THE UK CONSERVATIVE PARTY – WHAT IS GOING ON?

It would be understandable to conclude that the recent few months mark a turning point of crisis for one of the most successful contemporary Conservative parties in the world after more than a decade in control of the United Kingdom.

Recent opinion surveys have shown the opposing Labour Party with an almost unprecedented advantage, which, if replicated in a national election, could leave the Conservative Party risking a near-total electoral wipeout. This has further added to the gloomy outlook.

Still, this isn’t the whole picture. Accurately assessing the circumstances and comprehending the chances and risks for a left solution to British Conservatism is crucial to the success of any internationalism. It’s important to attempt to provide a whole account, including background on the present situation of the UK government, how we got here, and what the future holds.

Boris Johnson, a former prime minister, is a fine place to start. In Britain, Johnson became well-known for being an opportunist and a skilled media manipulator, allowing him to elevate his reputation to that of a celebrity as well as a political leader. He meticulously cultivated a public reputation as a clumsy clown who is yet high-brow and very British. A stay and a leave version of Johnson’s highly-read newspaper column were published in the weeks leading up to the Brexit referendum in 2016. It’s commonly believed that he didn’t genuinely anticipate the campaign to succeed, but at the last second, he chose to throw his support behind it nevertheless.

The American left frequently makes the mistake of equating Johnson with Donald Trump due to their shared celebrity status and Johnson’s lengthy history of lies and arrogant self-promotion. Johnson is more libertarian in his political leanings than Trump. While Trump’s electoral coalition was easily identifiable, Johnson’s support came from a wide variety of demographics, ranging from the post-industrial North to the traditional Conservative strongholds of the South and East.

Johnson is a classic example of a politician stuck in the past due to his egotism, incompetence, and penchant for disregarding normative expectations. For good reason, Rhian Jones of The New Socialist likens Johnson to the gargoyles seen in a Gillray cartoon from the 18th century. Johnson was in control during the 2019 COVID-19 epidemic after securing a large electoral majority; his immediate reaction was characteristically libertarian. The British media was abuzz with ideas of bolstering “herd immunity,” with Johnson, in particular, showing a propensity for “laissez-faire” dithering until the health and economic risks were too great and required lockdowns and government action.

It’s often stated that the British people like a good crisis, and it’s true that conservatives benefit from times of turmoil. Johnson was able to connect his ideas to a sort of imperial nostalgia by appealing to the Blitz’s attitude of self-sacrifice during the COVID crisis. The public’s opinion, however, evolved as more and more people died and news articles surfaced concerning stolen or wasted taxpayer money. The administration had never had widespread support, but when news spread that Johnson and his supporters were hosting soirees at 10 Downing St while regular citizens were barred from gathering in public, public opinion quickly shifted against the government.

While his election showed that the Conservatives were unable to find a suitable replacement for Johnson, his victory still proved that his presence was a problem for the party.

Resignations from Johnson’s cabinet came quickly as prominent members suddenly decided he was too electorally toxic to remain in office. On June 6, 2022, the Conservative Party presented a vote of no confidence in Johnson to Parliament. Conservative members of parliament voted 211 to 148 to keep Johnson as party leader, giving him a narrow victory. Johnson’s victory showed that, despite being a political liability, the Conservatives failed to provide a viable alternative to him. But the stress became unbearable in the end. After years of complaints of sexual misbehavior and improper behavior against MP Chris Pincher, the last straw emerged when Johnson moved Pincher to the post of deputy whip. In July 2022, Johnson made his resignation public on the stairs of No. 10 Downing St after scores of high-ranking officials and advisers quit over a period of a few days.

In the wake of Johnson’s resignation, many people outside of the United Kingdom may have wondered why a new prime ministerial election wasn’t called. Votes in general elections in the United Kingdom are cast for political parties, not individuals, in order to create governments. The party leader has to be replaced, but that is different from mandating a change in administration, and there is no legal or constitutional mandate for an election.

