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Foxes at the door – the Tories' identity crisis

5 min read

Rishi Sunak is very far from alone in being menaced on his right flank. Tim Bale puts the Conservatives’ identity crisis and the rise of Reform UK in a wider European context

Every political party likes to believe that it’s somehow special, sui generis, novel. In truth, though, there’s little that’s new under the sun.

Reform UK, for all the excitement surrounding it right now, is no exception to the rule – not just because it’s basically UKIP 3.0/Brexit Party 2.0, but because it’s merely the British representative of the populist radical-right parties that have been shaking up continental Europe for years.

That doesn’t mean Richard Tice and his gang don’t present an imminent threat to the Tories. Indeed,  they could well cost the government dozens of seats at the next election – one reason why the sometimes surreal war of words between them has begun to hot up recently.
But for anyone even casually acquainted with British and European politics over the last couple of decades, Tice – together with the man who many see as the party’s real leader, Nigel Farage – is playing some familiar tunes. 

So, too, are those Conservatives desperately trying to persuade many of their erstwhile supporters not to sing along – largely by playing something not too dissimilar themselves: imigration, Islamism, net-zero, woke, European superstate, crime and corruption. Rinse and repeat.

True, there are always variations on the theme. With William Hague it was “a foreign land” and “save the pound”. With David Cameron it was the “tens of thousands” and “the green crap”. With Theresa May it was ”Go home or face arrest” and “citizens of nowhere”.  With Boris Johnson it was “Get Brexit done”.  With Liz Truss it was “the blob”.  And with Rishi Sunak it’s “Stop the boats”.

But insisting that, unlike the liberal left and “the elite”, you’re at last listening to “the people” never works in the longer term. All it does is drive up the salience of those issues that disillusioned voters tempted by parties like Reform care about most. And it legitimises and normalises rhetoric and policy positions that, ultimately, no mainstream centre-right outfit can fully commit to without doing itself and, even more importantly, the country some serious damage.

Portugal’s Chega may have been grabbing all the headlines recently, but the spectre of radical right-wing populism has been haunting Europe for a quarter of a century; 1999 being the year Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) narrowly beat the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) to second place in Austria’s federal election. Since then, the continent’s Christian democratic, conservative, and market liberal parties have, along with their centre-left opponents, been trying – and failing – to come up with a way to put the populist radical right back in its box.

Tory leaders have found that ramping up the rhetoric to shoot the populist radical right’s fox ends up feeding it

Initially the hope was either that it could be frozen out by agreeing to treat it as a pariah or that a spell in government would see it fall apart as its promises were exposed as so much hot air. But when those responses failed to do the job, they soon gave way to what is now effectively the default response, namely to stress to voters that the issues the insurgents are raising – especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to immigration and integration – are indeed pressing, while the solutions they are proffering, and the language they are proffering them in, aren’t actually so unreasonable after all. 

Even where it seems to succeed, it’s only a temporary fix. Nicolas Sarkozy’s hardline stances didn’t ultimately save the French centre right from collapsing or from Marine Le Pen. Similarly, tough talk from Mark Rutte may have kept the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in power for longer but ended with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom coming first with almost a quarter of the vote last November. The FPÖ looks likely to do the same in Austria later this year, notwithstanding the ÖVP’s marked swing to the right under Sebastian Kurz. And while Boris Johnson saved the Tories, and Britain, from the Brexit Party in 2019, its successor is surging again right now.  

In no small measure that’s because, in order to fight populist fire with populist fire, mainstream right governments end up saying and doing things which their party’s business constituency and more affluent and educated voters find increasingly hard to stomach – either because it harms their economic interests or their socially liberal values, or both.

Meanwhile, hardline voters come to believe that the government’s heart isn’t really in it and vote for “the real deal” anyway – one reason why so many Reform voters say they wouldn’t return to the Conservatives even if they offered a referendum on immigration.

Just like many of their European counterparts, then, Britain’s Tory leaders have found that ramping up the rhetoric and ratcheting up the policies in order to shoot the populist radical right’s fox ends up feeding it. And now, given the call in some parts of the Conservative Party to “unite the right” by absorbing Reform rather than simply plagiarising it, the fox – in the form of Nigel Farage – may even, after the election anyway, be about to enter the henhouse.

A historically successful mainstream centre-right party effectively merging with or being taken over by a populist radical-right rival? That really would, I confess, be truly special, sui generis, novel – and very worrying to boot.

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