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Blue Ruin

Fourteen years of Tory rule comes to an ignominious end

Ten Years to Save the West by Liz Truss. Regnery Publishing, 320 pages. 2024

Bloody Panico!: or, Whatever Happened to the Tory Party by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. Verso Books, 176 pages.

On October 24, 2022, in Committee Room 14 of the Palace of Westminster, Sir Graham Brady, MP for Altrincham and Sale West and chairman of the influential 1922 Committee, announced to Conservative Party colleagues that they had chosen Rishi Sunak to become their next leader. Flanked by five other men in suits, Brady was greeted with the sound of palms banging on tables by the gathered MPs. The 1922, founded a century ago primarily as a dining club for newly elected Conservatives, now incorporates all Tory backbenchers, hosting private meetings every week when Parliament is in session—whether the party is in Government or not—in the same wood-paneled room in the House of Commons, setting administrative rules, and having the power to trigger votes of no confidence in their leaders.

The day following Brady’s announcement, Sunak, Parliament’s wealthiest MP, was appointed prime minister by the United Kingdom’s new monarch, King Charles III, at Buckingham Palace. Just seven weeks earlier, the pair’s predecessors had met at Balmoral Castle, where Queen Elizabeth II, two days before her death, made Liz Truss her fifteenth prime ministerial appointment in a seventy-year reign. A ballot of paying Conservative Party members (roughly 0.3 percent of Britain’s electorate; exact figures are not released to the public) had selected Truss over Sunak as the country’s prime minister, but her tenure would go on to be shorter even than her leadership campaign: ten days of official mourning for the Queen, and a month of economic chaos as her squabbling Government botched its tax-and-spending plans and crashed the pound to its lowest level ever against the dollar. “I’m a fighter not a quitter,” she proclaimed at her last Prime Minister’s Questions, “Hear Hears!” from fellow Tory MPs ringing in her ears, before stepping down the next day.

The present crisis, in which the Conservative leadership finds itself undermined by infighting and consistently behind in the polls, originates from the tenure of Boris Johnson who, when Britain’s electorate last voted in December 2019, won a thumping victory for his party. Like Margaret Thatcher some forty years before, Johnson came to power promising national renewal at the end of a turbulent decade, during which time economic stagnation had set in as the country got to grips with a new relationship to Europe. Blonde, ambitious, and accustomed to parliamentary theater, both Johnson and Thatcher lacked a common touch and were less-than-popular with colleagues, who moved hastily to plot their downfall. The “Iron Lady,” however, secured three general election victories and was at the helm for more than a decade before the 1922’s “men in grey suits” informed her that time was up; Johnson did not make it as far as contesting reelection, ousted by the party less than three years into the role.

To avoid the same fate as his party enters its fifteenth year in power, Sunak, Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, has announced that the country will hold a general election on July 4, ending the term his former leader started. The current Conservative prime minister hangs on to the same overriding belief as each of his predecessors: that the Tories are the natural party of government. Over the past 150 years—an era which heralded the emancipation of the common man and the enfranchisement of women and workers throughout the West—Britain has been subject to nearly a century of Conservative rule. This is a unique form of democratic dominance among modern nation-states, unlike any brand of right-wing Christian Democracy, which has governed Western Europe alongside broadly progressive Social Democracy since the Second World War. As conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it, there is “nothing whatever in common between British Conservatism and any of the categories of Continental politics.”

British Conservatives nowadays are more comfortable gazing longingly across the Atlantic for inspiration. In Ten Years To Save the West—part memoir, part siren call to a Trump administration-in-waiting—Liz Truss, unchastened by her brief experience of prime ministerial office, proclaims America as her country’s “proudest creation,” where “we see the continuation and perfection of ideas formed in the British Isles.” Preaching the “conservative values of patriotism, freedom and family,” Truss’s book is clearly designed to appeal to American readers of right-wing political tracts. It has a Republican Red (rather than Tory Blue) aesthetic, and it takes on a conspiratorial tone, where the Paranoid Style of American Politics projects onto Albion. Truss litters the text with recent GOP hobbyhorses—virtue signaling, wokeism, critical race theory, deep state, false flag—and awkwardly attempts to coin the term CINOs, lifted directly from Republicans In Name Only.