The British parliamentary system is bicameral, with the House of Lords (composed of hereditary and appointed members of the British aristocracy) acting primarily as an oversight body that investigates proposed changes to legislation or policies passed by the lower House of Commons. The government is established in the House of Commons, often known as Parliament, by members of the party that wins the most seats in a national election using the “first past the post” voting method. British law stipulates that parliaments serve for a maximum of five years unless specific requirements are satisfied. This is done so that governments are stable, and early elections are seldom called unless absolutely necessary. Voters in the United Kingdom may expect to cast their ballots for the next general election in January 2025. This is because the previous election was held in 2019.

But still, the Conservative leadership contest is instructive because it shows that the Conservative Party as well as its supporters is not a monolithic ideological bloc. It is the old money, Traditional Catholic Tories who lean toward traditional conservatism, and the big swaths of the finance market who gained their money during the era of liberalization from the 1980s to the financial collapse of 2008, who have traditionally provided the bulk of the Conservative vote. Others include Thatcherite neoliberals who wish to decrease the state and anti-Thatcherite, greater socially liberal Conservatives who arose in the deindustrialized North after Boris Johnson’s 2019 political win.

Truss is a staunch libertarian with strong anti-EU and anti-tax sentiments that informs his conservative views.

To choose its next leader, the Conservative Party Leadership nominated members of the party, had a series of debates and hustings, and finally narrowed the field to only two candidates via a series of repeated votes. In the end, the party’s roughly 200,000 members who pay annual dues cast their ballots. The final two candidates were former foreign secretary Liz Truss and former chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak (who served under Boris Johnson and was responsible for most of the UK government’s official assistance during the epidemic).

Truss is a member of the European Research Group, a faction of the Conservative Party that represents the party’s most strident Euroskeptic and libertarian members (ERG). These libertarians want low taxes and a limited government, and for a long time, leaving the European Union was their top priority.

The novel Britannia Unchained, published by Truss and a slew of other right-libertarians, exemplifies how Truss’ Conservative views are shaped by extreme libertarianism, a profound skepticism of Europe and the EU, and contempt for state revenues. Truss immediately became a frontrunner for the leadership of the Conservative Party after adopting this ideological approach, which resonated with a large portion of the party’s supporters. At the same time, Britain was hit with a huge spike in energy costs, rising inflation, and widening income inequality. Economic issues are channeled into cultural war–style propaganda against immigration or, in one famous term, ‘tofu eating wokerati,’ since conservative politics in England have long relied on the exploitation of socioeconomic woes.

On September 5, 2022, Truss won the election for Conservative Party leader and became the country’s prime minister by a margin of almost 20,000 votes. Quickly, Truss’ close ideological buddy Kwasi Kwarteng was named chancellor, along with other ERG friends and kindred true believers. Truss said that lowering taxes and enacting “growth” economic measures were the incoming government’s top priorities. In a nutshell, the plan was to test the efficacy of right-libertarian economic policy in guiding the national economy. In light of the dire economic circumstances, the new administration presented a “mini-budget” to parliament on September 23 outlining its spending objectives.

After the announcement of the UK’s mini-budget, foreign investors and traders got alarmed by the country’s increasing borrowing, sending the British pound to its lowest level versus the US dollar in history only three days later.

With regard to its substance, it was a dream come true for the more libertarian and right-leaning members of the British Conservative party. In London, it eliminated a limit on bonuses for bankers and lowered stamp duty on house purchases, and a special charge that was supposed to pay for national social services and health care. It also eliminated the 45% tax rate on income for the top earners. In a nutshell, it was a set of significant tax cuts that were supposed to be funded by substantial government borrowing on the assumption that lower tax rates would result in phenomenal economic development.

The UK government’s independent fiscal watchdog, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), was left out of budget discussions. Therefore they were unable to provide forecasts for the proposed reforms or evaluate the likely effect mostly on the British economy.

The initial international and economic response was disastrous. After the announcement of the UK’s mini-budget, foreign investors and traders got alarmed by the country’s increasing borrowing, sending the British pound to its lowest level versus the US dollar in history only three days later.

