A Crisis of Conservatism
On Monday, MPs voted The Internal Market Bill through the House of Commons after its’ first reading. In a remarkable and confusing change of heart last week, Boris Johnson announced that he was reopening negotiations regarding some previously agreed aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement. Despite support from most of his MPs, Johnson faces one major obstacle to this bill – it breaks international law. With the Prime Minister making a habit of mirroring Donald Trump’s norm-shattering behaviour, many are wondering about the future of British conservatism.
Since the news, a famous quote from Margaret Thatcher, the idol of many Conservative activists and MPs, has been doing the rounds on social media. “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade we may need to make.” It is an indication of today’s strange political landscape that many citing Britain’s first female Prime Minister are left-wingers who viciously oppose her legacy of free market economic policies, but the shared principle is clear – once any government agrees a deal, it should honour it. Many have questioned whether the UK will have the moral authority to instruct rogue states like Iran and China to fulfil their legal obligations if we do not do so ourselves. Meanwhile, others suggested that breaking our promises will make other countries less likely to agree to post-Brexit trade deals. The Tory response was to accuse Labour MPs who wanted to stick with the original terms of the Withdrawal Agreement of siding with the EU – despite Johnson himself having negotiated them.
However, it is not only the legal aspect that appalls traditional conservatives – it is the potential economic consequences. Whilst the vast majority of both Brexiters and Remainers accept that we are leaving the European Union and its' structures for good at the end of 2020, there are disagreements over whether we should do so with or without a trade agreement. Many Conservative MPs are comfortable with the prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit, as they proved by voting against an extension to the transition period. In this scenario, tariffs could be introduced on a variety of products going in and out of the UK; current World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules state that cars would be subject to a 10% tax and the price of dairy products would rise by roughly 35%. The fact that so many Conservative MPs seem comfortable with a policy that would dump massive costs onto both consumers and businesses is remarkable, especially considering their apocalyptic warnings of mass corporate exodus whenever the Labour Party manifesto contains any sort of tax increase. The parliamentary party has been swept up in an ideological dogma, with its’ membership now designed almost entirely in Boris Johnson’s image.
As soon the Prime Minister secured victory in the 2019 Conservative leadership contest, he began to exercise a vice-like grip on his party. Out went 21 moderate MPs, such as Sam Gyimah and Rory Stewart, for refusing to back a no-deal Brexit. After the 2019 General Election victory, they were replaced by a different brand of Tory – the populist with seemingly little interest in maintaining the UK’s economic security and international reputation, but with a lot of time for discussing illegal immigration and peripheral issues like the BBC license fee. Whilst both major parties have always had an eccentric fringe, these views are now considered mainstream on both the front and backbenches of government.
The growing opposition to the BBC from the 2019 Tory intake is further proof of its’ move away from traditional conservatism. Whilst people from across the political spectrum believe that the broadcaster is biased against their own points of view and needs reform, most would consider it as a staple of British culture. Yet many Conservative parliamentarians wish to undermine one of our most treasured institutions – Ipswich MP Tom Hunt even conducted an interview with Westmonster, a media outlet set up by far-right millionaire Arron Banks, during which he called for the license fee to be abolished. This ideology couldn't be further from the conservatism of the likes of Tobias Ellwood, whose' faction has been marginalised by Johnson's norm-defying government.
The Conservatives’ fresh strategy brought new demographics into their voting coalition in the 2019 General Election, and with Jeremy Corbyn as the alternative, Johnson was able to move the party away from its’ traditions whilst maintaining support from moderate Tory stalwarts. However, there is no doubt that the party has been changed, possibly for decades to come. Institutionalism, economic caution and the rule of law have been swept away by a tide of anti-establishment rhetoric and fanatical Euroscepticism. Time will tell whether this approach will flourish in a post-Brexit world, or if the party’s identity crisis catches up with them either in 2024 or beyond.