Why the Conservatives are turning into the Republicans, part two

Philip Coggan
4 min readDec 10, 2023

Four years ago, I wrote about the strange transformation of Britain’s Conservative party from a middle-class, pro-business and pragmatic party into a more narrowly ideological grouping, based on cultural rather than economic issues. The point was emphasised in the election of December 2019, when the Conservatives outpolled Labour in the C2DE social classes, something that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago.

Of course, the Conservatives have been on an odd journey since then. The party’s big victory in 2019 was built on voter exhaustion with the Brexit debate, suspicion of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the appeal of Boris Johnson’s optimistic and unconventional persona. In the end the character flaws that were obvious to anyone who had followed his career brought Johnson down.

Johnson’s demise was followed by the short and chaotic reign of Liz Truss and now, after less than 14 months in office, Rishi Sunak’s leadership is being called into question. So the Conservatives now resemble the Republicans in another way; they look ungovernable. In the US, Kevin McCarthy was removed as House Speaker by his colleagues in October; no sitting Speaker had previously suffered the sane fate. It took three weeks to replace him.

Admittedly, the Republicans have a different problem to the Conservatives in the form of Donald Trump. Having invited this cuckoo into their nest in 2016, Trump has forced out old-style business-friendly Republicans like Mitt Romney and even staunch ideological Conservatives such as Liz Cheney. Many elected Republicans are believed to complain privately about Trump’s influence; few dare to do so in public.

But the turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic stems from the same cause; the strange coalition of support that the right-wing parties are dependent upon. Both groups are aiming to attract prominent businesspeople (not least for the funding they bring), social conservatives among the working class and ethnic minorities, ideological groups such as libertarians, old-fashioned nationalists who rally behind the flag (in the US) or the crown (in the UK) and modern nativists who dislike multiculturalism, globalisation and immigration.

In opposition, it is relatively easy to keep these groups together, since each segment will be unhappy with some elements of any programme enacted by a centre-left government. In office, it is much harder to keep all of these groups content. Since they came to office in 2010, the Conservatives have lowered taxes on business, then raised them; increased the tax-free allowance for lower-paid workers then cut it in real terms; campaigned against immigration, then allowed it to surge; adopted eco-friendly policies then abandoned them; and pushed through an austerity programme before letting public spending rip, and now cutting it again.

As the government flails around, it is clear that their policies are not thought through. For example, the current attempt to limit legal migration involves a restriction on the ability of those coming to work in social care from bringing their dependent relatives. But there are labour shortages in the social care sector. So the only option would be to increase wages so that British workers will take the jobs that immigrants cannot. However, the biggest single employer in social care is local government. And its budget is severely limited by the government’s latest round of austerity so it cannot pay the wages required. It is like pressing the brake and the accelerator at the same time.

Another example is the policy of expelling illegal migrants to Rwanda. At best, this will get rid of a few hundred migrants in the first year or two, a small part of the total. But the government argues that the Rwanda policy will be a deterrent; they seem not to notice that the risks of death by drowning do not seem to be deterring asylum seekers at the moment. They also argue that Rwanda is a “safe” country for migrants despite the concerns of groups like Amnesty International. But if Rwanda is such a great place, how will it be a deterrent?

In this incoherence, there are similarities with the US Republicans which complain about budget deficits when out of office and then cut taxes when in charge (and no, tax cuts do not generally lead to higher revenues.) Or when they campaign on the right to life when it concerns abortion but fail to enact gun laws that will protect children from school shootings.

The main problem with Britain’s current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is not that he is stupid but that he lacks judgment. He backed Brexit although, as predicted, it has clearly damaged business investment and growth. He was an early backer of Boris Johnson only to turn against him when his obvious flaws became apparent when in office. He launched a scheme during the pandemic called “eat out to help out” which is now known as “eat out to help the virus”.

Worst of all, he keeps trying to placate the right wing of his party, who have never liked him. Kenneth Clarke, the former chancellor, quipped that appeasing the Brexiteers was like “tossing buns out of a boat to keep the crocodiles away. Eventually you run out of buns”. In the US, mainstream Republicans have found the same problem with Trump supporters; the latter will never be either satisfied or grateful. The Conservatives are heading in the same direction, with Nigel Farage as the Trump equivalent.

--

--

Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine