On Thursday I got a message from someone who knows I have an interest in British conservatism and have recently written on it: 'I would be interested in catching up with you for a coffee to get a perspective on what the impact is of Truss and her entourage'.
What did I think…? If I was trying to explain why Truss' premiership imploded so quickly, there are several aspects I would focus on. The BBC's political editor Chris Mason described the situation as an 'unprecedented level of turbulence; a calamitous series of events that most Conservatives acknowledge privately has amounted to a circus of absurdity deeply damaging to their party's reputation'. Unprecedented turmoil perhaps, but an unprecedented crisis?
The Conservative Party has faced a number of supposed existential crises over the decades. In the early 2000s, a number of academic commentators talked of a profound 'crisis of conservatism' as New Labour dominated the political centre ground. Iain Duncan Smith's troubled time as leader was emblematic. He now accepts that the party is in the middle of a 'chaotic circus'. The key difference is that his particular Conservative crisis took place when the party was firmly in opposition, years away from being electorally competitive.
The Brexit referendum, widely seen as an attempt to end internal party struggles over the European question, threw the party into another crisis. For a time in 2019, the party was believed to be facing an 'existential threat' as the May Government struggled to find a solution to the Brexit conundrum. It seemed that Nigel Farage's Brexit Party, by breaking the Conservatives' 'monopoly on the right', posed a serious threat to it. Obituaries for the party were being prepared. The party recovered, steamrolling Labour in the 2019 General Election.
A narrowing of conservatism
Having examined British conservative thought during the early 2000s, I've been struck by the rightwards shift that has taken place. Commentators and thinkers who were considered fairly extreme at that point, such as Melanie Phillips, now seem relatively mainstream. The broader conservative movement includes a phalanx of voices expressing fairly extreme hard right views. These have spread across conservative media and fill the pages of the Telegraph
and the airwaves of GB News and TalkTV. As Matthew Sweet and others have noted, this hard right intermingles with those who veer towards a highly conspiratorial view of the world. That Liz Truss was taken down by an 'establishment globalist coup' is widely articulated by Farage and his ilk.
This hard right perspective has infected the British conservative movement. The question is not whether this is a coherent worldview with some foothold in public opinion, but whether it is the sort of thinking that should be embraced by a serious party of government. I would suggest not and that this infection is at least one of the factors behind the Tory turmoil. This infection has entered the bloodstream of the Tory membership; those who elected Liz Truss. Brexit certainly gave this part of the conservative movement a great deal of self-confidence. They sensed that this was finally a chance to implement an intellectual and political counter-revolution against liberal orthodoxy. In so doing, they tried to redefine what conservatism is. A very pungent and heady cocktail which has gone to their heads.
Truss is one of the many contemporary Conservatives who deify Margaret Thatcher. They saw themselves as following her in taking on an economic and political orthodoxy, a cosy consensus.
However, the intellectual framework of Thatcherism drew from decades worth of intellectual effort by organisations such as the Mont Pelerin Society and other Hayekian groups. Their aim was to challenge the existing economic and political orthodoxy and create a new common sense. In similar fashion, Eurosceptic thinkers and commentators evolved, from 1992 onwards, from a marginal group in the conservative movement to occupying a solid position within the mainstream. If you want your ideas to be widely accepted you need to do a lot of thorough preparation work.
While the economic perspective of Truss was highly attractive to portions of the conservative movement, its intellectual adherents didn't stretch far beyond a fairly narrow bubble associated with free market think tanks. Significantly, public awareness of 55 Tufton Street and all it symbolises has grown in recent weeks. The praise heaped upon the mini budget by this group has provided a target for ridicule. As Matt Chorley put it: 'I'm sad that in order to satisfy a few Thatcher fanboys in pinstripe suits, the rest of the country had to indulge in this daft experiment'.
Something else that Truss overlooked is that Thatcher governments contained quite a substantial degree of ideological pluralism. She was a more rounded figure than some critics and disciples acknowledge. The composition of her cabinets reflected an awareness that many of those who were not natural Thatcherites were very capable ministers with good policy ideas.
As Matthew Parris has convincingly argued, Thatcherism was formed in part by those who were not her 'ideological soulmates'. A number of these were One Nation 'wets' who generated some of her government's 'greatest successes'. This was a story which 'defies theorists who seek a pure doctrinal thread to trace back through the years'. A lack of 'viewpoint diversity' seems to threaten the intellectual health of British conservatism.
The shunting out of figures such as Rory Stewart has again narrowed the party ideologically but also diluted its pool of talent. Last week, Charles Walker's impassioned critique of the contemporary Conservative Party focused on 'talentless' individuals undeserving of the high office their ideological conformity had helped them achieve. This lack of pluralism and talent seems significant.
Discussing the farrago on Radio 4, Max Hastings and Polly Toynbee agreed that leaders such as Truss and Johnson reveal a declining calibre of politician. In relation to the Conservative Party, there does seem to have been a dire dilution within the leadership group. In short, those with the right leadership credentials seem to lack the right ideological credentials, and vice versa. This is the bind which led many Conservatives to consider re-embracing Boris Johnson. A move which would have, according to William Hague, been 'a very, very bad idea... it's possibly the worst idea I've heard in the 46 years I've been a member of the Conservatives'. This narrowing of talent leaves the party with leaders who may be popular within the party but have very few of the attributes required to be a capable Prime Minister.
