Sunak’s Brexit coalition has collapsed

Published by The i paper (8th May, 2023)

It is almost possible to feel sorry for Rishi Sunak. He is like the nerdy teenager whose party span wildly out of control, desperately trying to sort out the mess after a mob of drunken pals spilled drinks, snorted drugs, stained carpets, smashed up furniture and even stole some bathrobes. He knows that he unleashed the damage by running with the wrong crowd, but hoped to escape blame by clearing up some of the carnage and fixing a few broken items before his parents return home. But the wreckage was so bad that he was caught, so all he can do is ruefully say that he is disappointed by the sad turn of events.

Sunak is, of course, the prime minister running Britain, not the young miscreant in a second-rate comedy. But last week voters saw through his clean-up act after 13 years of Tory government that have left the country in such a dispiriting state. The party received a drubbing in local elections with losses exceeding the worst fears of their own spinners, showing that citizens are tired of their self-serving antics.

The electoral coalition that carried the Conservatives to victory in 2019 –  uniting traditional southern heartlands with a raft of new Red Wall recruits – is collapsing as Brexit proves to be a predictable disaster that failed to deliver its promised land while Labour returns to the political mainstream.

The results were intriguing, a showcase for tactical voting as Tory candidates from Blackpool to Bracknell Forest were beaten for the sins of their bosses. Yet there seems no great love for Labour. The party undoubtedly had a good result. But it won fewer seats and lower vote share than anticipated, performing best in regions of the North and Midlands filled with Leave voters once seduced by Brexit. The Tories displayed greater toxicity in Remain-leaning areas of the south filled with graduates, ethnic minorities and younger voters, yet many of these people turned to the Liberal Democrats and Greens.

The problems for Sunak are three-fold as, amid a cost of living crisis, he clings to a coalition of voters based on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity. First, he owns the mess as someone who supported Brexit and propped up Boris Johnson in power – even if he did go on to help oust the shameless liar, warn about the risks of Liz Truss’s reckless reign and deliver more grown-up government. Hence my use of the word “almost” in the first sentence of this article. For Brexit sparked the party’s descent into crass populism and its dark shadow still lurks behind so many Tory problems after they wilfully turned on many of their core constituencies.

Second, as Brexit becomes increasingly unpopular, Sunak is still repelling crucial chunks of the electorate by stirring up distasteful culture wars, pushing policies such as the repulsive Rwanda refugee scheme and providing platforms for the likes of Home Secretary Suella Braverman to flirt with far-right rhetoric and party vice-chairman Lee Anderson to demand restoration of capital punishment. Third, and perhaps most profoundly for his future prospects, he heads a party that has been in power for 13 years and thus presided over state failures that voters can see all around them in their streets, businesses and public services.

For all that frothy talk of Brexit sparking political realignment, Sunak proves again the adage that you cannot ride two horses at once. The more he tries to hold on to disgruntled Brexit voters by claiming success of withdrawal, deporting refugees to a dictatorship or scapegoating transgender citizens, the more he alienates people in the party’s metropolitan, suburban and southern former heartlands. The sort of people who once liked David Cameron, then stuck with the party despite austerity and Brexit from fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps economic revival, tax cuts and competence in Downing Street might win some back, yet Tory arguments about not being able to trust Labour fall flat given the dire state of public services, fiscal ineptitude and the extraordinary political turbulence seen in recent years.

Despite the damage they have caused to the Tory brand, the populists are fighting back with two conferences this month to revive their nationalist creed. The first is run by the rapidly-shrinking Johnson fan club, which ludicrously still thinks a man deemed untrustworthy by three-quarters of voters could rescue them. The second is organised by a “national conservative’ movement allied to unsavoury figures such as Hungary’s illiberal leader Viktor Orban, leading Trump supporters in the United States and a prominent member of the far-right Le Pen family in France. Jacob Rees-Mogg speaks at both events, which underlines their tone.

Millions of voters were so infuriated by such Tory shenanigans they voted tactically last week against the party. It looks set for defeat; now the big question is whether Labour can win a majority? Perhaps we should hope not to ensure the remnants of the hard left are not empowered by a slender win. After all, the irony of the past 13 years of Tory misrule is that their government was most stable when forced into coalition with Liberal Democrats – then unleashed the Brexit disaster and populist chaos after winning a surprise victory in 2015, leaving an unshackled Cameron hostage to the hard right. 

It is hard to detect much enthusiasm for Labour, let alone expectation that Sir Keir Starmer and his increasingly slick team will really solve our festering problems of crumbling public services, rising taxes, low growth and rampant inequality. Maybe what we glimpsed last week was an electorate yearning for an end to the Tories, but looking to a minority Labour government forced to govern in some kind of coalition with the Lib Dems and perhaps even the Greens. It might even be a blessing if the party was really over for traditional tribal politics given the mess it has made of our country and its seeming inability to rise to the challenges of modern democracy.

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