NatCon leadership pitches and Brexiteer fury: There’s trouble at mill for the PM

With its no shortage of whackadoodle speeches interrupted by protestors shouting claims of fascism, and the Home Secretary making a blatant bid for party leadership, if NatCon UK proved anything, it is that Tory internal discipline is collapsing.

Right-Wing Watch

Imagine if you were still in a job, and had no intention of quitting your job, but the rumour mill was spinning about who might be your replacement. While Rishi Sunak’s job might be secure in the short-term – even warring Tories don’t want to see a leadership battle this side of the General Election – following their disastrous result in the locals, talk is mounting about a 2024-5 Conservative leadership race in the aftermath of GE defeat.

“It looks like they are ‘soft positioning’ themselves, in the expectation that Rishi Sunak won’t be around forever,” said one former minister. “I think people want to set their stalls early, although there’s obviously a long way to go.”

Stephen Bush writes for FT that the easiest path to Tory leadership contest victory is as a candidate of the party’s right-wing because you either prevail as the choice of the party’s power brokers or of its backwoodsmen.

And what did we see this week?  A self-assured, power-dressed Suella Braverman stride onto the stage of the National Conservatism (NatCon) conference, in what looked like a barefaced bid for the future leadership of the party.  

NatCon was one of two right-wing Conservative gatherings in the same week. Around 300 Tory supporters gathered in Bournemouth last weekend for the formal launch of the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), a group founded by Boris Johnson loyalists. Attendees weren’t shy is sharing their motivations for attending the conference and gala dinner. Belief that Sunak’s administration is out of sink with the Tory members and the country at large, was a common motivator. One attendee, a joiner from Portsmouth, said the “party has gone too left,” while calling for cuts to the “bloated” state, the Whitehall “blob” and taxes.

But out of the two right-wing conferences, it was NatCon UK which grabbed the headlines. And it’s not surprising really. 

The conference that wanted to plan Britain’s new political direction and map out the future of conservatism, was beset with controversy and downright nuttiness. From ‘Deep State’ conspiracy theories, to admissions of gerrymandering, and pleads not to send your children to ‘woke’ schools, angry but like-minded Tories, dressed in blazers, tweeds, waistcoats, and Union Jack bow ties, were certainly speaking freely.

Our old friend Douglas Murray didn’t disappoint in the controversy stakes. The Daily Mail columnist was accused of downplaying the Holocaust by telling the audience that people shouldn’t be stopped from loving their country ‘because the Germans mucked up twice.’ The comments attracted criticism from across the political spectrum.

Then there was the controversial historian David Starkey, who, even by his standards, made some utterly bizarre comments. “The reason that the Left has such ire for the Jews is jealousy.”

“They want to replace the Holocaust with slavery in order to wield its legacy as a weapon against Western culture.”

He also criticised the Black Lives Matter movement and ‘critical race theory,’ claiming: “They are attempts at destroying the entire legitimacy of the Western political and cultural tradition.”

“The idea that they are there to defend black lives is a preposterous notion. They do not care about black lives, they only care about the symbolic destruction of white culture.”

But it was the Home Secretary that drew the most attention. 

In a highly partisan speech, which rallied against ‘self-appointed gurus, experts and elites,’ Braverman delivered a personal blueprint to take on the ‘radical left.’ She set out “what conservatism means to me,” highlighting the importance of “opposing political correctness” and identity politics.

Away from the cosy confines of the NatCon conference hall, where the Home Secretary predictably received a rapturous applause, Tory party colleagues, presumably of the more moderate rather than hard-right persuasion, condemned the speech as ‘outrageous.’

Despairing Tory MPs accused Braverman of undermining Rishi Sunak’s authority and making a bid for future party leadership. One minister said:

“She’s not waiting for the election, but is pitching for prime minister now. And she’s not the only one. Being in the cabinet is no longer a collective endeavour but a position to pitch for the next job. It would be better if she and others focused on the jobs they actually had. You would think being home secretary was some side hustle.”

Another alluded to the incredibility of Braverman’s highlighting of the problems with the country’s immigration system when she has been in charge of it for the past nine months. “It was all about her ambitions, not about improving things,” they said.

