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If there is anyone who knows how to destroy the Conservative party it is Dominic Cummings. The leader of Vote Leave and former strategist to Boris Johnson delivered two huge victories for his cause but at a high price to the vehicle. Now, exiled and angry, he is turning his mind to smashing and replacing it.
There is no reason to take his screeds about a new “start-up” party too seriously. The UK’s electoral system means talk of replacing the Conservatives after an election rout next year is overblown. There has been only one such electoral breakthrough in modern history, when the Labour party superseded the Liberals, an achievement underpinned by franchise reform in 1918 which tripled the size of the electorate, bringing in millions of working class voters.
But the mere entertaining of such a once unimaginable idea is remarkable. Nor is Cummings alone in such dreams. The core strategy of Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit party, is to divert enough Tory votes to ensure the rout which forces a realignment on the right.
More important than these pipe-dreams is that they are nurtured by a rightwing political and media ecosystem increasingly invested in populist conservatism (no longer an oxymoron it seems). Tory thinkers, journalists and bloggers play up social divides, assail institutions and depict a global enemy within — the liberal elite.
But the real battle to smash the old Conservative party will be fought from within. Taking over an existing party is a far more effective route, as Cummings knows, because he tried it under Boris Johnson, when he imported his Vote Leave team into Downing Street.
So the smarter circling vultures are looking not to a new party but to take control of the existing one. At their core is an anti-establishment ethos which sees the future of conservatism no longer as the defenders of the existing order but as Brexit radicals, scourge of the elites and globalists, the voice of a mythical middle England, the non-graduate rather than the graduate, the suburbs and towns over city dwellers. For many, this is the only logical destination for their new electoral coalition.
The groupings waiting to swoop all want to exploit rather than heal the divisions exposed by Brexit. The New (or “national”) Conservatives fight for traditional values, reduced immigration and a nativist self-sufficiency. Free-market Trussite Tories dream of low tax, a smaller state and deregulation. Conflict between the more interventionist “New Conservatives” and the small-staters who are also less socially conservative means there is no coherent economic model. But there are common enemies and a unifying mission is to complete the historic transformation into a true party of Brexit.
Today’s enemies are the very groups that conservatives once existed to defend. The old order is redefined as a “liberal” establishment — judges, big business, media, globalist politicians and especially the civil service — which fought Brexit and imposes its progressive ideologies on ordinary people. There are many valid criticisms of the inertia of the Whitehall machine but the approach goes beyond necessary reform to pillorying them as a complacent force holding Britain back. The party that once stood for the old order is turning into a hammer rather than a pillar of the establishment.
This difference will be seen in ever-more-hardline positions on individual policies such as immigration, resistance to net zero, or multilateral treaties like the European Convention on Human Rights. One may object to the individual arguments but the important shift is the ethos behind it. Many will agree that the nation needs dramatic surgery but there is a recklessness to this radicalism.
The challenge is keenly felt by those on the centre-right. The One Nation Group last week warned against “throwback nationalist populism”. Tory think-tanks such as Onward are trying to fashion an alternative agenda. But their efforts seem defined by their fear of and opposition to the new right.
Much will depend on the outcome of the approaching election and the narrative after a defeat. The right will use a heavy loss to argue Rishi Sunak was captured by Whitehall orthodoxy and insufficiently conservative.
It is entirely possible this lurch alienates voters and demographic trends make it an electoral dead end. But it’s a shift seen in right-of-centre parties across the west, as they regrouped after the financial crisis using nativism and social conservatism to forge new coalitions beyond their old base. This will feel especially appealing in opposition, where the Conservatives no longer have to confront awkward trade-offs and economic divisions can be glossed over.
Some might argue that the old Tory party had already been smashed under Johnson. Yet Sunak has moderated some of the excesses. The hope for some was that as Brexit bedded in, the Tories would try to rebuild a broader base of support. Even in defeat the party could opt for a more mainstream path. But the political energy within conservatism, the fortress mentality towards global challenges and the logical consequence of the new Brexit coalition all pull it in one direction.
The next reinvention of conservatism could mark a change in British politics from two parties seeking to speak for the whole nation to a more lasting reset which embeds polarisation and in which it is the Tories, not Labour, who are fixed as the voice of the angry insurgents.