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Goodbye to all that

In 2010, the Conservative Party promised so much. How did they sink into poisonous culture war posturing?

The Conservative Party has undergone drastic change over the past 14 years, going from the seemingly modern, centrist approach of David Cameron and Nick Clegg, to Theresa May’s attempts to run the country in the wake of the Brexit vote, and the ensuing disastrous tenures of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Photos: Christopher Furlong/WPA Pool; Jeff J Mitchell; Kin Cheung/AFP/Getty

How did it happen? In 2010, a group of apparently sane politicians entered government wearing recycled trainers, committed to ring-fenced spending on the NHS and international development, proud of the “A-list” of candidates that had made the Conservative parliamentary party more diverse and (most striking of all) in full coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Out the other end of the time tunnel, 14 years on, emerges a deranged, snarling army of Orcs, proud of Brexit, ranting about small boats, bringing back National Service, cracking down on sicknote scroungers, slapping fines on rough sleepers and waging a war on “woke” subversives (although, for all their ferocity, it should be noted that 83 of them have opted for a comfy Orc retirement).

This is not normal. Naturally, parties that put in a long shift in office evolve and morph over the years. Winston Churchill in 1951 had a different political style to Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1964. The same point could be made of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 compared to John Major in 1997; or Tony Blair’s leadership in 1997 and Gordon Brown’s in 2010.

But this is of a different order. David Cameron’s Conservative Party was showily in favour of change, social liberalism, greenery, and generational progress. He was more than happy to be described as the “heir to Blair”. You didn’t have to believe that all this was wholly sincere or that the process of modernisation was complete to acknowledge that Toryism had undergone a bit of a makeover.

I had a ringside seat to much of it as deputy editor and political columnist of the Sunday Telegraph and then editor of the Spectator (where I was Boris Johnson’s successor), both right-of-centre publications that always took a keen interest in the trajectory of the Tory Party. I was never a member of what CS Lewis would have called the “Inner Ring”. But I knew most of the main protagonists, some very well, and had even been on holiday with a few of them. 

Unlike New Labour, which was a project that became a gang, this lot were a social group in search of a cause. But once the so-called “Notting Hill Tories” had downloaded the relevant political software into their brains, they were focused and professional. As I sat in George Osborne’s kitchen with Professor Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, discussing the way in which malaria nets could save thousands of lives in sub-Saharan Africa, it seemed that something real might be happening. 

The more general idea – that both of the main parties should be sane and moderate – also struck me as a good one. When I was asked to be the first chair of the modernising thinktank Bright Blue, founded by Ryan Shorthouse, I was pleased to accept.

The essence of the project had initially been to “detoxify” the Tory brand: as Francis Maude, then party chairman, showed in his so-called “killer slide” at the 2005 Tory conference in Blackpool, polling revealed that public support for a proposal halved when respondents were told it was a Conservative policy. Toryism itself, in other words, had become a contaminant.

This was not an entirely new point. In the leadership contest of 2001, Michael Portillo had offered Tories a radical programme for change – but hadn’t even made the final round, in which Iain Duncan Smith defeated Kenneth Clarke.

Three general election defeats in, the party finally recognised that something new was definitely required and elected Cameron, aged only 39, as its leader. He and his closest ally George Osborne, aided by a likeminded gang including the pollster Andrew Cooper, senior adviser Steve Hilton and principal fixer Kate Fall, set about transforming the party into something new and sellable: a refreshed movement committed to both social liberalism and economic prudence. 

The general election of 2010 yielded a hung parliament – but Cameron and Osborne had anticipated this possibility and quietly tasked Oliver Letwin to go through the Lib Dem manifesto line by line and look for common ground. On the other side of the fence, Nick Clegg had asked a group headed by his chief of staff Danny Alexander to carry out a symmetrical exercise. This preparation meant that, after polling day, the odds were always stacked in favour of a Cameron-Clegg coalition.

For many (myself included), this was a much more appealing prospect than a fully Conservative government with a small majority, constantly at war with hardline Eurosceptic backbenchers. In alliance with the Lib Dems, the Tories would be kept honest on Europe and greenery (or so it seemed). They would be able to enact the right to same-sex marriage (which did happen, in 2013). 

After the long Blair-Brown feud, the spectacle of Cameron and Clegg visibly at ease with one another in the Downing Street rose garden on May 12, 2010, and an untroubled working partnership between the PM and chancellor marked a welcome change. Early in the parliament, there was even talk of a “coupon” election in 2015, a Lib-Con pact on the lines of 1918 when the Liberal Lloyd George and Conservative Bonar Law issued letters of endorsement to candidates who agreed to support them. 

How long ago that seems.

To understand what went wrong, let’s start with the financial crisis of 2008-09. Even if Brown had held on to power, he would have had to tighten the purse strings. But for Cameron and Osborne, the bleak economic context was a nightmare. How to square the new image of compassionate Conservatism and ardent love of public services with post-crash realities? It really couldn’t be done. In April 2009, and against the advice of some in his circle, Cameron announced the “Age of Austerity”.