Losing the mainstream
One great theme of conservatism in the 20th century was the idea of a property-owning democracy. The right to buy scheme was undoubtedly one of the more politically successful policies of the Thatcher governments. Indeed, the former Labour minister Frank Field tried to convince his party to adopt a similar policy, aware of the way it could breed political loyalty to the party who introduced it.
The Conservatives have undoubtedly benefited electorally from standing as defenders of property owners. The recent alarming jumps in mortgage rates is causing great angst to many people who support the Conservative Party for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons. Their concerns are not doctrinal but manifested in economic hardship. Losing a reputation for economic competence explains this dramatic loss of support from voters without strong ideological allegiance. Such pragmatic voters are far larger in number than the noisy dogmatists.
This possible loss of the mainstream is mirrored in the sphere of political comment. While commentators with a strident ideological stance are significant players in our politics, the centrist commentators do help us determine where the political wind is blowing. Commentators such as the Financial Times'
Camilla Cavendish and The Times'
David Aaronovitch act as gatekeepers to political acceptability. Aaronovitch was a strident critic of Corbynism and has recently laid into 'Kamikwasi' conservatism. Cavendish, former director of policy for David Cameron, believes that the Conservative Party needs to be brought to 'its senses' after 'two dreadful parodies of a government'. Increasingly, such commentators see the Conservative Party as no longer being worthy of office. The parallels with the mid-90s are clear.
For many, the Conservative Party has long had a socially divisive impact on the country. There has been a widely held perception that they are uncaring about those in the most economically marginalised groups. This is a familiar aspect of our politics. What is rare is for the Conservative Party to be seen as inept and incompetent.
People regularly ridicule the public pronouncements of Conservative figures. But this ridicule, when expressed by the usual suspects, is to be expected and doesn't really have a big impact. When this ridicule comes from a wider variety of voices, it can really seep into the public consciousness. The way that the 'back to basics' theme was ridiculed in the 1990s was emblematic of the Conservative's loss of authority and coherence in the lead up to 1997.
The decision not to allow the OBR to analyse the fiscal coherence of Kwarteng's mini budget was clearly a major error. However, it was born of a general scepticism about established institutions and expertise which has become a leitmotif within much of the conservative movement.
This aspect of conservatism has been present for some time. Writing in 1979, Andrew Gamble (a leading academic analyst of British conservatism) noted that many Conservatives had 'transformed from natural defenders of British institutions into frequent outsiders and critics'. They see Britain as having been taken over by those with inherently anti-conservative views. Therefore, being attacked by the institutions of the establishment has become a badge of honour. This view fed into the idea of an 'anti-growth coalition'. This coalition seemed to incorporate a vast range of institutions and political perspectives. When so many things are seen as the enemy, it ought to lead Conservatives to a moment of reflection. If so many established institutions are criticising us, perhaps it's us who have lost our moorings?
An emboldened media
A key theme of conservative commentators over the decades has been the idea that the BBC is riddled with left-wingers and is 'institutionally anti-conservative'. As the political commentator Steve Richards has long argued, the BBC is sometimes confined by the Tory press, aware that every interview could lead to more Beeb-bashing articles. However, when the Tory press is split and starts to critique the leadership, the BBC has greater room for manoeuvre. Its journalists are able to do their job.
A number of Nick Robinson's recent interviews with Conservative ministers have been brutal, with a derisive tone to some of them. Nihal Arthanayake's approach with a local Conservative chair ('you don't get away with that') in a recent exchange on Radio 5 typified this newly combative approach. This is likely to continue until the next General Election. Conservative figures are going to be on the back foot. Attacking the BBC in response will hearten many within the conservative movement but will again serve to deepen the sense of narrowing.
There is little doubt that one of the legacies of Brexit has been hardening of political divisions. Usually political views modify and evolve over time. The deep identification with labels such as leaver and Brexiteer has ossifield British political debate. The rise of social media has seemingly intensified the overwhelmingly partisan character of political commentary and led to what the LBC broadcaster James O'Brien sees as 'footballification' of political debate. In short, supporting your side in all situations. This perhaps shows the inherent dangers of using referendums to decide controversial topics rather than use them to rubber stamp the settled will.
Within the Conservative Party itself this has resulted in some figures with clear leadership potential being seen as beyond the pale by large sections of the membership. This suggests something deeper than 'petty tribalism'. The idea of 'a remainer' leading the party is seen as an impossibility by many. Similarly, that several members of the party might have given up the Conservative whip had a certain leader taken over suggests a factionalism which is embedded. The party has always had deep fissures within it. These are usually successfully obscured by the party's electoral competitiveness, faithful media organisations, and the impression it creates that it is the natural party of government.
Tim Bale, writing in the Financial Times
, expressed the common view that the Conservative Party has a 'genius for survival'. On many occasions, it has recovered from political 'oblivion' and severe 'electoral and reputational' damage. It's always been assisted in this by the staunchly loyal aspects of the media. It is, by comparison, hard to believe that a Labour Government which created the same level of turmoil could have survived the twin pressures of the market and the media. For the Conservatives to recover, they will have to reverse the significant narrowing that promoted Brexit and has been further stimulated by it.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics. He thanks Howard Beck for his comments on an earlier version of this piece