Newsline , Society

British Conservatives Charge Toward July 4th Rendezvous with Destiny

Posted on Thursday, May 30, 2024
by Walter Samuel

On the first day of the 2024 British General Election campaign, it rained. It has proven a fitting metaphor for how the race has gone so far for the Conservative Party.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had decided to ask King Charles to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election on July 4th at the last-minute, rendering it impossible to establish any sort of gazebo outside his office at Number 10 Downing Street. The result was that Sunak was forced to deliver his remarks in the pouring rain, his suit rapidly becoming soaked as even his remarks were literally washed away. His words, too, were drowned out by the sound of activists playing the anthem of Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign, “Things Can Only Get Better.” Wet, unable to get his words across, the prime minister evidently concluded the day was not going to get much better for him. Abandoning his speech midway through, he slinked back inside his office.

What followed would prove that things could get a whole lot worse.

On the second day of the 2024 British General Election campaign, Sunak, who does not drink and has championed a nationwide ban on smoking, visited a sports pub, where he asked the patrons whether they were looking forward to the upcoming European championship. The prime minister was once again embarrassed, as Wales had been eliminated from the competition.

On the third day, Sunak flew to Belfast to visit the shipyard from which the Titanic was launched, where, in response to a question asking whether he considered himself the captain of a sinking ship, he insisted everything was going to plan. To add to growing suspicions, voiced by no less a figure than the former leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, that the Labour campaign had a plant within Conservative HQ, he posed for photos beneath an “exit” sign on the plane flying back.

On the fourth day, three of Sunak’s leading cabinet ministers called it quits, while a fourth, Northern Irish Secretary Steve Baker, refused to return from a family vacation, instead announcing that he would “campaign from Greece.” Baker clearly believed that his seat, which he had won by a margin of less than eight percent over his Labour opponent in 2019, was gone, along with the party’s prospects of victory. He was not going to miss his children’s school vacation for a lost cause. What was striking was his willingness to make that publicly clear.

As for Michael Gove, the British Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities, he had reportedly told Sunak at the critical cabinet meeting that resulted in the General Election being called that “who dares wins. You dared, and you will win.” Less than seventy-two-hours later, Gove had announced he would not stand for reelection, abandoning his chief in an election he had urged on him.

Gove is not exactly famous for loyalty. A close associate of David Cameron, he persuaded Boris Johnson to betray Cameron and help lead the campaign for Brexit, only to betray Johnson in turn when the latter ran for the leadership in July 2016. So Gove was merely ending his career as he had practiced it.

At this point, Rishi Sunak, apparently deciding that he had sufficiently proven the Labour anthem wrong, announced he would be taking the fifth day of the election entirely off to rest and discuss the future with his aides and family. The Conservative members of parliament who had not yet abandoned their reelection bids, whose numbers had now dwindled to well under 200 from the 365 Boris Johnson had led into London back in 2019, must have wondered why he hadn’t scheduled his strategy meeting for day one. Or day zero, for that matter.

On the evening of the fifth day, Sunak reemerged to announce that he would seek mandatory national service at the age of 18 for all British citizens. How this would be enforced was unclear, with the Conservatives insisting that no one would be prosecuted for failing to serve.

Evidently concerned that this might not have alienated young voters enough, on day six, the Conservatives pledged that they would transform the so-called “triple-lock,” under which state pensions must rise relative to whichever of inflation, median wages, or cost-of-living is highest, would become a “quadruple” lock with a pledge to never allow any state pensions to rise above the UK’s equivalent of the standard deduction. No pensioners would ever be required to pay tax, an estimated six-billion-pound expenditure to be paid for by eliminating waste and tax evasion that evidently had persisted under 14 years of Conservative rule.

If Tony Blair’s slogan in 1997 was “Things Can Only get Better,” it is now clear that the theme of this year’s contest is conclusively “Things Can Always Get Worse.” The gaffe-prone Conservative campaign, with proposals and gimmicks reeking of desperation, contributes to this impression and has dominated coverage of the first week.

