🔮 The British Conservative Party’s journey towards the populist radical right

Tim Bale, author of a new book on the Tories, argues they’ve been moving away from the mainstream for some time. It’s just that recent events have accelerated the process – and there are few, if any, signs of it stopping

There is – quite rightly – a lot of talk nowadays about the mainstreaming of populist parties. Outfits that used to be considered beyond the pale, especially but not exclusively on the right of the political spectrum, are now, as Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti point out, ‘integrated into national party systems’ and ‘considered legitimate and accepted players.’ Many have participated in, or supported governments. Some (Georgia Meloni’s Fratelli d'Italia being the stand-out contemporary example) have even dominated them.

There is less discussion, however, of movement the other way. By this, I mean the transformation of parties previously considered part of, and even typifying, the mainstream itself. Less discussion, of course, does not mean none. Frequently mentioned in this vein are Fidesz in Hungary, PiS in Poland, and the Republicans in the USA. So, a while back, was Forza Italia. But people tend to see such parties as anomalies. Their radicalisation is inextricably linked to particular leaders – Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński (and his late brother Lech), Donald Trump, and Silvio Berlusconi.

Which is why the ongoing transformation of Great Britain’s Conservatives into an ersatz populist radical right party – one detailed in my recently published book but also signalled in its predecessor – is worth noting. The Tories, as they are popularly known in the UK, are, one of Europe’s archetypal centre-right governing parties. They have been around for over two centuries, and in office for six in ten of the 78 years since World War Two.

In Brexit’s wake

The eight years since the UK’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016, of course, have been particularly tumultuous. And for many of those years, a politician as charismatic and willing to break the rules as those just mentioned was the dominant player.

It is not entirely surprising, then, that under Boris Johnson, many began to suggest the Conservative Party was turning populist. The right-wing commentariat talked as if it were the tribune of ‘the people’ against an unrepresentative ‘liberal elite’ including judges, lawyers, civil servants, ‘experts’, NGOs, academics, and journalists. These elites were supposedly determined to rob the people of Brexit and the chance to ‘take back control’ of Britain’s borders. They were hellbent on imposing upon them all things ‘woke’.

Under Boris Johnson, commentators talked as if the Tory Party were the tribune of ‘the people’ against an unrepresentative ‘liberal elite’

More objectively, the charge sheet, as it were, doesn't include only internationally notorious manoeuvres like 2019’s unlawful prorogation of parliament. There is the Internal Market Bill that may well have seen the UK break international law. There is the legislation eroding the independence of the country’s Electoral Commission and introducing voter ID for no good reason other than voter suppression. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act places unprecedented limits on the right to protest so as to allow the ‘lawful majority’ to go about their business. There is the wider attempt to undermine independent regulators as well as a tendency to simply ignore their findings. And there is the placing of former Conservative donors and candidates at the heart and the top of the nation’s pre-eminent public broadcaster, the BBC.

Not just Brexit and ‘Boris’

Yet it is far too simplistic – as well as ahistorical – to blame this state of affairs solely on Brexit and ‘Boris’. The truth is that the Conservative Party has long flirted with populism, particularly on immigration and asylum. All we are seeing now is it beginning to go the whole hog.

The Tory party has long flirted with populism, particularly on immigration. Only now is it beginning to go the whole hog

Not for nothing did academics analysing Thatcherism coin the term ‘authoritarian populism’. One of Thatcher's immediate successors, William Hague, talked about the Blair government turning away from ‘common sense’ and turning the country into ‘a foreign land.’ David Cameron, elected prime minister in 2010, was supposedly socially liberal. Yet his Home Secretary Theresa May proudly created a ‘hostile environment’ for apparently illegal immigrants and ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. And it was May, replacing Cameron as PM in 2016, who blamed parliament for blocking ‘the will of the people’. She also made a distinction between the latter and the ‘citizens of nowhere’ who had no interest in their plight.

No end in sight

Fast-forward to today. May and her successor Johnson have been replaced as prime minister (after an insanely brief interregnum under Liz Truss) by Rishi Sunak. Sunak seems determined to blend fiscal conservatism with culture war politics. The cutting edge of this is his Australian-inspired pledge to ‘stop the boats’ crossing the Channel. Sunak is deterring asylum seekers by warning they will be detained in disused military bases, prisons and floating barges – until, that is, they can be deported to Rwanda with no possibility of returning to the UK legally, even if their claim to asylum is later upheld there.

Rishi Sunak seems determined to blend fiscal conservatism with culture war politics

Who knows whether Sunak and his Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, really believe their own rhetoric? But commentators often ask the same about leaders of Europe’s populist radical-right parties. They espouse it because they hope it will work.

Back in 2016, the Tories won over many culturally-conservative but economically-left voters. The party is banking on its current turn to the right to prevent those voters either flipping back to Labour or drifting over to the successor to UKIP and the Brexit Party, Reform UK. Because the UK's First Past the Post system has a tendency to punish small parties, such a drift would therefore take votes from the Conservatives that will cost them seats, without providing them with a viable coalition partner in a post-election parliament.

If the strategy does work and Sunak wins that election, the Tories are likely to persist with their ongoing transformation. And if it doesn’t, expect to see Sunak step down. His replacement could be either Braverman or, more likely, another right-wing, anti-woke culture warrior, Kemi Badenoch. At that point, there really will be no going back.

Fifth in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Tim Bale
Tim Bale
Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

Tim is a graduate of Cambridge, Northwestern, and Sheffield, and has taught politics at Sheffield, Victoria University of Wellington and Sussex.

He has worked at Queen Mary University of London since 2012.

Tim focuses on elections and political parties – their memberships, their links with unions and how parties on both the left and right have coped with the challenge posed by mass migration and the populist radical right.

As well as edited works and journal articles he has published books on the Conservative and Labour parties and is the author of European Politics: a Comparative Introduction.

In 2021, he has been lucky enough to co-edit or co-author three books: The Modern British Party System, Riding the Populist Wave and The British General Election of 2019.

His media commentary on politics is collected at proftimbale.com

Follow him on Twitter @ProfTimBale

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2 comments on “🔮 The British Conservative Party’s journey towards the populist radical right”

  1. Fiscal conservatism=the highest debt, public spending and taxes for decades, including a massive expansion of the state with free childcare, a 75% windfall tax, higher taxes on the rich and big corporations, and the state paying for half of energy bills and 80% of wages during the pandemic?

    Going 'the whole hog' on populist immigration policy=a points-based system leading to record levels of legal immigration + giving out visas to the entire populations of Hong Kong and Ukraine?

    There's a reason the phrase 'ivory tower' came into the lexicon.

  2. His replacement could be either Braverman or, more likely, another right-wing, anti-woke culture warrior, Kemi Badenoch. At that point, there really will be no going back.

    Question: 'going back" to what?

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