Within days, forty percent of all UK mortgage options were no longer accessible after the Bank of England discussed swiftly hiking interest rates to get inflation under control. On October 5th, the rates on a 2 yr mortgage crossed 6 percent for the first period since the 2008 financial crisis. The International Monetary Fund has joined the chorus of voices condemning the UK government for widening income disparities via tax cuts that were never intended to be paid for. As investors dumped UK assets, the gilt market (UK government bonds issued to pay off its own debt) jumped sharply. Large UK retirement funds sold out bond securities, a traditionally safe investment, leading to concerns about the fund’s solvency. In a nutshell, we witnessed the UK’s longstanding economic issues being tackled with measures designed specifically to make them much more severe.

On October 14th, Truss made a decision that was largely seen as very self-serving: he sacked Kwarteng. The public’s lack of sympathy for Truss was not helped by her decision to throw an ally under the bus to protect herself; on September 26, it was reported that letters of no confidence were already being filed to her party’s political leadership.

Within days following Truss’s ouster, Jeremy Hunt was sworn in as chancellor and promptly announced rollbacks to the administration’s key economic policies. With Hunt in charge, Truss was only the titular head of state; she had no real power, and her ideological adversary in parliament had just destroyed the foundation of her election campaign. In an open mutiny, party members demanded Truss’ resignation, as did many seasoned members of parliament. Truss resigned on October 20th, making him the shortest-serving party leader in British history. On October 25th, Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor, took over as the new head of the Conservative Party after being chosen in a leadership election.

With Hunt in charge, Truss was only the titular head of state; she had no real power, and her ideological opponent within parliament had just destroyed the foundation of her election campaign.

Sunak has kept Jeremy Hunt on as chancellor, and the government released another financial report this week. If low-tax, high-growth economics, as proposed by Truss, turns out to be a failure, the Conservative reaction will be to impose the same austerity measures that have plagued Britain for the previous decade. The negative is that the next wave of restraint is likely to hammer the poor and the vulnerable the hardest after twelve years of Conservatives reducing the social security net, weakening local government, and paring national services to the bone. While experts predicted a nearly 10% loss in standard of living and a major decline in salaries, combined with a recession spanning a whole year, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt proposed a series of tax hikes and expenditure cutbacks on November 17.

It’s notable that former chancellor and “economic architect of austerity” George Osborne established the OBR that ultimately brought down Truss ten years ago. Those policies resulted in about 300,000 additional fatalities, yet still, George Osborne (disliked by the people) is now functioning as an adviser to Hunt, the next politician to dictate the fiscal and monetary policy of such a UK government. Conservatives have pushed culture war politics extensively, making trans persons a primary focus of their hostility and enforcing an asylum and immigration system so severe that the government faces legal challenges because of it.

In light of Labour’s overwhelming advantage in the polls and the universal consensus that the present administration lacks a mandate, many on the left have called for a general election to be held immediately. However, the government still has no basis in law for such a declaration. Even though the next UK national election must be placed no later than Jan 2025, given the present polling, there is no political rationale for a Conservative administration to hold that election until the final possible time.

Strike action is spreading across different sectors of British society, and rather than basing our hopes on the political victory of a party that has been extremely antagonistic towards its own left-wing supporters, we should seize this huge opportunity.

Strategically speaking, there is a far larger issue with channeling this level of public anger into voting for the Labour Party’s present leader. After all, in the past few weeks, current party leader Keir Starmer has conceded that there is little distinction between his policies on immigration and the ugly language of the Conservatives. Starmer publicly criticized the hiring of too many foreigners to work in the NHS in an effort to gain favor with British industry and the country’s highly right-wing media.

The task for the British left is to direct the developing anger into something broader than mere electioneering targeted at reversing the work of the previous decade or so, rather than just calling for the directing of time and energy into backing a single political party. It would be a mistake to put all our eggs in the political victory of a party that has been fundamentally unfriendly to its own left-wing members, but rather, a wave of strike action throughout many areas of British society must be seized as an immense opportunity.

Wide swaths of working people, from educators to nurses to public servants to railroad employees, are realizing the need of fighting for the interests of the middle class as a whole, not just their own. Efforts to improve workers’ pay and working conditions throughout the country have received a political boost from the cost-of-living problem. To sum up, what is required is something more than a mere vote: a politic of class awareness.

Conservative austerity has been particularly harsh on the working class, and it will need movements led by and on behalf of the working class, rather than just neoliberal political parties, to bring about meaningful change.

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