Conservatives: Faction Fighting and Desperation

What has this long Tory leadership contest been about now that Rishi Sunak has won? Will Tory MPs' factional feud continue? Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, and Suella Braverman's right-wing "populist" agenda has been rejected by the financial markets and most Tory MPs. Who were the important players in this summer-long war, and what happens next? Phil Hearse claims that Sunak's victory represents a victory for the transnational capitalist class (TCC) over an ultra-right-wing "populist" alliance that put Truss in power.

 

As this article was being written, it appeared that Rishi Sunak would be the new Tory leader, and this was confirmed when Penny Mordaunt withdrew from the contest at 2 p.m. on October 24, 2022.

But if it was Sunak, Johnson, or Mordaunt, the result would have been exactly the same – a hard-right government bent on defeating the current wave of strike action with new anti-union laws, imposing harsh austerity, and doubling down on police action against environmentalist demonstrators.

The prospectus laid out by current Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, who oversaw ever-deepening privatisation and under-funding of the NHS as Health Secretary, is to inflict the most severe attack on working-class living standards and democratic rights in the last 50 years. In the process, the Tory pretence of serious action on climate justice will be abandoned. And of course, the new government will defend the massive windfall taxes of the oil companies and the right of giant corporations like Amazon to shift their UK profits to tax havens to evade paying tax in this country. In the last reported quarter, Amazon’s profits in the UK were $6.2 billion. Apple’s declared profits last year were $1.4 billion, on which it paid £800,000 in tax, an amount for Apple that’s hardly noticeable. Clearly, the interests of the transnational capitalist class (TCC) are already well defended in Britain.

Confrontation

Confrontation among Conservative MPs following the turmoil in the financial markets reflects the unresolved conflict between the hard right ‘populism’ of the European Research Group (ERG) and the “centre-right” approach of the One Nation Group. Most Conservative MPs aren’t in either of these two parliamentary factions, but a big majority, maybe two-thirds, are against the hard right populist politics of the brief Truss government, which Steve Baker MP and Andrew Bridgen MP are the central ERG factional custodians of. 

After the leadership race this summer, Truss appointed only loyalists to the most powerful positions, including Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor and Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. Also notable in this historically brief government was the post given to Steve Baker, the Wycombe MP, ideological leader and chief strategist of the so-called “Spartans”, the hard-line ERG Brexiteers who brought down Theresa May’s government in 2019.

Boris Johnson hadn’t made up his mind on Brexit, but at the last minute rushed to put himself at the head of the Brexit camp. He was there to pick up the pieces, but the Spartans knew he was not a true believer, and Baker and his lieutenants played a key role in bringing him down. In effect, Baker and the ERG were crucial in a putsch against the majority of Conservative MPs, but with the fall of the Truss government, true believers were in a pickle. None of the likely candidates—Johnson, Sunak, and Mordaunt—are true believers. But by the evening of 22 October Andrew Bridgen had declared for Surnak, and the next morning Steve Baker was doing the rounds of TV studios saying it would be a “disaster” if Johnson was re-elected as leader. But as this is written (23 October), there is every chance that Sunak will win. However, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the deep schisms among Conservative MPs are reconciled.

Along with the US (under Trump) and Italy (with the newly elected Meloni), Britain is the third advanced capitalist country where the local version of hard-right populism has taken over the government. Deposed Conservative premier Liz Truss gave key governmental posts only to those who supported her leadership bid. She was only in office for 44 days, but her downfall demonstrates that the financial markets (investment banks and hedge funds that lend money to governments) would not have tolerated her if she had not adhered to the “supposed financial rectitude” required by the situation (massive austerity to pay down the debt). In other words, huge spending cuts in key governmental and local government services at a time of rapidly rising prices. The severity of the crisis is reflected in Moody’s decision to downgrade the United Kingdom’s credit rating.

Truss’s election as Conservative leader was over the heads of the majority of Conservative MPs. She never got more than 30% of their votes and was put in power by the 120,000 or so Tory members who bothered to vote, who were, in the majority, middle-aged, white, male, and from the south of England. These voters are more receptive to the hard-right ‘populist’ message of extreme nationalism and even tougher anti-immigrant racism. But even among these conservative members, Rishi Sunak still won 40%.