In private, the Tories realised that these tough fiscal measures – even with Clegg, in Cameron’s words, acting as “human shield” – might limit them to a single term in office. Behind the scenes, they knew perfectly well that it was hard to claim you were generous when you were making cuts, and were braced for electoral defeat at the hands of Ed Miliband in 2015.

That didn’t happen, and outright victory brought about a change in Cameron and his circle. He had seen off proposals for electoral reform at Westminster in a 2011 referendum; defeated Scottish independence in 2014; and now, against the expectations of most pundits, become the first Tory leader to secure a parliamentary majority since 1992. 

So when he announced that there would be a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU on June 23, 2016, he did so with considerable confidence. Osborne was urging caution, encouraging his friend and ally to think of the stakes and the dangers. “I’m a winner,” Cameron would say. When I pointed out to him, not entirely facetiously, that “dice have no memory”, I got the prime ministerial Paddington stare.

Eight years on, as the full disaster of Brexit is clear, it seems odd, to say the least, that any rational politician would ever have taken such a risk. To explain (which is emphatically not to excuse) why Cameron did so, one has to scroll back further in the history of the Tory Party and its disastrous fixation with Europe.

Though the word “Brexit” does not seem to have entered the demotic until around 2012, the idea had been nestling malevolently in the Tory psyche for years. In 1994, the recently sacked chancellor, Norman Lamont, told the Conservative Philosophy Group that it was time to give serious thought to leaving the European Union. In the same year, the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith founded the Referendum Party.

Euroscepticism grew in power once the Tories were in opposition, though its focus was keeping the UK out of the euro. The crunch was the failure in 2005 of the EU Constitutional Treaty – on which Blair had promised a referendum – and the drafting of its near-identical successor, the Lisbon Treaty. Cameron, in contrast to Brown, offered the “cast-iron guarantee” of a popular vote on Lisbon, only to withdraw the promise once it was enacted in EU law.

Strictly speaking, he had logic on his side. But his Eurosceptic backbenchers saw only treachery and weakness. He had told them to stop “banging on” about Europe – and this was their reward? In October 2011, David Nuttall, Conservative MP for Bury North, submitted a motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. In spite of a three-line whip, 81 Tory members voted for it. 

This mostly forgotten episode was of supreme importance. It showed that, in certain circumstances, the Cameron high command no longer had control of the party. And it revealed that what would soon be called “Brexit” was burrowing its way into the mainstream.

More important than the internal dynamics of the Tory Party were the tectonic changes in the broader political landscape. Popular trust in the political class, in the institutions of state, in the media and in the financial elite was plummeting. Emotion was supplanting evidence as the main driver of political opinion; culture and identity were more important than economic statistics.

The process was turbo-charged by the near-simultaneous arrival of widely available broadband, social media and smartphones. Suddenly, the traditional media had lost their authority as the gatekeepers of information; the algorithm, with its tendency to drive users into digital tribes, was taking over. 

Two British politicians – Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – intuited that a colossal shift in political methods and culture was underway; that politics was moving house from institutions to networks; that spectacle and showmanship would matter more than ever; and that they were both well-placed to exploit this revolution.

When Farage had taken over the UK Independence Party in 2006, it was a dreary campaign obsessed with the minutiae of constitutional law and sovereignty and with Battle of Britain tea towels. In the same year, Cameron dismissed the movement as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly”.

This seemed spot on to me. But what he (and I) had failed to grasp was that saying as much was no longer a sufficient response. Crucially, Farage shifted the emphasis of the party from juristic minutiae to immigration and national identity; turned himself into a broadcast celebrity; and transformed Ukip into an unignorable force. He understood that the age of austerity was also an age of resentment and that the easy, if cynical, response was full-bore populism, blaming liberal elites, immigrants, lefty judges and civil servants for just about everything.

First-past-the-post meant that his party was unlikely to win Westminster seats (a handful of former Tory MPs briefly represented Ukip in the Commons). But it could clean up – ironically – in elections to the European Parliament; as it did in 2014, finishing ahead of all other UK parties with 27% of the vote and 24 seats.

Johnson, for his part, was agnostic about our membership of the EU, as he famously demonstrated by writing two columns in 2016 – one favouring Brexit and the other arguing for staying in. But he saw that the new populist right was fizzing with energy, attracting huge attention on social media, and ignoring the old rules of political conduct. 

I am not convinced that he really wanted Vote Leave to win the referendum, or that he ever felt passionate about Brexit itself. What he had in mind was to channel the energy of the Brexiteers, turn it to his advantage and expedite what he regarded as his rightful path to No 10. As early as the 2009 party conference, I remember him telling me that, somehow or other, “Europe” would be the means to this particular end.

What followed eight years ago was symbolic of the amateurish, reckless character of the whole damn enterprise. Leave won a narrow victory, helped in large part by the devious tech methods of Dominic Cummings and the uselessness of the Remain campaign. 

