The Conservatives risk being consumed by Faragism
The great shakedown is back on. For 25 years, the Conservatives have been terrorised by populists without and hardliners within. Leader after leader has thrown red meat to their right flank in the hope that one last meal will silence their barking only to be surprised when it doesn’t.
Once, the fight was about leaving the EU, then over securing a “true” Brexit. Now it is over immigration and the asylum seekers crossing the Channel on small boats. In each case, the ploy is the same. Tory MPs play up the threat from a small party to their right, first Ukip, then the Brexit party, to coerce leaders into a more hardline stance.
Tory MPs are now squealing about a small rise in the polls for Reform UK, the Brexit party’s less coherent successor, no longer led by Nigel Farage but by his ineffectual former deputy. It cannot win seats but can serve as spoiler in some constituencies, siphoning off Tory votes. And Farage, an indisputably forceful populist now retired into a life of punditry, is again taunting Conservatives with hints of a return, provoked by Tory “betrayals”.
But Tory leaders who pander to this wing, as has every one since John Major, can never be pure enough: the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, a committed Brexiter and Thatcherite, is derided as a socialist. It is also a trap: the party is pushed into ever more incendiary promises which it cannot deliver.
Sunak does not look like the man to buck the trend. Amid an economic downturn, strikes, a European war and a public services crisis, the prime minister is spending up to a third of his time on the middling issue of asylum seekers. The promise to control borders was a core plank of the Tory appeal to working class Leave voters. Sunak, like Johnson before him, sees the danger in appearing to have lost his grip.
He sees tackling the small boats as the key to quelling this political threat. With high numbers coming from Albania, Tories are looking at designating it as a safe country, making arrivals ineligible for asylum. He may also tighten the modern slavery act to prevent its misuse by those seeking to stay. Both measures will have more impact than the brutish, costly and almost certainly ineffective plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.
But the hope this will see off the populist right is a delusion. Even halving the arrivals will not silence critics who do not wish to be satisfied. Immigration is their core issue. They need the language of betrayal, on this or on Brexit, to stay relevant. If illegal entry fades as an attack line, they will switch to the legal numbers, which have risen since Brexit. Last week, Farage responded to the latest census data by highlighting cities he described as “minority white” and noting that less than half of adults now identify as Christian. His claims paid no regard to non-white Brits or acknowledged that the shift in faith is due to atheism not incomers. One does not have to be a dog to hear this whistle. And the agitation will not end with small boats.
Tory MPs, meanwhile, use the issue to push pet projects like withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Others use the Farage threat to ride other hobby horses such as recommitting to fossil fuels.
In an electoral system which offers little hope for smaller parties, Faragists understand that the most effective way to influence policy is to capture one of the main parties. If you can’t, the next best thing is to blackmail it into adopting your policies.
The reality is that Reform is largely a receptacle for already disenchanted Tories who might otherwise abstain. The Conservatives’ real enemy at the next election is apathy, provoked primarily by failure to deliver. And since scaring the government is the true strategy, Faragists seek to stoke the disgruntlement which leads to that apathy.
But this is not just a fight about the next election, it is part of the ongoing struggle for the party. Already, the Tory right is preparing for opposition by blaming the expected defeat on a deviation from true Conservative principles. They openly buy into the betrayal narrative on tax, immigration, Covid lockdowns, Brexit purity and net zero. Some preach Trussonomics as if her government never tried it.
Tellingly, many Faragist platforms have a corresponding cabal of Tory MPs, the Brexit ultras in the European Research Group, the Covid Recovery Group, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. One strategist fears that “some will be tempted to go full Orban”.
But you cannot find enough of the voters you need chasing the preoccupations of a nativist party in single digits. The centre ground may favour economic interventionists and social conservatism but their primary concerns are more mainstream. Nor can Tories entirely alienate liberal supporters.
The issues which will really damage the Tories are poor public services, mismanagement of the economy, the cost of living, non-delivery on levelling up and, yes, immigration. Sunak is not foolish to prioritise small boats but voters are looking for control not monomania.
Boris Johnson knew this and tempered his right flank on cultural conflicts. The Tories can neuter the hard right but they cannot afford to be consumed by its obsessions. Eventually, they must stand up to the shakedown.
Success has always come from marrying the forces of reaction with those of mild modernity. Conservatives have prospered as a party of the aspirational, the comfortable and the complacent. They cannot keep winning if they are solely the party of the angry.