No Contest of Ideas
July 23, 2022
The race is on. Boris Johnson didn’t even have time to resign before the first Cabinet minister had declared their candidacy for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Although the race has now been reduced to two, with Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary, facing a ballot of Conservative Party members, the number of declared candidates with MPs backing them has been as high as ten.
On the right of the party, Suella Braverman, Nadhim Zahawi, Kemi Badenoch, and Truss fought it out to claim the title of ultra-reactionary whilst the Tory ‘left’, featuring Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat, Sajid Javid, and Grant Shapps has been just as densely occupied. ‘Moderates’ within the party have mostly been split between Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, the third-placed candidate who has seen considerable support amongst parliamentary colleagues and the wider membership. The commitments made by those standing have highlighted the influence of old-style Thatcherism and an utter unwillingness to tackle this century’s challenges in the Conservative Party.
Tax has already featured extensively. Collectively, pledges to reduce tax reached £330 billion, with plans to cut corporation tax to 15 percent, supported by both Hunt and Javid, costing £34 billion a year in lost revenue. Meanwhile, spending has only featured in one area: defense. Here, multiple candidates have promised to uplift expenditure, led by Hunt and Tugendhat, whose proposals of 3 percent of GDP would, over five years, cost £86 billion. Prioritizing massive corporate giveaways when the UK, even at 25 percent, would have the lowest corporate tax rate in the G7, illustrates the misguided priorities of Conservatives, with none promising money for public services or welfare, even whilst families suffer the largest cost-of-living crunch in 70 years and a record 6.5 million waiting for NHS care.
Instead, Braverman has pledged to cut welfare, claiming “too much” is spent despite over a decade of benefits cuts that have left the unemployed receiving just 18 percent of what workers in Germany receive. Braverman reflects the Conservative Party as a whole more than the media makes clear. Her extreme climate policy is summarized by her vow to “suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net-zero by 2050”. Although this may appear to be a minority position in a party whose leader signed the UK up to an ambitious emissions reduction target, Badenoch also said she’d ditch the target, calling it “unilateral economic disarmament”. Meanwhile, former Conservative environment minister Zac Goldsmith has branded Mark Spencer, a key backer of Sunak likely to gain a place in Cabinet, as “our very own little Bolsonaro” on environmentalism whilst claiming that Mordaunt couldn't be persuaded “of the importance of nature”. For candidates at the party’s center, with Mordaunt even regarded as a moderate, such deranged positions on the planet’s future don’t reflect public opinion but an eccentric fringe in the country.
So-called moderates have also fallen in line with government plans to breach international law. Hunt and Tugendhat, supposed one-nation Conservatives, will pass the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill if they win the contest. Not even the contentious Rwanda scheme was up for debate amongst candidates, with Hunt even pushing for it to be expanded elsewhere. Demonstrating the degree to which the race is dominated by the right, Rees-Mogg has declared that Sunak, a Chancellor that delivered a £20 a week cut to Universal Credit and nearly £17 billion in cuts to real spending plans, has been a "much-lamented socialist chancellor". The reality is that the old Conservative economic program is back. Zahawi, the new Chancellor, went as far as to call for cuts of 20 percent in government departments to fund tax cuts, with Javid also seeking departmental savings, which would likely mean cuts to education and health; services that already face an enormous post-Covid challenge on top of a decade of underfunding. No wonder Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation branded these tax plans “nuts”. However, the fact that these proposals are likely to exacerbate the problems facing the country doesn’t really matter to the candidates in this race. The reason? These Conservative MPs don’t have to appeal to the country to become Prime Minister, but exclusively to the party itself.
It is today standard practice for party leaders to be elected by party memberships. In a general election, the public has the ability to decide which party should govern and, by extension, which policies the country should pursue. When an incumbent prime minister is removed from government prematurely, however, major decisions about the future of the country are handed to a tiny minority; namely, party members. This could involve important shifts in policy, impossible for the public to influence until the next general election, which must be held at least every five years. If Johnson is replaced in autumn, executive power could be granted by an oligarchy to a politician with an agenda divergent from Johnson’s 2019 manifesto - and for a period of more than two years.
Thus Britain’s next prime minister will not be democratically elected. They will instead be chosen by two hundred thousand Tories, who amount to 0.3 percent of the population. Polling in 2019 showed that, compared to the general public, card-carrying Tories are disproportionately skeptical of climate change; favor sending asylum seekers to Rwanda; believe Islam is a threat to the west; and are supportive of Donald Trump, with a majority backing him against Joe Biden in the 2020 American presidential election. The disastrous ascension of Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street, a premiership attended by mass death during the COVID-19 pandemic and unceasing scandal, was facilitated by this thoroughly right-wing membership; and there is little reason to believe that this same membership will choose anyone better. Leadership contenders are instead competing in making dangerous promises to win over the Tory rank and file.
The diversity of the race is not in doubt: before the first ballot of Conservative MPs, four of the eight candidates were ethnic minorities. Dr. Tony Sewell of the government’s race commission credited Johnson for this, characterizing it as an indication of the party’s color blindness while ignoring persistent structural inequalities. At one point most of the candidates were women. If the varied identities represented are evidence of anything, they are evidence of the capacity of all sorts of people to subscribe to cruel policy ideas and become soldiers in a vicious class war against the majority.
The broadening social diversity of the elite, much more than it signals a rupture with the past, is the mark of an adaptable ruling class. While giving the superficial impression of social mobility, the cabinet from whom most of these candidates were drawn chose to reduce the availability of free school meals to disadvantaged children. That is not progress. Furthermore, citing this contest to prove the absence of bigotry on the right ignores compelling data: 43 percent of Tory party members “would prefer not to have the country led by a Muslim”. (Incidentally, none of the candidates are avowed Muslims.) This prejudice evinces little sustained interest in the establishment press, the aversion to Muslims instead being taken for granted.
The Conservative Party is not fit to govern; its radical right-wing agenda is at odds with public opinion. But the Labour Party offers little after its neo-Blairite turn, and taking the “center ground” allows the insurgent right to pursue its plans with greater freedom. A program that prioritizes class and acts as a conduit for the struggle of the majority against an unjust economic order is needed. Where it may come from is yet to be seen.