The speech, in which Braverman criticised the ‘drive towards multiculturalism’ and urged the UK to train its own lorry drivers and fruit pickers to cut immigration, while being interrupted twice by Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists storming the stage, wasn’t short of media attention.

No prizes for guessing the press outlets which lapped it up and were quick to paddle in the backlash…

‘Tory right turns on Rishi Sunak over immigration as Home Secretary Suella Braverman attacks foreign worker policy and a senior backbencher demands ‘big changes’ while refusing to say PM should lead party into the next election,” gushed the Mail.

The article offered a quick reminder of ‘fears’ that net migration into the UK could hit a million people this year, when figures are released next week. The report quotes Sir John Redwood, who served under John Major’s cabinet, and has been described as a ‘standard-bearer’ for those right-wing MPs who wanted the government to reduce both taxes and public spending and to adopt more-critical policies toward the EU. In response to the discussion about rising levels of immigration fuelled by Braverman’s speech, Redwood said ‘big changes’ were needed to the migration policy.

With migration topping the political agenda at home, and Sunak seeking to reassert authority over the restless right of his party, as the populist right-wing gathering got underway in London, the PM embarked on a trip around Europe, in the hope to win backing for the UK’s controversial Rwanda policy. In a summit of the Council of Europe in Reykjavik on May 16, Sunak pleaded with other world leaders and the ECHR, for cooperation to tackle illegal immigration. In a meeting with the president of the ECHR, the PM sought to win backing for UK attempts to overcome rules that blocked the first scheduled deportation flight to Rwanda. Sunak’s push for the Europe-wide approach followed France’s rejection of Britain’s calls for a bilateral returns agreement for migrants crossing the English Channel, insisting that there was a need for a wider EU agreement.

Despite the PM’s efforts, the negative headlines kept rolling in this week. ‘Rishi Sunak faces ire of Brexiters after ditching ‘trivial’ EU-era laws,’ splashed the FT.

The headline was in reference to Nigel Farage’s extraordinary declaration that Brexit has “failed.” Speaking to the BBC’s Newsnight, the former UKIP leader blamed the Conservative government for botching the delivery of Brexit, including controlling migration. Farage, who was of course a driving force behind the UK’s exit from the EU, is one of a number of Eurosceptics rallying against the government’s failure to carry out a big cull of EU law or cut migration.

The decision to scale back on the government’s pledge to review or revoke all EU regulations in force in Britain, was announced by the business secretary Kemi Badenoch last week. In taking ownership of the scaling back of the revoking of EU laws, and thereby framing herself as occupying the “pragmatic middle ground,” speculation was sparked about Badenoch’s ambitions as a potential centre-right leadership candidate. Lucy Fisher and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe note in the FT, some moderate Tories, who argue that parties only win elections from the centre ground in Britain, are looking at interest at Badenoch.

When quizzed about her future leadership ambitions, Badenoch told TalkTV that she did not want to express interest in case she decided against running.

But the announcement that fewer than 600 laws will be revoked under the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill instead of the 4,000 or so pledged, sparked contempt among Eurosceptics, with much of the ire directed at the Prime Minister.

During his leadership campaign last summer, Rishi Sunak had promised to repeal or review EU laws in his first 100 days in office. A campaign video put out by Sunak during his leadership bid, resurfaced on social media this week. The promotional clip, which saw bundles of EU laws being shredded, was subjected to ridicule.

“Tories who fell for @RishiSunak lies must feel really stupid now. The hardline Tory Brexiteers should defect to Reform,’ wrote one Twitter user.

“Rishi Sunak has shredded his own promise – but not EU laws…” wrote another.

One senior Brexiteer accused Sunak of throwing only ‘trivial’ or obsolete laws on to the Brexiteers’ long promised ‘bonfire of Brussels red tape.’ Sir Bill Cash, Tory MP for Stone, said the list of laws to be shredded included quota rules relating to wheat bran imports into the French department of Réunion and the setting of fishing opportunities for anchovies in the Bay of Biscay for the 2012 fishing season. Another measure related to “limits to working hours for drivers during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak”, Cash noted.

Brexit heavyweight Jacob Rees-Mogg, who championed the deadline when he was business secretary last year, claiming it would help make the UK’s economy more competitive and reduce inflation, took aim at Sunak, accusing the PM of breaking his word over the promise to ditch thousands of EU laws by the end of 2023.

Unsurprisingly, the outspoken Brexiteer was a speaker at the NatCon conference and the CDO event. In Bournemouth, Rees-Mogg, who is an arch-critic of the Prime Minister, warned attendees about gunning for Sunak’s job this side of the general election. He told the conference hall that yet another change of leader — after two in 2022 — would make the party look “ridiculous”, adding that “we’ll be toast” if it happens.

Though it was his speech at NatCon that gained more media attention. Like Braverman’s, Rees-Mogg’s speech was interrupted by an XR protestor. To make matters worse for the former Brexit opportunities minister, the protestor attempted to detail a ‘few characteristics of fascism,’ before being forced off stage by security. But perhaps more extraordinary, was Rees-Mogg’s description of mandatory voter ID, a policy which he endorsed as a cabinet minister, as an attempt to gerrymander elections in favour of the Tories.

As I wrote last week for Right-Wing Watch, the only ‘non-converted’ among an otherwise righter than right panel of speakers at the NatCon conference, was Michael Gove. Addressing delegates, the levelling up minister warned that the party will not win the general election with culture wars. In what was seen as a rebuke to Suella Braverman’s highly partisan speech, Gove said the Tories need to recognise that elections are won on economics and public services than culture wars.

With its no shortage of whackadoodle speeches interrupted by protestors shouting claims of fascism, and the Home Secretary making a blatant bid for party leadership, if NatCon UK proved anything, it is that Tory internal discipline is collapsing. With Gove actively warning against an over-reliance on populism as an election tool, while backbencher Miriam Cates, who is becoming something of a rising Tory star on the right, describing low birth rates as an existential crisis for the west, an argument that echoes those made by European populist leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, the conference was also proof of the pudding at how utterly divided the Tories are. 

With discussions being centred on ‘globalists’ causing the world’s political problems and left-wingers wanting to end democracy to impose their opinions, as the Heritage Foundation’s Kevin Roberts told delegates, and the castigation of the ‘woke left’, sometime referred to as Cultural Marxists, a repeated trope from the stage, where was the talk of the cost-of-living crisis, the things that ordinary people want to hear about?

If we thought the Conservatives were out of touch and a bit deranged before NatCon UK, we can categorically think it now. As a friend said to me after watching some of the speeches: “I’m more confused about the Tories than ever.”

Couple the NatCon spectacle with the continued Brexit fallout, and it seems the odds are stacking up against the latest Tory Prime Minister.

Right Wing Media Watch – Tory press in meltdown over Starmer’s vague voting rights’ expansion proposal

The Conservative press was sent into meltdown again this week, with the news that Keir Starmer is ‘looking at’ giving EU citizens and 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote. You’d have thought it had been etched into law for eternity, rather than just an indefinite, informal idea.

report in the Telegraph suggested that Labour would expand the voting franchise to around 3.4 million EU nationals, as well as to 16 and 17-year-olds. “The move,” the newspaper wrote, “could force the Conservatives out of London altogether and unseat Boris Johnson if he stands again for Parliament in 2029.” It continued that Labour has been accused of trying to “rig the outcome” of a future election and “laying the groundwork for a referendum to re-join the EU.”

Following the Telegraph’s report, Starmer confirmed that his party is considering the idea.

“There’s no settled policy here — we’re looking at, and this is what the papers are reflecting on, this idea of whether or not EU nationals should be able to vote in our national elections,” he told an LBC phone-in programme.

However, Starmer denied that offering the vote to EU nationals amounted to an attempt to ‘reverse Brexit,’ which Labour has repeatedly said it has accepted.

“There is no plan to reverse Brexit,” Starmer said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said there’s no case for going back in — we’re going to make Brexit work.”

But the Brexit ultras were having none of it, determined to turn a mere idea into a full-blown, out of proportion anti-Labour meltdown.

Leading the charge was Daniel Johnson. The Mail columnist and founding editor of the right-wing magazine, Standpoint, went a step further than the ‘rigging’ claims, saying Starmer was planning to introduce a one-party state.