Her story begins as a tale of triumph over adversity: she is born to left-wing parents, members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who take her as a toddler to live for a “year in communist Poland” and send her to a school, where she fears being “beaten up in the lunch queue.” A more conventional path to power ensues: studying PPE at Oxford, working for an oil giant, and losing constituency contests in two general elections before being gifted a safe Conservative seat in South West Norfolk, spending the following decade in a variety of ministries. Truss admits that before she took over, the party was losing its way, failing to “achieve the changes the country needed.” Wishing to lift the lid on the inner workings of government, she presents her efforts to outmaneuver a raft of persistent oppositional groups, including “vested interests in the nursery industry” and the more surrealist “watermelon-oriented non-governmental organisations.” While serving in the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Truss faces down an alliance between coffee chain Caffè Nero and Queen guitarist Brian May to successfully cull Britain’s badger population, for which she is belatedly thanked by the Queen’s husband at a Royal Garden Party.

British Conservatives nowadays are more comfortable gazing longingly across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Truss displays a difficulty relating to her readers, offering up banal observations (the pandemic was “a grim experience”; Lennon is her “favorite Beatle”); humdrum anecdotes about throwing up in one of the gyms at King’s Lynn Leisure Center; and terminology especially irksome to her fellow countrymen, who have never once played “hardball,” poured out “kerosene,” or “drunk the Kool-Aid.” Her fetish for all things American seems to have emerged on a trade trip “to see how President Trump was delivering tax cuts and a regulatory rollback that was spurring the American economy.” Admiring “The Donald” as “leader of the free world” and the “go-getting, self-reliant nature” of his vision, Truss returns eager to open up British markets to “cheap fracked gas,” as well as chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-injected beef.

But on entering Number 10 after Johnson is ousted, she finds herself isolated: “a prisoner in Downing Street.” Her radical program is quickly “thwarted by the processes of officialdom,” which Truss puts down to the all-encompassing power of “the Left,” seemingly enveloping the entire British establishment: the “left wing state,” “the leftist media,” “the world of Whitehall and quangos, where leftism is the prevailing ethos,” the Treasury and the Bank of England (which have “moved to the left” in their adoption of environmental and diversity targets), and even “leftists in the Conservative party” itself.

After her mini Budget—a once-in-a-century lunge for lower taxes and less regulation, unashamedly favoring Britain’s better off—is denounced by everyone from the American president to the International Monetary Fund, she faces an “ambush” at the 1922 as backbench MPs launch a “barrage” of hostile questions. “I knew they had me at gunpoint,” history’s shortest-serving prime minister reflects, deploying militaristic language to appear Churchillian, though she sounds closer to corporate middle management —more “Shell” than being shelled, as her battle-hardened predecessor from a previous century had been on the Western Front.

The historian Max Hastings believes the Tory’s great wartime leader invented the concept of the “special relationship” between Britain and America for reasons of “political expediency,” though fellow Churchill biographer Geoffrey Wheatcroft agrees that he was, additionally, the first of many prime ministers to discover that it “didn’t exist.” Long before the “ludicrous prime ministership of Liz Truss,” Wheatcroft writes in Bloody Panico!, the Conservative party began following the foolish motto: “résistants towards Brussels, but pétainistes towards Washington.” Europe has “loomed over the Tories for years if not generations,” and the book’s title recalls another era when the party was split over the issue—at a meeting of the 1922 in the early 1970s, leading up to Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU), Rear Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan Giles MP barked “pro bono publico, no bloody panico!” at his peers, temporarily tempering disquiet in the ranks.

Wheatcroft, having cut his journalistic teeth at Tory house journal The Spectator, believes Conservatism’s strength lies in its historic virtues: “pragmatism, scepticism, pessimism, and sheer common sense.” For the three and a half centuries that “something called a Tory party” has existed, he argues, it has adapted to circumstance, such as when a society “based on rank” moved to one “based on class” in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. However, he worries that in the early decades of the new millennium, “the Tories’ ancient instinct for survival appears to have vanished.”

Wheatcroft has drawn a diagnosis from Conservatism’s morbid symptoms before, in 2005’s The Strange Death of Tory England. Bloody Panico!, a “coda” to his premature postmortem, begins by revisiting the Tories’ wilderness years, sparked by the election loss of John Major, Margaret Thatcher’s successor. Having garnered the largest popular vote of any prime minister in British history, he found his leadership hamstrung within six months. On the night of Black Wednesday in 1992, which saw sterling crash and forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Major reportedly received a phone call from Kelvin MacKenzie, the editor of the Sun (then the best-selling daily newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch) declaring, “I’ve got a bucket of shit on my desk, Prime Minister, and I’m going to pour it all over your head tomorrow morning.” A barely containable “Europhobic” rebellion among backbenchers and their cabinet sympathizers, whom Major dismissed as “bastards,” ensured the party consumed itself with “fratricidal strife” for five years, until it was unceremoniously dismissed by the electorate.

During the subsequent opposition administrations of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard—the first Conservative leaders since 1922 to fail to become prime minister—the party behaved like bald men fighting over a comb, unseating leaders yet unable to curry favor with the Great British public. “The country was fed up with the Tories, the Tories were fed up with themselves,” Wheatcroft concedes, until, in 2010, David Cameron finally regained power for the party, beginning the most recent stretch of unbroken Conservative rule.

The Cameron ascendancy signified a “comeback of the upper class,” more than forty years since the last old Etonian prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, resigned the party leadership—the end of the era when Conservative leaders opaquely “emerged” rather than being formally chosen by the parliamentary party. Cameron, a descendant of King William IV through his illegitimate daughter, appointed George Osborne, the “heir to a baronetcy and a substantial family fortune,” to run the Treasury, while Eton contemporary Boris Johnson ensconced himself in city hall as mayor of London. At Oxford, all three belonged to the all-male, aristocratic-adjacent Bullingdon Club, whose members, Wheatcroft quips, “dine in blue tailcoats and leave wreckage behind them.”

For Wheatcroft, the twenty-first century British public had not necessarily resurfaced its historic deference to the higher orders; more likely, Cameron’s coterie ensured the Tories were back in favor with the Murdoch press. In a country barely recovering from 2008’s financial crash, the new Conservatives were not popular enough to win an overall majority of seats at the 2010 election. Forming the largest parliamentary bloc, they chose to govern as a coalition with the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, a unique arrangement in the postwar epoch. The Tory-led government promptly “took an axe to public spending,” with Osborne reintroducing austerity to Britain, ostensibly to bring down spiraling government debt by making billions of pounds worth of cuts to essential local services, which sparked flashes of urban disorder.

Prime Minister Cameron committed an even bigger folly in Wheatcroft’s eyes: promising an in-out referendum on European Union membership if his party won outright at the next election. When 2015 provided that more decisive Conservative victory, gaining the party’s first Commons majority in twenty-three years, Cameron, who previously compelled his MPs to “stop banging on about Europe,” honored his campaign promise and led the Remain campaign the year after. Initially believing his ministers would follow the party line, the prime minister agreed to offer colleagues a free vote, opening the door for prominent cabinet members Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (“the Conservative Party’s idea of an intellectual”) to vociferously argue to Leave.

Cameron’s gamble misjudged the electorate, who voted in massive numbers to back “Brexit”—which was never fully defined during the campaign beyond a vague assertion of increased national sovereignty. Far from “clearing the air and uniting the country,” Wheatcroft—a fellow Remainer—writes, and in addition to “the economic damage it had obviously caused,” the vote led to bitter ruptures in the British establishment that show little sign of healing eight years later.

When Cameron stepped down in 2016, the parliamentary party replaced him with Theresa May, a “vicar’s daughter” famous for informing the Tory faithful on the need to shed their image as “the nasty party.” Swiftly, May, who had supported Remain but found herself pushing a Brexit deal, called a snap general election to consolidate her position, only to lose her party’s parliamentary majority—another impulsive leader unsuccessfully reading the runes. She continued as the prime minister of a minority Government, having forged a legislative pact with the Democratic Unionist Party, a small protestant party in Northern Ireland loyal to the British Crown, whose most prominent leader, “the hot-gospelling demagogic bigot” the Reverend Ian Paisley died in 2014 (their most recent leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, was charged with multiple sexual offenses earlier this year). Still failing to negotiate an EU withdrawal agreement, May was visited by Sir Graham Brady on behalf of his 1922 colleagues in April 2019, asking her for clarity as to when she would step down. That July, she made way for Johnson.

