Philip Stephens / Oct 2022
Where to start? A government that promised leaving the European Union would see Britain “take back control” has itself spiralled out of control. “Global Britain” is falling towards penury as the sick man of Europe. To chart the course of its politics nowadays is forever to be a step behind another turn of the kaleidoscope of chaos. The country has been paying the price of Brexit for six years. Now the Conservatives are reaping the whirlwind.
Liz Truss becomes the second Tory leader to be defenestrated by her party since July. Boris Johnson, a proven liar and lawbreaker, lasted three years. His chosen successor, a callow ideologue, was in and out of Downing Street within 50 days. Their humiliation was richly deserved. Their fall, of course, is no consolation for a nation tumbling towards a brutal recession after being robbed of its reputation for honest dealing with its partners and allies.
A few days ago the new chancellor Jeremy Hunt offered a nod to realism by eviscerating Truss’s madcap scheme to turn Britain into a small state, low tax monument to the memory of her hero Friedrich Hayek. Hunt’s promise to rebuild a reputation for economic competence by balancing the Treasury books has seen a modicum of calm return to financial markets. But for how long?
The only game for the Conservatives now is damage limitation. The opinion polls show that they would lose two-thirds of their seats in an early general election, handing a 200-seat majority to Keir Starmer’s Labour party. The election must be held by January 2025. The party’s best hope is that a period of sober, competent government would narrow the margin of defeat.
In a sane world, Rishi Sunak, who lost the leadership contest to Truss, would be installed in No 10 with a mandate to stabilise the economy and rebuild the nation’s reputation as a trustworthy partner in Europe and beyond. Sunak is scarcely one of politics’ big beasts. Nor should he be mistaken for a natural centrist in a party that has shifted decisively to the right. But during his spell as chancellor he displayed a willingness at least to own up to the facts of economic and political life. The same cannot be said of other potential leadership contenders.
It is far from self-evident that even the calamities they have inflicted on the nation since the referendum vote will persuade the Conservatives to elevate good government above ideological faction fighting. Leaving the EU has proved an abject failure, weakening the nation at home while diminishing it abroad. The Brexiters, though, have hands clamped firmly over their ears.
For a sizable segment of the Conservative party sovereigntist ideology and personal rancour have long displaced rationalism. There was a time when holding power was the raison d’etre of Conservatism. Many of the present generation of MPs are ready still to sacrifice office to the crude populism that sank Johnson and the zealotry that consumed Truss’s premiership.
During his spell in Downing Street Johnson contrived at once to debase politics, wreck the economy and rob Britain of respect on the international stage. The fact that some Tory MPs are ready to consider his return to Downing Street is a measure of just how far the party has fallen.
Britain has now had five prime ministers during the six years since the Brexit vote and all the while the rupture with Europe has merged into the identity politics of English nationalism. To be a Brexiter is to be a footsoldier in the culture wars. Anti-Europeanism has become the badge of the social reactionary hostile to immigration, diversity and anything that can be branded liberal or progressive. Truss won the leadership promising to give further form to thes creed in the shape of a low tax, small state economy cut free completely from its continental neighbours.
The ignominious collapse of her experiment has not deterred her party’s fundamentalists. Brexit is more a religion than a political choice. Their determination to expunge from the statute book all trace of European legislation and to unilaterally renege on the deal setting Northern Ireland’s trade relations with the EU are affirmations of faith.
It remains possible that, just as it overturned Truss, hard reality will now continue to impose itself. The party may choose Sunak. The political imperatives imposed by the looming recession could yet force a more pragmatic approach to the disputes with Brussels. Nothing would be more damaging to the slim prospects of early economic recovery than a trade war with Europe.
Either way, the Conservatives have been broken by obsession with national sovereignty and its nostalgic delusions of recovering past greatness. Sometime soon serious British politicians will begin to think about the long way back.