“Handing the right to vote to foreigners and mid-teens would tilt the delicate balance of British politics permanently in Labour’s favour. We know that Sir Keir would dearly love to reverse Brexit. Several million extra votes would enable him to pull off just such a coup within a few years of taking power,” Johnson writes, adding that Labour’s plan would also be a “giant step towards a one-party state.”

Meanwhile Richard Littlejohn, another opinionated Brexit-backing Daily Mail columnist, who, incidentally, said Irish people should have no vote in the EU referendum, made the same claim as his fellow right-wing columnist Daniel Johnson.

“Once Starmer has handed non-citizens the vote, the idea of Britain as a sovereign nation will be as dead a as dodo,” read Littlejohn’s headline.

The language used in the article is absolutely appalling, with the author describing migrants as the ‘cash-in-hand car wash crowd, the Russian hookers, the Romanian beggars, the Albanian gangsters, the Iranian-sponsored jihadis, the rip-up-your-passports people-smuggling brigade.’

Of course the hypocrisy being peddled by these right-wing political pundits shone through once more, with there being no mention of the Tories’ introduction of voter ID and how, in disenfranchising people on lower incomes, younger generations and ethnic minorities, the new legislation faced a barrage of criticism as being the latest Tory ruse to drain the Labour vote.

Under the new voter ID rules, an older person’s bus pass can be used, but, confusingly, a young person’s rail card cannot. Where’s the fairness in that?

Woke bashing of the week –  ‘Hold the line…. feline students… and avoid private schools like the plague …’ all in one utterly bizarre NatCon speech!

In yet another crazy speech at this week’s NatCon – or shouldn’t it be NutCon conference – Katharine Birbalsingh took to the stage – aka the ‘UK’s strictest headteacher.’

Birbalsingh, who is head of Michaela Community School in Wembley, told delegates at the right-wing conference, that Tory-supporting parents should take their children out of schools that are ‘’too woke.”

“Well, I’m asking, how much do you love your country?

“How much do you love the values that you claim to defend?

“Do you love them enough to tweet under your own name? Do you love them enough to change your child’s school to one that’s less woke and ignore the impact on your social status?

In the incredibly bizarre rant at a conference that was full of strange outbursts by outspoken right-wingers, the headteacher quoted Russel Crowe’s character in Gladiator, urging the audience to ‘hold the line.’

“For heaven’s sake man, stand up and be counted. As Russell Crowe says in the film Gladiator – a clip I regularly play to my staff: ‘Hold the line, stay with me, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

She also spoke of youngsters being allowed to wear ears and tails because they ‘identify as cats.’ One can only assume that she was referring to reports that children in a school in Aberdeen were allegedly identifying as cats and defecating on the floor after school officials refused to provide a litterbox, something which the school in question has categorically denied.

Why can’t these people make references to facts instead of speculative hearsay? Oh, I know, because facts and the truth are unlikely to gain as much reaction. 

Indeed, this particular rumour appears to have come from the US, where a culture war surrounding LGBT+ and education in schools is rampant. In 2022, former QAnon supporter and Republican politician Marjorie Taylor Greene made false allegations during a rally in Pennsylvania that schools in the state were lowering tables and putting out litter boxes for students who identified as “furries” or cats. 

Not content with the children dressing as cats reference, Birbalsingh then vented her fury towards private schools. The headteacher believes it is not enough for conservatives to turn to private schools to instil their values.

“If you don’t like the woke agenda, then you had better avoid private schools like the plague.

“As sure as night follows day, the more privileged the space, the more woke it is,” she continued.

It really makes you wonder who was entrusted to select the list of speakers at the NatCon conference. In January, Birbalsingh, who came to prominence around ten years ago as a critic of Britain’s ‘broken’ schools’ system, even admitted that her outspoken views meant she was ‘doing more harm than good.’ The headteacher quit as the UK government’s social mobility chair, saying she realised her presence undermined its impartiality.

Not that there was anything remotely impartial, or even tried to be, about the NatCon conference. Even the left-leaning media were barred and only the right-wingers allowed in.

But back to Birbalsingh. I’ll have to remember to tell my two teenage sons about her, and they might think that their headteacher, with her constant ‘tuck that shirt in’ orders, isn’t so bad after all.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch

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