Sunak represents those in the capitalist class—a big majority—who opposed Brexit and want to relax immigration rules and lower income and corporation taxes “when the time is right.” In other words, Sunak represents (especially but not exclusively) the outlook of the TCC, those who champion globalisation and free trade and the interests of the banks and hi-tech mega-corporations, which like Apple have become virtual “banks”, sitting on vast cash hordes. Rishi Sunak’s father-in-law, Narayan Murthy, is the owner of the giant Indian hi-tech company Infosys and has a personal fortune of $3.2 billion. Rishi Sunak formerly worked as an investment banker and owned a home in Santa Monica that was worth $5 million.

In other words, Sunak represents (especially but not exclusively) the outlook of the TCC, those who champion globalisation and free trade and the interests of the banks and hi-tech mega-corporations, which like Apple have become virtual “banks”, sitting on vast cash hordes.

Many employers in the agriculture, hospitality, and care home sectors are crying out for workers to fill their many vacancies. Tory party infighting on this was illuminated dramatically by the rumoured one-hour shouting match between Truss and Home Secretary Suella Braverman over immigration on 18 October. The departure of Kwarteng and Braverman from the government showed that Truss’s main policy planks in the leadership election-more spending, lower taxes, and tighter immigration-could not get a majority support among Conservative MPs. Truss was clearly willing to do anything, even go against her own policies, to keep her job as Prime Minister. As Groucho Marx said in the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup, ‘These are my policies, and if you don’t like them, I have others.’

Upheaval

The current upheaval is taking place against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, which has led to a resurgence of strikes as the real value of wages drops due to inflationary pressures. The Truss-Kwarteng mini-budget was designed to give people and businesses some relief from skyrocketing energy prices and spiralling inflation. The parliamentary Conservative Party is constantly under pressure from local party associations and their criticism of the government’s dismal popularity. This is significant because the 365 Conservative MPs are well aware that if they lose the next election, their well-paying positions will be lost.

The key parameters for the incoming prime minister have already been set by the new chancellor, Jeremy Hunt. This means that harsh austerity measures will be put in place, and a new parliamentry bill will make it illegal for essential services to go on strike. The new wave of strikes and the fight against the new Tory legislation will shape the future of British politics.

Boris Johnson had a good chance of winning the current leadership election if it went out to the membership. But that would have been a ridiculous result, pitting the majority of MPs against the rest of the party.

The new wave of strikes and the fight against the new Tory legislation will shape the future of British politics.

Crisis

The government debt crisis has its roots in the neoliberal model that Britain has been subjected to since Margaret Thatcher: deflationary economics leading to unending debt cycles.

The current crisis is down to the mountain of debt that was built up during the 2020–21 COVID-19 lockdowns. During that time, then chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Treasury gave workers and businesses more than £100 billion in furlough payments. While much of this was probably straightforward, many billions were lost through the Johnson government’s connivance with corruption; in particular, the £35+ billion spent on personal protection equipment and track and trace, which often were out of date or didn’t work. Huge amounts were given to ‘consultants’ at up to £6,000 a day.

The government’s profligacy, which enabled widespread corruption, was justified by the frank admission that the resulting mountain of debt would have to be repaid by austerity measures at some point in the future. Now we are down the road and facing another debt-fuelled crisis as energy prices rocket.

The fact that Johnson and his Downing Street cronies consistently disregarded their own lockdown regulations ultimately led to his removal from office. In other words, for many people who had suffered real hardship, Johnson’s behaviour was akin to corruption. The feedback loop to Tory MPs from their constituents was that Johnson had to go.

