2 August 2019

Thatcher or Trump – the big choice awaiting the Right


Ten days in to the Johnson Premiership and there should be little doubt where we are heading. Dominic Cummings may revel in his contempt for Westminster Village groupthink, but this time the Prime Minister’s special adviser might have to admit we’ve got him right. The Vote Leave band is back together and whilst lead singer Johnson basks in the limelight, Cummings is setting the tempo. And his drumbeat seems fixed to the unmistakable rhythm of a general election campaign.

It is not too hard either to discern the strategy Cummings will unfurl. If the election is a second referendum in all but name, then the Brexit campaign will be very much a Vote Leave redux. The Prime Minister has already set the tone with eye-catching spending promises targeted at so-called ‘left behind’ towns and a reinvigoration of the Osborne-era Northern Powerhouse agenda.

As with the infamous NHS bus pledge the goal here is to neutralise all angles of attack. The Tories have already seen the rank unpopularity of austerity derail one ‘back Brexit’ snap election – no such chances will be taken this time. Thus it will not, one suspects, be an easy few months for the party’s remaining fiscal conservatives.

However, it may not just be ‘sound money’ disciples that must endure an ideological bloody nose from the Vote Leave war machine. The new Cabinet is eye-catching in its embrace of a new caucus of staunchly Thatcherite free marketeers and the Prime Minister too has frequently displayed libertarian leanings. Yet whether this group were appointed for their economic inclinations or their pro-Brexit virility is a question that strikes to the heart of the Brexit project’s political incoherence. The answer – should Cummings’ campaigning efforts prove successful – could define the future of both the Johnson premiership and the modern right.

Because for its truest believers in Parliament Brexit has always been a Thatcherite mission; about “finishing the job” as Lord Lawson memorably put it during the campaign. For the Dominic Raabs and Dan Hannans of the world, Britain’s post-Brexit destiny is to become a low tax, low regulation, tariff-free archipelago economy – Singapore without any of that nasty state direction. The problem is this vision does not, to put it mildly, transpose well on to an electoral map of the voters or seats any pro-Brexit campaign must secure.

Indeed, the balance of polling evidence seems to suggest that those who actually voted for Brexit tended to be distrustful of markets, relaxed about state intervention and supportive of economic protectionism. When pollster Matt Singh’s explored trade attitudes for CapX’s Battle of Ideas series last year he was able to identify the single biggest predictor of whether or not somebody is likely to support protectionism. The answer? Voting leave in 2016.

All of which is why Dominic Cummings, motivated purely by winning, ruthlessly sidelined the ‘Global Britain’ obsessives during the referendum campaign. In the last week the media has gorged itself upon the entrails of Cummings’ caustic online musings, trying to discern his plans for the ship of state. For what it’s worth, my view is that any man who can dedicate 22,000 words to a treatise on civil service inadequacy – not to mention design the Academies programme – seems more driven by trying to perfect the state than destroy it.

Yet to attribute Cummings’ contempt for other Brexiteers to his personal convictions is to miss the point entirely: the votes simply were not their for a scrupulously free market version of Brexit. More than that, the referendum was a culture war election in an era where politics has taken a decisively cultural turn. And the fact is many of the voters more instinctively sympathetic to a free market platform were culturally triggered by the raw nationalist heat needed to sustain the push towards victory.

Three years later and the choice must be made again. Yes, riled up by Parliament’s almost certain blocking of no deal – a situation the Government may now actively court in order to stoke anti-establishment resentment – sheer populist fervour might allow a fragile conservative coalition to align. But over time the modern right must ultimately resolve whether it takes a Global Britain view on the future of conservatism or one inspired by Trump’s America First agenda. The cultural turn in politics will not allow such antagonistic views to be reconciled for long.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP