'A desperate act of political necromancy' (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu via Getty Images)

November 15, 2023   5 mins

When the collateral damage from the Gaza War is finally totted up, Suella Braverman’s political career will not top the list of those most deserving sympathy. When the Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley publicly mocked Braverman’s characterisation of pro-Palestine protests as hate marches, he did so in the knowledge her position was more precarious than his, and he was entirely correct: she was gone just a week later. 

In the past four years, we have had six Home Secretaries (including Braverman twice), four Prime Ministers, and eight Housing Ministers; in the past seven years of great geopolitical danger, we have had seven Foreign Secretaries. At around a year, the lifespan of those holding the great offices of state is as evanescent as that of a caged hamster, and their labours just as futile. If every Government minister resigned today, and let the civil service run the country until Starmer’s formal assumption of power, nothing meaningful would change.

But still the play drags on. In a desperate act of political necromancy, Sunak summoned Cameron from his lush Cotswolds exile to mark the end of the Conservative populist experiment. The Brexit referendum, which the former prime minister called and lost, was as much a rejection of his own record as of the distant European Union: of his underinvestment in infrastructure and demolition of state capacity, his failure to manage immigration, his reshaping of the British economy as a pliant provider of services to Chinese, Russian and Qatari capital, and of his misbegotten adventure in Libya, still collapsing African states like dominoes to this day. 

Through their pursuit of austerity, the Cameron and Osborne dyad created our current penumbra of decay and underinvestment. Britain’s trajectory of relative decline makes any town even in notionally prosperous southeast England visibly poorer and more neglected than a town of corresponding size in Poland or East Germany. In real terms, British workers are still worse paid than when Cameron came to power. 

Arguably then, Cameron did more than Blair to midwife 2020s Britain in all its squalid dysfunction. His was perhaps the last period when the unintended consequences of the Blairite revolution could have been painlessly undone; instead, he bedded them in, cementing Blair’s destructive post-1997 innovations as sacrosanct pillars of the eternal British constitution. The dismal calibre of Tory politicians we suffer today is the direct result of the selection procedures Cameron introduced, in an effort to weed out conservative thought from representation in the Conservative Party. Like Cummings’s recent appearance as a humble penitent before the Covid enquiry, subjecting himself to the mercy of a system he once wished to overthrow, Cameron’s return to Westminster is the symbolic endpoint to the Brexit revolution: whether or not the system is capable of reform, the Conservative Party is not the vehicle to achieve it. 

Reform of the British state should have been carried out quietly, with an air of unruffled competence just as Blair achieved, in an administrative revolution imperceptible to surface-skimming lobby journalists. Instead we were given years of shrill noise, breakneck Westminster gossip, and inaction. As a result, through its own dysfunction, the Conservative Party has managed to place all British conservatives in the role of dissidents: increasingly hostile to institutions of the state — the police, the judiciary, border guards — that are in other European countries seen as the bedrock of conservative order. 

How many times must we write the same obituary? The effigies to be sculpted may change with ever-increasing rapidity, but the cause of death remains the same. The Conservative Party was a victim of its own electoral success: in constructing a ruthless vehicle for achieving power, it forgot that power is merely a temporary means to achieve lasting ideological ends. It is doubtful that it is in the interests of British conservatism for the Conservative Party to survive the next election, but if it does, it must use its time out of office to define its core aims and how to achieve them if ever granted power again.

The useful analogy, perhaps, is with America’s distinct but parallel attempt to ride the populist wave of discontent. The Trump administration, in its first iteration, was similarly chaotic, facing similar hysterical opposition from an ideologically hostile press and equivalent internal sabotage by dissident state functionaries. There too, at the end, public officials took care to signal their opposition to their notional political masters and their loyalty to the incoming regime. But where America differs from Britain is the overall vitality of its organised conservative movement.

As the likelihood of Trump returning to power grows, American conservative ideologues have spent the past few years devising a comprehensive strategy for effective governance. The Project 2025 strategy centres on the parallel belief that “the federal government is a behemoth, weaponised against American citizens and conservative values”, a politicised deep state which serves in practice to stifle Republican rule. An entire waiting cadre of loyal officials has been recruited, trained and motivated to reform American governance at every level from the first day of the second Trump administration. Whether or not the results will be positive for the country, experience of political failure has given the Republican Party a purist ideological zeal, a theory of governance and a desire to impose its will entirely absent from their British equivalents. Where Republicans recruit and nurture loyal conservative footsoldiers, the Conservative Party weeds them out like unwanted gatecrashers at a garden party: the results are as we see.

The ongoing Tory civil war, reignited first in the letter from the New Conservatives accusing Sunak of betraying the Red Wall realignment, and then in Braverman’s poisonous dissection of the Prime Minister’s failings, is surely no longer a campaign to win a last few dismal months in Downing Street, but instead a battle for what comes next: either a vision for a new iteration of the party, harder-edged and keener to win, or the opening salvoes of a new Right-wing force in British politics. Perhaps the Conservative Party’s surviving remnants, dusting off the rubble of defeat, will follow their American equivalents in political exile by addressing the causes of their failure directly, and by devising a strategy for governance underpinned by a meaningful conservative philosophy. But the causes of popular dissatisfaction remain as livid as ever, the popular mood more febrile, and the desire for radical change grows ever more insistent. 

The brutal October 7 Hamas attack on Israel has been theorised as a case of catastrophic success for the terrorist group, and much the same could be said of the Conservative Party’s current term in office. The 2019 election was a victory from which the Conservatives may never recover: they have been buried beneath their own landslide. The voting public granted the Tories the opportunity to remake Britain in their image, and unfortunately for us they succeeded. 

But as well as euthanising Braverman’s ministerial career, events in the Middle East remind us, through the very existence of the state of Israel, that even the most unlikely sounding political visions, undertaken in the least propitious circumstances, are eminently achievable. As Herzl famously declared: “If you will it, it is no dream.” The demands of the British public for a stable, secure and prosperous nation are not impossible to satisfy. For all its relative decline, Britain retains vast untapped potential waiting to be unlocked, requiring only sufficient political vision, will and discipline to do so. In ridding ourselves of the Conservative Party, we may yet birth a vigorous and reformist British conservative movement. 

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.