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Weary Tories Sense PopCon Is An "Early Marker" In Battle For The Party's Soul

Former prime minister Liz Truss at the Popular Conservatism campaign launch (Alamy)

5 min read

The launch of a new, right-wing Conservative movement on Tuesday laid bare the struggle for the heart of the Tory party that potentially awaits after the next general election, expected to take place this year.

Numerous Tory MPs, commentators and party members gathered in Westminster's Emmanuel Centre on Tuesday morning for the launch of Popular Conservatism — a campaign focussed on "freedom" that aims to push the Conservative party closer towards principles like lower tax, stricter immigration rules and protecting free speech from "woke" culture.

The speakers included former prime minister Liz Truss, ex-Cabinet minister Jacob Rees Mogg and Lee Anderson, who until recently was deputy chairman of the Conservative party. Former Home Secretary Priti Patel and senior Tory Jake Berry were in the audience, as was former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

However, the campaign's insistence that it is focused on promoting ideas, rather than a change in party leadership, has failed to quell a feeling that Tory MPs involved have one eye on who will be next to lead the Tories after Rishi Sunak if, as expected, the party loses the next general election. One former minister observed the MPs in attendance laying an "early marker" in preparation for the blame game that is expected to follow a Tory defeat. 

The same senior Tory noted that former home secretary Patel, seen by some Conservative MPs as a dark horse to win the Tory leadership from the right of the party at the next time there is a contest, was sat on the front row at Tuesday's launch.

A number of Conservative MPs have expressed horror at statements made by the senior Tories who addressed the launch. "They are not Conservative, though they may have been elected under a Conservative banner. They want to tear things down," an MP who sits in the One Nation caucus of self-described moderate Conservatives told PoliticsHome

The campaign's director is Mark Littlewood, former head of the libertarian think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs, who sought to stress that he had not set up Popular Conservatism to campaign for Rishi Sunak to be replaced as leader of the Tory party.

"I am personally immovable in my view that Rishi Sunak should lead the Conservatives into the next election," Littlewood said in his introductory remarks, adding that the new campaign was not an intra-party faction like the New Conservatives or European Research Group.

While supportive of Sunak, Littlewood bemoaned what he described as a failure by successive Tory administrations to implement what the Popular Conservatism campaign says are true Conservative principles. 

"We have now had a Conservative-led government for nearly 14 years under five different prime ministers. Conservatives have some agreed common aims: lower taxes, a proper functioning market economy, individual liberty," he said. 

"But these goals have proven to be frustratingly elusive."

Truss, who gave a much-hyped, unscripted speech to close the event, warned that the Conservative movement had failed to take the fight to the left-wing, who she said had successfully taken over the country's institutions. She also claimed that the UK is full of "secret Conservatives" who agree with the principles of Popular Conservatism, but are afraid to admit it.

Former prime minister Liz Truss at the launch of Popular Conservatism (Alamy)

"For years and years, and it goes back two decades, Conservatives have not taken on the left-wing extremists. These people have repurposed themselves," said the former prime minister.

"They don't admit they're socialists or communists anymore. They say they are environmentalists. They say they are in favour of helping people across our communities. They are in favour of supporting LGBT people, or groups of ethnic minorities. They no longer admit that they are collectivists, but that's what their ideology is about.

"It is all about taking control away from people and families, and giving power to the state or unaccountable bodies. The problem is the Conservatives have tried to appease these people. We have tried to triangulate."

Rees Mogg, the former business secretary, took aim at a range of global institutions including the European Union, European Court of Human Rights and COP climate summit, which he claimed had eroded people's individual freedoms. 

"Electors across the world, not just the United Kingdom, have realised that the age of 'Davos man' is over. Of international cabals and quangos telling hundreds of millions of people how to live their lives," said the Conservative MP for North East Somerset. 

Rees Mogg also criticised the Human Rights Act, the Climate Change Act and the Equalities Act, and went on to suggest that the Supreme Court ought to be abolished.

John Strafford, a "pretty disillusioned" long-time Tory member seemed positive about the event, and told PoliticsHome that the event represented the "real Conservative party".

"This group have got the right ideas and if they combine with the Conservative Democratic Organisation in looking at the structure of the Conservative Party we are on to a big, big winner," he said. 

“I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party for 60 years and for the last 20 I’ve been pretty disillusioned. Today I see hope for the future.”

But other Conservatives seemed relatively untroubled by the furore that surrounded PopCon. One senior Tory who insisted on calling it "popcorn" described it as “light and fluffy, with no nutritional value”. When asked if they had followed the event, another Tory MP responded: "Did I fuck". 

With additional reporting by Sienna Rodgers.

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