions for the party’s prospects at the coming election ranged from dismal to disastrous. 

No one could possibly thrill at the thought of the coming Labour government. Sir Keir Starmer, like Blair before him, had decided that his best course was to track the Tories to the right, if not quite so far, and shied away from any hint of radicalism. But if ever the old saw of British politics applied, that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, then the coming election looked like a very clear demonstration of this truth.

— An edited excerpt from Bloody Panico!: or, Whatever Happened to The Tory Party by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

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