It takes two to tango, and the Conservative Party’s difficulties are in part the result of a failure to deal with a highly underrated campaign by the opposition Labour Party over the past three years.

Many British commentators will be confused by the suggestion there is anything to learn from Labour’s current leadership. The consensus is that the Labour campaign is almost invisible, largely devoid of policy, and under Keir Starmer, the 61-year-old former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, is entirely lacking in charisma.

Starmer has, it is true, aggressively purged supporters of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, and has taken steps to embrace the Cass Report questioning childhood gender transition, but these moves were made to remove those from Labour who felt strongly about policy. They were not policy moves in and of themselves. In fact, previously controversial policies in those areas have been replaced with incomprehensible mush.

It is hardly surprising this approach led to much of the right-leaning press denouncing Labour as cowards, and delusional spin from Conservative strategists that somehow, when faced with a choice between a “presidential Sunak” and a Starmer who refused to say what he believes or will do, the voters would switch back to the Tories. The Left too, has spent years claiming Starmer’s mushiness would demoralize the party’s base, and in the early days when he struggled against Boris Johnson, popularized a meme that “any other leader would be 10 points ahead.” That meme has been turned around by Starmer supporters as the polls shifted, so that now it is “any other leader would be 30 points ahead.”

The underestimation of Starmer was a failure to recognize political genius at work. One of the oldest strategies, whether in war or politics, is to never interrupt your enemy when they are making a mistake. The Conservative Party has made nothing but mistakes since 2020, all stemming from a failure to recognize that in the post-2016 world, the new division is not between center-right and center-left, but between establishment and counter-establishment.

Leaders of both left and right who recognized this, such as Bukele in El Salvador, Andres Lopez Obrador in Mexico, and Narendra Modi in India were rewarded, as were Donald Trump and Boris Johnson when they threw aside center-right shibboleths.

The fatal flaw of the Conservative Party has been a desire to use anti-establishment appeals on Brexit in order to gain office so they could try to implement an establishment center-right policy of open immigration, internationalism, and deference to finance and the public sector unions. The genius of Starmer’s team (which deserves credit given how many others failed to grasp it) was to understand that as there was only enough space for one establishment party. The decision by the Conservatives to once again become one meant Labour merely had to present itself as more competent in its commitment to the same things.

There was a fatal flaw in the Conservative approach. Appeals to populist anti-establishment causes would ensure that the Conservative Party would always cause unease among the elites, who knew the party membership might at any moment try and foist a Liz Truss upon them. In turn, repeated appeals to anti-establishment causes in elections, followed by traditional elitist policy in office, would convince voters the party was a cynical operation which was only using them.

By Labour merely doing nothing, the Conservatives would implode, deserted by both elites and voters, populists and establishment supporters. The only thing that could threaten this would be Labour itself adopting anti-establishment left-wing policies, or for that matter any policies at all.

From this perspective, the Labour campaign has been brilliant. By agreeing with the Conservatives on big issues, while posting video memes mocking the Conservative campaign and governmental corruption, Labour has been able to encourage the defection of the business community and much of the establishment. At the same time, a Conservative Party that cannot win on competence has had to resort to increasingly desperate policy Hail Marys, such as mandatory national service and a poorly-conceived scheme to fly migrants to Rwanda, to differentiate themselves, which has only made the party appear less serious.

Rishi Sunak has been the perfect foil. A wealthy, privately educated banker who bowed to the European Union on Northern Ireland, local zoning interests on housing, and flopped on a multitude of issues, he is seen as willing to say anything. This impression is reinforced by his desperate promises of national service and infinite pension increases. No wonder half of Labour’s videos end with the implication he is planning to move to California after the election.

The British Conservatives’ problem is not that they are led by an incompetent leader – that is a fate they share with half the world’s political parties. Rather, it is that they face an opposition which has figured out how to exploit their leader’s incompetence. That is why it seems like things are only likely to get worse over the next six weeks. 

Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.

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anna hubert
anna hubert
19 days ago

Conservative today means backwards reactionary fossil It has no place anywhere on the shiny path we are being led on toward the bright just and fabulous future Paradise found

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