Why have the Tories suddenly imploded?

In many ways, the Tories’ downfall is not startling at all. Not just because Truss and her predecessor were incompetents, but because the party’s implosion has been brewing for decades, and their problems have much deeper causes.

“In shell shock,” staff at Downing Street are said to be in at the incredible speed of the collapse of Liz Truss’s leadership. Just a few months ago, we were forced to endure the endless scandals that rocked and defined Boris Johnson’s chaotic reign at No 10. The Tories needed composure and strength to regain lost credibility and trust. What they got was the opposite. A weak, cowardly, and humiliated prime minister who ditched her closest political ally and totemic policy that had won her the job, in a last-minute bid to keep her job. 

Resigning after just 45 days in office, Truss goes down in history as the UK’s shortest-serving prime minister – by some distance, and leaves behind bitterly divided Tory MPs with the challenge of choosing the fifth Conservative prime minister in just six years.

Reaction to Truss’s demise shows how acutely divided the Tories are. Right-wing libertarians who have been advocating for low tax-small-state ideals for decades see it as botched “political execution” rather than economic thinking.

As Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), told Politico following the abandonment of Truss’s economic program but before her resignation:

“I’m pretty distraught about it.

“It did actually appear as if we had a new government that, in very broad terms, shared the IEA analysis of the problems with our economy, and it not being market-oriented enough.” 

Meanwhile, Tories opposed to the libertarian agenda are not disappointed by its failure. As Tory backbencher Simon Hoare told the BBC:

“The mild flirtation with Tea Party libertarianism has been strangled at birth, and I think for the general good fortune of the Tory Party that has to be seen as a good thing.”

In many ways, the Tories’ downfall is not startling at all. Not just because Truss and her predecessor were incompetents, but because the party’s implosion has been brewing for decades, and their problems have much deeper causes.

Partied out

Conservatives were once a mass party with deep roots in local communities. Today, the picture is very different, with hallowed out local parties, mostly made up of councillors, offering very little in terms of grassroots activity. Party membership has been in long-term decline, as has membership of all the mainstream political parties in the UK. 

By the mid-1950s, membership of the Conservatives peaked at around 2.8 million. Since then, membership has been steadily falling. By the late 1970s it had dropped to 1,350,000 and during the ‘80s and ‘90s it fell further. In 1997, when the Tories suffered a major defeat in the general election, membership stood at 400,000.

As the House of Commons Library graph shows, the number of members in the Conservative Party had historically been above that of Labour, apart from a brief period around the 1997 election. After details of the Lib-Dem-Tory collation emerged in 2010, Labour experienced a post-election surge, with a sharp rise in new members. Since 2010, Labour’s membership has been above that of the Tories.

According to the most recent data, today, the Conservative Party has just 172,000 members. Research indicates that more than half of party members are over 60, tend to be male residents of southern England, and are overwhelmingly white – at 97 percent.  Liz Truss was elected PM by just 81,326 Conservative Party members, a tiny and unrepresentative section of the population. 

To put the numbers into context, the Labour Party has around 432,000 members. Even the Lib Dems have around 150,000. Meanwhile in Canada, the Conservative Party had around 675,000 members signed up to vote for their new leader this summer. 

Fuelled by the Conservatives’ turmoil and polls suggesting Labour would be on course for election victory, membership to Labour increased by more than 2,500 over the party’s conference this year.

So, what’s gone wrong for the UK’s Conservative Party, and why, despite floundering membership numbers, do they still win elections?

Filthy rich donors

The UK Tory Party remains generously funded by the super-rich. Donors who give around £3 million, often later find themselves with a peerage. As one former Conservative Party chairman told the Sunday Times: “Once you pay your £3m, you get your peerage.”

Thanks to huge donations they are able to run effective campaigning organisation, usually led by expensive Australian or US consultants. In 2015 for example, criticism was raised from within the Tory Party at how Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist who has managed election campaigns for right-wing parties in several countries, was a ‘secretive Australian masterminding their campaign.’ 

