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Forget the budget, here’s the real, dirty way Sunak aims to win the next election

By weaponising migrant boats and letting his MPs stoke culture wars, the PM is damaging his party and the country

Rishi Sunak boards his plane at the end of his visit for the AUKUS summit on March 13 (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

One of the political statements below is by Lee Anderson, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. The other is taken from the website of the British National Party.  

First: “Immigration into Britain is a destructive agenda and must be stopped. Without any vote or debate, successive governments in Britain have introduced the most pernicious and divisive policy since World War II, and transformed our country almost beyond recognition.”

“The influx of migrants is adding to continual pressure on the housing, the NHS, GP waiting lists, school places, and saturating the lower skilled markets and undercutting British workers.”

And the second quote: “The promise of asylum in Britain has led to the shipping of thousands of supposed ‘refugees’ across the channel, with them being dumped on the doorsteps of ordinary Brits.”

“Why should these people benefit from four-star hotel accommodation and taxpayer-funded meals, whilst people graft hard to benefit their families and their country?”

The fact that those two statements are politically indistinguishable is a sign of the decay that has taken hold in British public life. At the centre of the current political wasteland is the idea of the culture war, a term that carries heroic resonances of struggle and victory, but which really means little more than the use of hatred as a political tool. 

A recent appearance on Channel 4 News by the Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis was instructive on this point. When the interview turned to the government’s new immigration bill, Gullis said he was pleased with his party’s new tough line on immigration, because it “upset all the right people in the right places”. Before going on to make inaccurate and actionable remarks about Gary Lineker, Gullis continued: “Let’s be clear, when I talk about upsetting people I’m talking about the Twitterati, the wokerati of north Islington – those champagne socialists who pontificate all day.” 

Lee Anderson, the deputy Chairman of the Tory party described a similar political landscape in a recent column for the Express:

“When I come down to London and listen to people talking about illegal immigration,” he wrote, “it’s sometimes like visiting another planet. You listen to people talking about it on BBC studio sofas and realise how big the disconnect is between the average person and the chattering classes.”

“These people have no idea what the reality of the challenge is for those on the frontline, or what it’s like for my constituents. But we in the Conservative Party listen to real people, not left-wing so-called charities and campaigners.”

Anderson might have considered why it is that Londoners, who live in a city with a high proportion of immigrants, are so at ease with immigration, or why the UK’s ethnically diverse cities also happen to be the most economically productive parts of the country. These questions however do not arise. But what does arise from Anderson and Gullis’s comments is the notion that Britain is divided between, on the one hand, “real” people, and on the other, people who are phoney, who are unreal and who “have no idea” about the reality of British life.

That sense of division is both the crucial ingredient of a culture war and the basis for a political campaign. Saying the quiet bit out loud, Anderson said recently that he thought the next election campaign should “probably be a mix of culture wars and trans debate” because the Conservatives no longer have the “great ingredients” of 2019 to discuss.

In an interview with New Culture Forum conducted shortly before his appointment, Anderson said: “The big thing in terms of 2019, there were three things that won us the election… it was Brexit, it was Boris, it was Corbyn and it was as simple as that.

“Those three things together were a great campaign, great ingredients. At the next election we haven’t got those three things so we’ll have to think of something else. It’ll probably be a mix of culture wars and trans debate.”

And it looks as if he’s right. The government has decided to elevate immigration as its central culture war issue. It has done this despite the fact that Britain has taken in far fewer immigrants than almost all comparable countries and despite the fact that Britain has a low-to-average number of foreign born citizens. There is a strong case that, because migrants tend to be younger and our society is ageing, we need more immigration, not less.

But arguments such as these are now beside the point – because in a culture war, the very idea of argument breaks down. The aim is no longer to appeal to people’s reason, but to their instincts, and to encourage the idea that somewhere there exists a lingering threat, unseen, persistent and insidious, a threat that must be confronted. 

This use of the paranoid political style can be highly effective, but is also at odds with Rishi Sunak’s broader political character. The PM has successfully positioned himself as the restorer of political normality after the helter-skelter years of Johnson and Truss. He has appointed another smooth operator in Jeremy Hunt, whose supposedly cuddly Budget masked both a dearth of real ideas and a large pension giveaway for top-rate taxpayers.

Hunt and Sunak are the smiley faces but people like Gullis and Anderson are the rottweilers the Conservatives believe they need to unleash in order to hang on to power. 

Sunak also has Isaac Levido on the staff, an associate of the political consultant Lynton Crosby, who successfully made immigration one of the central arguments in Australian politics. Add to this the former political editor of the Spectator, James Forsyth, who now runs Sunak’s media operation, and you have a team that has carried off a clever piece of political triangulation: on the one hand Sunak’s government will appear sensible on the economy and repair relations with the EU – particularly the French, but on the other hand it will go for all-out culture war on the issue of immigration. 

Sunak has certainly restored a sense of economic and financial calm. But by allowing the extreme fringes of his party to indulge in culture war, he risks doing damage of a much worse kind. The American example shows that, once you let the culture war into your party, and your political system, it is very hard to get it out again. The reason is that it creates a class of politicians who benefit from division and who see it as in their interests to create more of it. That is the inevitable poisoning consequence of culture war. 

British politics is heading that way, driven on by a series of profound changes. The Iraq war, the expenses scandal and the financial crisis fatally undermined trust in Britain’s political and financial elites. These crises popularised the idea that a detached class of politicians, globalists and money-men were running out of control and making huge profits into the bargain. 

On top of this came Brexit, which imposed a “yes-no” political issue onto a consensual parliamentary system that was not designed to absorb such a binary decision. The result was political mayhem and a new sense of ideological division within British politics. Then came Covid, which sparked a huge increase in wild conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus and the motivations of governments and shadowy elites, which were – some people argued – attempting to control its spread and benefit from the consequences. 

The effect on British political life has been shattering. When Sunak took office, he was the fourth sitting prime minister in three-and-a-half-years. Each of those governments has been hemmed in by the constraints of its own ideology, incapable of confronting the profound economic and social problems that the country faces. The current government’s sights are now set so low that when Hunt announced in his Budget speech that Britain had avoided recession, government MPs reacted as if this were some great triumph. 

And so – politically neutered – No10 has opted for culture war. The enthusiasm with which some Conservative MPs encouraged the censoring of Gary Lineker for his views on immigration shows how much further there is to fall. It should be remembered that 36 Tory MPs and Lords issued a letter demanding Lineker apologise in public for criticising the government’s immigration policy. This is not normal.

As for the multiple-choice question at the top of this page, the answer is that the first quote is taken from the BNP website and the second from the deputy chairman of the Conservative party. It is a sign of how extreme this government’s politics has become that the BNP quote is in many ways the less repulsive of the two.

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