Factions

All the groups and factions in the current leadership contest represent different takes on neoliberalism and Brexit, which have lasted since before the Brexit referendum in 2016. Suella Braverman was the secretary of the European Research Group before Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker and was supported by the ERG in the summer leadership election. Liz Truss comes from the same political background and was one of the authors of the notorious 2012 ‘Britannia Unchained’ manifesto, which designated British workers as the laziest in Europe. Because of the clique-ridden nature of conservative factions and the pull of government office, two of the authors of Britannia Unchained—Dominic Raab and Priti Patel—have avoided affiliation with the Steve Baker-Andrew Bridgen core. Raab is backing Rishi Sunak and Patel is backing Boris Johnson, without any noticeable political differences between them.

Braverman was accusing Liz Truss of treachery over immigration, and Truss was exhibiting the routine abandonment of election promises that is common in capitalist democracies. The same sort of pragmatism made Donald Trump quietly abandon his absurd promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

Braverman was accusing Liz Truss of treachery over immigration, and Truss was exhibiting the routine abandonment of election promises that is common in capitalist democracies.

Of the two main factions among Tory MPs, the ERG is much more organised and pugnacious and has pushed itself to the fore in the debates over COVID regulations. Steve Baker in particular made a keynote Commons speech about ‘values’ and ‘what we want this nation to be.’ The ERG’s values turn out to be about free markets and shrinking the state. But shrinking the state does not, of course, apply to the military or the police. These values are widely shared by the reactionary sectors of the petit bourgeoisie and among reactionary (mainly older) sections of the working class. Steve Baker and Andrew Bridgen have clearly decided that, for the moment, it is better to be on the winning side. Last summer, when Liz Truss was named the winner of the leadership election, Baker was excitedly filming on his mobile phone. These video clips are now likely to be deleted.

The One Nation Group – whose motto is “moderate, compassionate, and pragmatic” – has been much less determined in its organisation and faction-fighting skills, especially as key members, Nicki Morgan and Amber Rudd, were offered ministerial posts in the Johnson government, and thus found that being pragmatic strongly outweighed being moderate and compassionate.

Farage, Corbyn and Starmer

A common simplification is to say that the Conservatives won a big majority over Labour in the 2019 election, full stop. But there are two other things that have to be said to complete the picture. First, there is the effect of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has taken over from UKIP. The Brexit party won more than 600,000 votes in the 227 seats in which it stood. The Brexit Party pushed the Tories even further to the right, but Farage was ultimately convinced to pull his candidates out of most Conservative seats in the last days of the campaign. In many seats in the North and Midlands, the Tories have a majority because the Brexit party took votes from Labour and a lot of old Labour supporters didn’t vote. Farage played a huge role in the Conservative victory.

Farage himself said that although it didn’t win any seats, the Brexit Party hurt Labour and “killed” the Liberal Democrats.

The other side of the 2019 election result was the negative media campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, particularly the charge that he tolerated antisemitic racism in the party, which was never adequately addressed.

Britain has been the site of an extreme variant of neoliberalism, with an economy increasingly based on finance and services and with a declining industrial base. Historic defeats of the unions, combined with anti-union laws, pushed down wages and reduced demand. The “Singapore-on-Thames” model didn’t work and devastated the living standards of millions of workers.

The British economy has been kept afloat by successive waves of debt, both company debt and household debt. Even before the current energy crisis, the privatised utilities turned into huge money-sucking machines that took all but the richest people’s extra cash.

The 2008 financial crisis was overcome by ‘quantitative easing’, with the British and US governments throwing billions at the banks to stop them from failing. Consumerism was revived by encouraging people to fill up their credit cards again, all fuelled by the ‘spectacle’ of celebrity and glorification of the wealthy, something that fills the dreams but doesn’t fill the pockets of a workforce with precarious housing and precarious jobs.

Many political pundits say Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, is boring. But being boring is the fate of all politicians who don’t have much to say. Look at the vox pop interviews on television; people don’t know what Labour stands for now. The danger now is that falling living standards will cause the kind of desperation that allows for the emergence of extreme right opposition in parliament and in the streets. As the ACR statement on this site says, socialists inside and outside of the Labour Party need to offer an alternative economic model. But the key is organising solidarity with the rail workers and postal workers, and the hundreds of thousands who will soon join them.


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Phil Hearse is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance and joint author of both Creeping Fascism and System Crash.

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