Spending data from the Electoral Commission showed that in the 2019 general election, Conservatives smashed the record for money raised in the first fortnight of an election campaign, raising £8.6 million compared with Labour’s £3.7 million. It was the second time that year that Johnson had broken a record for political donations. Underlining his popularity with donors, over the summer of 2019, Johnson raised the most money by a British politician campaigning to lead their political party. It included a donation of £100,000 from the pro-Brexit venture capitalist Jon Moynihan, who played a leading role in the finances of the official Vote Leave campaign.

During this year’s Party leadership contest, Liz Truss was given more than £500,000 towards her campaign, half of which came from donors linked to hedge fund bosses, venture capitalists and other City financiers. Lord Vinson, a Tory peer who contributed to the climate science-denying think-tank Global Warming Policy Foundation, donated £5,000 to the Truss campaign. She also accepted £20,000 from Jon Moynihan. 

Press backing

Of course the Tories’ success in elections is also massively helped by the Tory press, whose poison, sadly, seeps into the likes of the BBC. 

In December 2019, Labour accused the BBC of bias in the election coverage. Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s co-campaign coordinator, had said they had recorded numerous examples where his party’s leadership had received “more negative treatment, harsher scrutiny and slanted editorial comment” than Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

Even the Guardian and the Observer encouraged tactical voting to challenge Tory seats during that election. The Daily Mirror was the only UK paper to back Corbyn’s Labour.

But despite having the backing of the press and filthy rich donors pouring money at them, the Tories have still managed to self-destruct and blow themselves up like Daleks.

How?

With the demise of Thatcher in 1990, followed by John Major’s literally grey man period and ‘new’ Labour roaring into power, by the turn of the millennium, the Tories had become something of a small, weird, extreme sect.

In the early noughties under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and William Hague, nobody knew what they stood for. Research showed that typical gut reactions to the Tories were “invisible and irrelevant, hopeless and washed-up, shambolic and stuck in the past, pathetic and ‘weak, weak, weak.”

Cameron’s Brexit screwup

In eschewing traditional right-wing themes, sounding liberal and green, and casting himself as a unifying national figure leading a Conservative party that had abandoned its nostalgia for ‘bygone days,’ David Cameron managed to ‘detoxify’ the party to some extent. But despite the Great Recession of 2008 and 13 years of Labour power, he only managed to become prime minister with the help of the Lib Dems, the ‘political gaffer tape’ of Cameron’s first term.

In 2015, Cameron would successfully blame the then Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg for government shortcomings. Failing to offer a permanent solution to anything, the Lib Dems’ poll rating fell sharply during the coalition. While the Lib Dems claim the Cameron government would have been even worse without them, the party has never really recovered.

Unshackled by the impediment of ‘Cleggery’, in 2015 Cameron and Osborne were liberalised to find even more billions of budget savings from the welfare bill. However, resentment within Tory ranks over Osborne’s ‘extreme’ tax credit cuts festered, unleashing rebellion on the Tory benches, and driving Iain Duncan Smith, who had been responsible for the ‘reform’ of the welfare system, into cabinet exile.

Then there was Brexit, a massive screwup by Cameron, which changed the political landscape. The paradox is that Cameron called the EU referendum because he wanted to stop his party’s obsession with the EU, see off the political threat from Nigel Farage’s UKIP, and iron out long-term Tory divisions about Europe. Yet it came to define his term in office. His EU gamble backfired, forcing him to resign and leaving the party in total upheaval. Labour should have stood to benefit from the turmoil-riddled Tories but if anything, the opposition was left in even greater disarray after the Brexit vote. Working class loyalties to Labour were loosened, especially in small ‘left behind’ towns in the North.

It was Brexit that led to Cameron’s successor Theresa May’s downfall. Her tenure as prime minister was undone by her inability to secure parliamentary support for her EU withdrawal agreement.

Exploiting the Brexit failings of Theresa May and promising a bold new Brexit deal, Boris Johnson took over as Tory leader, after May’s inglorious three-year stint at Downing Street.

Pledging to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and manipulating Corbyn’s so-called ‘ambivalence’ towards the EU (something the Tory press promoted while Corbyn himself made it clear that Labour’s Brexit policy would be to negotiate a new deal with the EU within three months of coming into power), Boris Johnson successfully exploited the Brexit chaos and won a substantial overall majority in 2019.

