After several years of infighting, leadership challenges, and policy shake-ups, the Conservative Party is truly beginning to look like a spent force. This apparent exhaustion was laid bare by the ghostly spectre of a Conservative Party Conference being held in Manchester in the midst of a major row over whether the government will axe a major investment project to improve the city’s rail connectivity.
It was not simply the images of conference halls awash with unfilled seats that gave the impression of a well and truly hollowed-out party. It was also the sometimes bizarre, sometimes chilling subjects being raised in conference speeches and at fringe events.
One government minister stood up and warned of the ‘sinister’ implications of local councils being able to decide how many times you can go to the shops. This was a reference to the 15-minute cities conspiracy theory, whose proponents claim that the World Economic Forum is attempting to introduce severe restrictions on people’s mobility within cities in a bid to keep people trapped in their homes.
Then there was Priti Patel’s effusive welcome to GB News as one of its presenters is investigated for sexual offences, and another is suspended after making grossly inappropriate comments about a female journalist live on air. And Conservative mayoral candidate Susan Hall stated at a fringe event that London’s Jewish community were ‘frightened’ by the ‘divisive’ Sadiq Khan.
The Conservative Party is really doing its best to cover all the bases, from conspiracy theories to misogyny to racism. And it’s not just a few weirdos at Conservative Party Conference. These issues go all the way to the top.
In the absence of any genuine ideas as to how to tackle any of the major challenges the country is facing, the Prime Minister seems content to stoke culture wars and goad conspiracy theorists in the hope that he can spread enough mistrust and confusion to avoid complete electoral annihilation.
But Sunak knows that culture wars can only win so many votes in the midst of a deep cost of living crisis. Even Liz Truss used an event at conference to declare that the most important issue the country is facing is how to cut people’s bills — apparently blithely unaware of the devastating impact her own short-lived government’s policies had had in this area.
Jeremy Hunt has taken up the challenge of showing that the Conservative Party is on the side of working people. Reviving an age-old trope that the country is being bled dry by ‘benefits scroungers’, Hunt attempted to position the Conservatives as the party of ‘workers versus shirkers’.
As Labour Hub’s David Osland pointed out on Twitter, benefit fraud added up to £65 million in 2020, next to £4.3 billion worth of fraudulent claims related to Covid-19 loans that are not being investigated. But the fact that benefit fraud is not really an issue thanks to the Tories’ ruthless reforms to Universal Credit is beside the point.
Hunt’s positioning represents a last-ditch, desperate attempt to unite a hopelessly divided party while building support among voters who are struggling to make ends meet. Hunt believes that vilifying benefits claimants will provide enough red meat to the culture warriors in his party to make them ignore the fact that he is refusing to countenance tax cuts for big business and the wealthy.
This refusal is hardly based on a deep enmity towards other members of the ruling class. Instead, Hunt is desperately trying to demonstrate that the Tories remain committed to balancing the books after Liz Truss single-handedly destroyed their hard-earned reputation for governing according to the interests of international investors.
These tensions between hard-right crypto-libertarians and neoliberal austerians run deep within the party.
David Cameron’s leadership will be defined by his rigid commitment to austerity, which exacerbated the political divides leading up to Brexit. Boris Johnson refused to countenance a return to fiscal tightening, instead attempting to balance increasing investment in leave-voting areas with under-the-table giveaways to vested interests.
Truss took a different approach, attempting to lavish tax cuts on the wealthy while forcing working people to pick up the tab. Sunak is desperately attempting to improve the country’s standing among the international investor class of which he is a member, while distracting socially conservative working-class voters from that fact with culture war issues.
Each of these approaches to government represents an attempt to balance the un-balanceable.
The Tories cannot simply rely upon their historic reputation as the party of capital — they need to prove to capitalists the world over that they can be trusted with the reins of government. At the same time, the party needs to avoid the appearance that they are siding with the wealthy over workers — especially at a time when the average person is struggling to make ends meet.
Culture wars and conspiracism are an attempt to square this circle. The Conservative Party has been remarkably successful at mobilising the ressentiment of millions of people who have been cast in the role of ‘losers’ in a neoliberal dystopia in which every area of social life is framed as a marketplace.
In the absence of any real understanding of the nature of capitalism, the anger these people feel towards elites can be selectively manipulated by skilful politicians who also happen to be members of that elite.
But this sleight of hand can only achieve so much. At some point, Rishi Sunak will have to begin answering questions as to whose side he is really on. The word cloud produced by the BBC — in which the words ‘rich’, ‘himself’ and ‘money’ all featured prominently — provides some indication as to what the answer might be.