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Even David Attenborough couldn’t save the Tories now

The right-wing of the Conservative party has a brass neck blaming Rishi Sunak for its downfall

From their high thrones, and with the patience of angels, the Conservative right have decided to grant Rishi Sunak a reprieve, despite the party’s electoral woes.

Excuse me, what? If the Tories are smashed at the coming UK election, it will be the fault of these people, and almost no one else. Where does this hauteur of theirs come from? Why do neutral observers entertain it?

I am looking at a chart of UK voting intention polls over the current UK parliament. The moment that Labour overtook the Tories was the first week of December 2021. That was when Boris Johnson, whom the right adored, was revealed to have overseen a 10 Downing Street in which staff partied during a national lockdown. The next rupture with the public was September 2022. That was when Liz Truss, whom the right had chosen over Sunak himself, sank the pound with a “mini-budget” of unfunded tax cuts. At that point, Labour’s lead grew from handsome to unassailable.

Then there is Brexit, the right’s ultimate project, which one voter in three now believes was a good idea. The moment when more people said it was “wrong to leave” than “right to leave” was spring 2021. At the same time, uncoincidentally, the Conservative poll rating began the decline from which it has never recovered.


I am open to other interpretations of the data. In the absence of a plausible one, though, it is clear that the main causes of the Conservative slump – partygate, the mini-Budget, Brexit – emanated from the right. And that wing of the party still talks as though Sunak received and then squandered a plum inheritance from them. Only our grudging admiration for the brass neck should distract us from the vital work of debunking them point by point.

The Tories are in the national doghouse because of the populist right. To the extent that Sunak is culpable, it is because he is, or at least was, one of them. He supported Brexit. He enabled Johnson. That, not a 19-month premiership, is his contribution to the Conservative predicament. He is unpopular with voters, true, but the Tories could replace him with David Attenborough and still inspire hatred. Their reputation was soiled, perhaps for a decade, in 2021-22.

No other explanation fits the facts. If the Tories are losing because the Rwanda asylum scheme is dragging, why is Britain about to elect a Labour government that promises to scrap the whole thing “straightaway”?

In life, whenever a failure occurs, charitable sorts argue against the “blame game”, against “re-litigating” the event. These people should be admired for their sweet natures and ignored. There is no progress without the rigorous assignment of blame. The Tories have to finger the correct culprits for their defeat, then stigmatise them. Labour in 1979, the Conservatives in 1997, Labour again in 2010: all got this vital work wrong. As a result, those long-serving governments became long-serving oppositions.

The right has useful things to say. It is true that turning “net zero” into law in 2019, as a face-saver for the outgoing premier Theresa May, was Britain at its most frivolous and gesture-obsessed. It is true that “woke” is a darker force than liberals, ever reluctant to make enemies on their left, are willing to admit out loud.

Brexit was the mistake of a century. Once it happened, though, Britain should have gone in a Dominic Cummings-ish direction, if that means targeted deregulation and a rethinking of the state from first principles. To quit the single market and embrace big-government conservatism, to have trade barriers with Europe and a high tax burden: it might just be quicker to burn mounds of cash in Trafalgar Square.

And so this column doesn’t seek to argue against the right on all points of substance. The narrow, almost psephological aim here is to establish the right’s unpopularity: their culpability for the approaching rout. If this crew is allowed to deflect the blame, it will shape the Conservative opposition. And if it does that, Britain won’t have an electable alternative to Labour.

In retrospect, it would have been better for the civic health of the UK had Johnson or Truss (or Suella Braverman) been allowed to lead the Tories to an electoral pounding. What the rise of Sunak did was open a loophole through which the right can wriggle. David Cameron widened it when he agreed to join the cabinet last autumn. Election night is months off, but it is possible to script the rightwing line now: Of course we lost. We sold out to pallid centrism. Labour hopes the Tories are credulous enough to believe it. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024