The Tories have undergone many transformations in their time. Under Johnson, they moved away from 40 years of small government under Thatcher and Cameron and stood for big-government Conservatism. Essentially dumping Thatcherism and adopting policies similar to Trump and far-right parties in Europe, though not as extreme, Johnson talked tough on migration, promising to stamp out “uncontrolled immigration.” He continued to be the bane of Brussels, reneging on the post-Brexit trade deal he signed. Armed with bold and ambitious ‘levelling up’ rhetoric, he promised to “restore people’s sense of pride in their community.”

As we know, levelling up under Johnson was never achieved. Nor was Brexit, which remains largely unresolved.  

Then there were the lies about parties, sleaze, and sexual predator coverups, which eventually led to Johnson’s resignation.

The Tories may have been divided when Johnson became prime minister in July 2019 but on his resignation in July 2022, they were in full blown civil war.

When we thought it couldn’t get much worse for the Tories, in walked Liz Truss. The painfully long and Presidential-style leadership debate over the summer seemed weird and out of touch.

Reverting to warmed up 1980s’ Thatcherism/Reaganism to appeal to the Tory base, namely big donors, right-wing think-tanks, the Tory press, and members who are largely white, male, rich and southern, Truss’s bogus ‘growth’ plan paid off.

However, when the plan was launched when she became PM, it was so outrageous and inept, that even the markets rejected it. Truss loves markets, but apparently, they don’t love her – oh the irony!

What now? 

Unbelievably, the chaos currently engulfing the Tory Party could mark the return of Boris Johnson. According to The Times, Johnson, in hoping to make it to the final two of the leadership contest, has assembled the support of dozens of Tory MPs, former donors, party activists and the team that helped him win the 2019 election election.

While Johnson has not publicly confirmed that he will stand, The Times reports he has told close allies that he intends to and has asked them to help orchestrate his campaign.

Despite the divisions, instability and chaos, the Tories manage to keep their head above the water because of funding from the super-rich, and backing from the corporate press. The speculated return of the tarnished figure of Boris Johnson shows how few answers they have, and just how reliant the party is on  the backing of donors.

They have imploded in recent weeks because their backers have become complacent and excessively greedy, overreaching to implement a brazen program to further enrich themselves and stuff everyone else.

Their collapse is the outcome of decades of letting their once powerful electoral machine fall to pieces.

The emperor has less clothes than we all thought.

Right-wing media watch – Corporate media ramps up hostile trade union reporting

Between reports on the circus in Westminster, the right-wing press’s anti-trade union bias re-surfaced this week, after union leaders warned of a wave of synchronised strikes by public sector workers and civil servants this winter.

At the Trade Union Congress’s (TUC) annual conference in Brighton, unions told congress they are ready to coordinate action.

As unions continue to push for higher pay to match eye-watering inflation rates of 10 percent, at a time when TUC polling shows one in seven people in Britain are missing meals because of the cost-of-living crisis, the trade union movement continues to face a hostile media landscape.

Intent of weakening worker solidarity and inciting antagonism towards the picket line, the right-wing press, which is owned by a handful of billionaires, hasn’t held back in spouting antipathy towards the threat of a fresh round of strike action.

Winter of discontent as synchronised strikes threaten to bring Britain to its knees’ was the headline in the Express on October 19.  Rather than focusing the story on the struggle of workers with pay that doesn’t match soaring rates of inflation, it speaks of aims to cause “maximum disruption in a bid to win pay disputes.”

The Sun adopted a similar bias using deliberately loaded words to elicit contempt towards unions and industrial action. ‘STRIKE THREAT Fears two million striking workers will bring UK to standstill in new Winter of Discontent,’ was the newspaper’s headline. The article speaks of ‘militant trade unions’ and quotes Tory MP Greg Smith warning of that in “contributing to economic decline” unions are “doing their members’ job security no favours at all.”

LBC, the broadcast radio station which has several right-wing presenters, uses similarly emotionally weighted language.

“Union leaders are threatening to wreak havoc throughout winter with another wave of mass strike action involving two million workers,” it states.  

The same week saw the Times report on the government pressing ahead with legislation that forces workers to provide a minimum service during strikes. Unions will be “stripped of their power to shut down the rail network,” it notes in an article titled: ‘Unions to lose power to close down rail networks.’

Although there is nothing new about the media generating negative trade union coverage aimed at weakening worker solidarity and creating hostility towards picket lines.

Analysis of news language during the miners’ strike between 1984-5, showed how the media used ‘war framing’ words, phrases and photographs when reporting on the strikes. The Conversation notes in an editorial titled the: How the British press made a battle out of the miners’ strike, this framing presented the miners as “the enemy”, while concurrently justifying the actions of the government and the police. Such was the biased reporting during the miners’ strike that newspapers faced allegations that the coverage amounted to a ‘propaganda assault on the miners.’

Today, sadly, little has changed. Spouting a deliberately hostile narrative towards the ‘hard-left union boss’ that is holding the country ‘to ransom’, Mick Lynch has been the target of the right-wing media’s anti-trade union rhetoric.

Though when it comes to the no-nonsense, down-to-earth RMT union leader, who has been flooring critics in the corporate media all year, attempts to demonise him in the public eye haven’t paid off, as he’s become the star of the rail strikes and has something of a cult following.

It seems that amid a cost-of-living crisis compounding 40 years of wage stagnation, the right-wing media’s hysterical attacks on trade unions calling for higher pay, are not rubbing off on the public.

Thankfully.

Woke bashing of the week – ‘Wokerati’ Guardian readers are to blame for protest disruption, apparently!

Suella Braverman has had a strange week. She went from causing an eruption of laughter in the House of Commons by blaming disruptive climate protests on ‘Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati’, to resigning as home secretary the following day and sending Truss’s government into further disarray.

The former home secretary has never held back when it comes to spiteful woke-bashing. It’s helped earn her the reputation of being the ‘darling of Tory right’ and the ‘anti-woke prime minister our children need.’

But the ‘Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati’ comment was spectacular, even by her standards. Braverman made the strange link as Just Stop Oil continued to cause travel disruption by blocking roads and a bridge over the Thames.

She said opposition MPs’ refusal to back a crackdown on road protests in the last session of Parliament, had left the police and road control agencies without the power they needed to prevent Just Stop Oil. During the third reading of the government’s public order bill, the then home secretary said: “Yes, I’m afraid, it’s the Labour Party, it’s the Lib Dems, it’s the coalition of chaos, it’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the anti-growth coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.”

Braverman went on to urge opposition MPs to support the bill, which creates new offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with key national infrastructure.

‘Astonishing’

The remarks were branded ‘astonishing.’  

“The home secretary actually talked about a coalition of chaos. We can see it in front of us as we speak,” said Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary.

And that was before the plot got even thicker so to speak, and Braverman resigned as home secretary after sharing an official document via her personal email. According to the Telegraph, there was a ‘fiery’ showdown between Braverman and Truss and the new chancellor Jeremy Hunt over their demands to soften her stance on bringing down immigration.

In a week that was mired in government chaos on a colossal scale also saw climate action group Just Stop Oil hit the headlines for a series of protests. The most high-profile action, so far, was when two activists threw cans of Heinz tomato soup onto Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers before gluing their hands to the wall of the National Gallery.

Such an act, alongside climbing on top of the M25 Dartford Crossing, shows how serious Just Stop Oil is, and how they have no intention of stopping until their demands, that the government agree to a moratorium on all new oil and gas projects, in line with a recommendation by the International Energy Agency, are met. It shows the increasing agitation among young people towards the climate crisis.

Braverman’s ridiculous assault on so-called ‘wokeness’ in relation to the disruption caused by the protesters shows how out-of-touch the Tory ministers peddling such absurdities really are.

It also makes you wonder what the MP for Fareham is really up to. Her condescending anti-woke remarks will go down well with her own base. Additionally, her resignation made her the second senior cabinet minister to depart in less than a week. The following day, the prime minister stood down. In what had weakened Truss’s leadership further through rising cabinet revolt, Suella Braverman, as the New Statesman notes, becomes the Tory right’s new figurehead.

Could it be that the shortest-serving home secretary in modern times is positioning herself for the top job?

The leadership contenders have not yet been confirmed but it expected that Suella Braverman will stand, possibly alongside Boris Johnson. 

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse for the Tories, or the country…

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead leads on the Right-Watch project at Left Foot Forward

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