Wheatcroft reserves most of his ire for the party’s most recent election winner, believing he “had only taken up the cause of leaving the European Union to promote his personal ambition.” Boris “bluffed his way through the Brexit referendum, he had bluffed his way to Downing Street,” the author puffs, until in January 2020, when the UK formally left the EU. At times cerebral, invoking Tacitus and Kierkegaard on a single page, the author descends here into petulance, gruff on his subject’s appearance (“carefully messed-up straw-coloured hair”; “a suit that looked as though it had been slept in”) and motivations (“self-advancement and self-gratification”). Treating the former prime minister with utter contempt, he cannot even bring himself to sympathize when Johnson is hospitalized during Covid: “He was in a high-risk category because he was so grossly overweight, a man of five-foot-nine weighing seventeen stone.”

The reader is left to speculate whether this visceral dislike stems from a time, overlapping with the start of Johnson’s parliamentary career, when the future prime minister edited Wheatcroft’s beloved Spectator, which he debased by lying about an affair with a journalist and earning the magazine the sobriquet “The Sextator.” Believing the leader and his “numberless infidelities, with their abortion and irregular offspring” set the tone for a parliamentary intake with “more than its fair share of scoundrels, cheats and sexual eccentrics,” Wheatcroft goes on to gleefully recount Johnson’s fall—which ultimately followed a scandal involving Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip, who was seen in the Carlton Club “fondling the groins of younger men.” Hearing the news from the party’s informal headquarters, its leader retorted, “Pincher by name, pincher by nature,” a phrase which precipitated a trickle of letters to the 1922, rapidly becoming a deluge, that indicated to the prime minister his days were numbered. They finally ran out in the summer of 2022.

There is an underlying feeling that since 2010, Britain’s political class has felt no real hardship and will suffer no consequence for its follies.

On February 1, 2023, Sir Graham Brady presided over a private dinner to celebrate the centenary of the 1922 Committee. Prime Minister Sunak opened proceedings, remarking: “It’s wonderful to be here tonight with so many colleagues—and not a grey suit in sight.” Understandably vigilant toward the Tory MPs congregating every Wednesday at the Palace of Westminster, Sunak, the fifth Conservative prime minister in fifteen years, unlike the previous four, has spent a largely uneventful time in office. Having salvaged one of his predecessors to serve in his cabinet as foreign secretary, Baron (David) Cameron of Chipping Norton, the next most intriguing act of his tenure has been to call an early election, taking ardent Westminster watchers by surprise. Rumors flew that the Stanford-educated prime minister, languishing in the polls, was “getting to the end of his tether” (as one member of the 1922 executive put it), eager to return to California, where he and his wife, the daughter of an Indian tech billionaire, own property. In his solitary eye-catching policy pledge, he has vowed to reintroduce unpaid national service for teenage school leavers. The Conservative Party, out of ideas under Sunak’s supervision, is unlikely to follow a twenty-first century trend of increasing its vote at each election.

Meanwhile, the specter of nativist populism in the form of Nigel Farage—whose leadership of three Eurosceptic parties: UKIP, the Brexit Party, and now Reform, has haunted the government over the past decade—is being embraced by senior party figures wishing to “unite the right.” Suella Braverman, former chair of the European Research Group which powered the Tory Leave campaign, is among them, eyeing up a future leadership challenge. As home secretary serving both Sunak and Truss, she railed against the “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati” for its action on climate change; declared her pride in the British Empire; and warned of an “invasion” of the country’s south coast by migrants crossing the English Channel. With the hard right in its ascendancy, we can expect a continuation of hostilities in the culture war, their election candidates sounding off about immigration and identity politics and throwing red meat to those pursuing Britain’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.

Whether they don blue tailcoats or grey suits, the administrators of the Conservative and Unionists, to give the party its official name, have certainly left wreckage behind them. The kingdom is divided, with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland guided by those diametrically opposed to Westminster Toryism, while the capital has not seen a Conservative mayor since Johnson vacated city hall in 2016. The leadership’s financial interventions every few years— austerity, Brexit, Trussonomics—have been reckless gambles, leaving the nation visibly poorer and extinguishing aspiration among the populace. There are precious few successors to those who, during previous stretches of postwar Conservatism, “never had it so good” under old Etonian Harold Macmillan, or rejoiced for the grocer’s daughter Margaret Thatcher. As the Tories’ grip on power slips, the electorate seems too exhausted to relish a change of government; in any case, there is an underlying feeling that since 2010, Britain’s political class has felt no real hardship and will suffer no consequence for its follies.

Whether the Tories have a stake in Britain’s future remains to be seen. But should you be in Westminster on the Wednesday after parliament returns, be sure to listen out for the sound of palms banged on tables echoing from Committee Room 14.