But Michael Gove, Johnson’s chief cabinet ally in the campaign, decided at the 11th hour not to back his leadership bid and to stand himself. Johnson, dismayed, chose not to run, and the country, to its surprise, ended up with Theresa May as prime minister. On the steps of Downing Street, she made some encouraging remarks about addressing “burning injustices”. But all of that was completely overshadowed by the 2,000-foot tall, rampaging, fire-breathing Godzilla that was Brexit.

Clearly, the prospect of the UK’s imminent departure from the world’s biggest single market and one of its most important supranational alliances was daunting enough. But the collateral damage caused by the Brexit vote was no less sweeping, to an extent that was only just beginning to sink in.

What followed was a sharp debasement of political and media manners: on November 4, 2016, the Daily Mail named the judges who had ruled that parliament’s consent was required to trigger the UK’s exit as “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”.

 In April 2017, the paper menaced those MPs opposed to May’s deal with the EU in similar language: “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS”.

As he closed in on the top job, Johnson constantly invoked the “will of the people”, brazenly deploying the tool kit of the demagogue. Once installed in No 10, with Cummings at his side, he unlawfully prorogued parliament in a crass attempt to force through Brexit. In September 2019, he took a blowtorch to the old broad-church Tory Party, withdrawing the whip from 21 moderates, including Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Philip Hammond, Ken Clarke, Sam Gyimah and Ed Vaizey. 

A few weeks ago, I went back to the original list and worked out that only one of the 21 was still in place as an MP: Greg Clark, who had represented Tunbridge Wells since 2005 and, as chair of the commons science select committee, did a fine job of scrutinising the government’s Covid strategy. On Friday, Clark announced that he was stepping down.

It scarcely needs to be said that Johnson could not have been more temperamentally ill-suited to handle a national challenge like the pandemic. Other than the vaccine programme, everything went wrong or was substandard – invariably presented as “world-leading” when it was nothing of the sort.

Above all, the scandal of “partygate” revealed something truly ugly about the Conservative Party that had hardened after Johnson’s landslide defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in December 2019. Rarely had the Tory sense of entitlement been so clearly and horribly exposed: even as the rest of the country obeyed highly restrictive rules that Johnson’s own government had imposed, he and his colleagues were recklessly ignoring them in Downing Street. 

In the end, the scandal did for him – though the proximate cause of his resignation in July 2022 was the Chris Pincher groping controversy. What happened next was surreal. 

Having presided over what amounted to an “ethical crash” – a collapse in standards in public life and trust in the political process – the contenders to succeed Johnson proceeded to have a furious argument about tax cuts.

How detached from reality is it possible to be? The answer is “unbelievably so”. Having set out his stall as a technocrat who believed in economic stability, Rishi Sunak now decided to become a culture warrior: declaring in a Sunday Telegraph article that his only complaint about the Rwanda scheme was that it did not go far enough.

Of course, he was defeated by Liz Truss in the first leadership contest of 2022 but slipped into No 10 in October of that year, after she herself was beaten by a lettuce, lasting a mere 49 days in which she still managed to tank the economy. 

Since then, Sunak has revealed himself to be a supremely terrible prime minister: fixated on his idiotic “stop the boats” campaign, constantly resetting his strategy (remember when he promised to be the “change” candidate?), playing fast and loose with net zero targets, lying about a “permanent state” sabotaging the will of the people. 

He has made an art form of tetchiness. Posturing as a grown-up, he has in practice fed public resentment and pandered to the most base of popular emotions.

That said, Sunak is a mere techno-pimple on the rump of a much bigger dying monster. His premiership no more explains the end of this Tory era than the pitiful reign of Romulus Augustus (475-6 CE), the last Emperor of the West, explains the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

And now, having announced a mildly surprising election date in the pouring rain, he is preparing for his own exit. All such campaigns deliver surprises, and this one will be no exception.

But – credit where it is due – the Tories have worked really hard at ensuring their own defeat on July 4. I’m not sure they could have done more to help Keir Starmer steer Labour from its worst election result since 1935 to the verge of office.

This is the end of one story. Another is about to begin: not the fate of the incoming Labour government, which is another matter entirely, but the direction of travel that the Tory Party takes in opposition. 

The new Conservatism, whatever it is, will be a variant of MAGA-UK, and I suspect that Nigel Farage, having decided not to run as a candidate for his own party, Reform, in this election, will be involved in some way or other. 

It is impossible to say how the right will reconstitute itself in the coming years, though I think it will locate itself in precisely the opposite political quadrant to the Cameron modernisers: socially illiberal and economically munificent (the alt right has never been fiscally conservative). Whatever form it takes, we must be supremely vigilant as this rough beast slouches towards Westminster to be born.

For now, one can only marvel at the awfulness of what has happened to the Conservative Party and, more to the point, of what it has done. What started life as a centrist experiment, flawed but full of optimism, will end as a smoking ruin, its last gurgling words before it is consumed by the waves being a tirade about immigrants, elites, wokerati, civil servants…

Goodbye to all that.

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