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The Conservative Party’s embrace of Trumpist politics at their party conference in Manchester this week has been frightening to watch. The same party that within recent memory made a virtue of embracing modern diverse Britain, while championing the right to gay marriage, has instead pursued a divisive and conspiratorial form of politics that deliberately mimics the worst aspects of the US radical right.
On the frontline of this approach has been the Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who this week warned that a “hurricane” of illegal migration poses an “existential challenge” to our civilisation. Insisting that her party has previously been “far too squeamish about being smeared as racist”, Braverman said it should now simply “tell the blunt, unvarnished truth about what is happening in our country”.
One target of this “blunt” approach has been trans people, whose status was alluded to by no fewer than six Cabinet ministers in their speeches, with the Home Secretary herself promising to expunge what she described as the “poison” of “gender ideology” from the country.
Throughout her address Braverman railed against political correctness and people being “disciplined for using the wrong words”. Yet when the Conservative Chair of the London Assembly, Andrew Boff, used his own words to speak up against what he described as the Home Secretary’s “homophobic rant”, he was quickly manhandled out of the hall by the party’s security guards. Braverman later dismissed Boff’s complaints as “silly”.
A similarly Trumpist approach was evident throughout the conference. At one event the Conservative MP Danny Kruger warned of attempts to create a “world government” while elsewhere ministers repeatedly referred to the far right conspiracy theory of ’15 minute cities’, despite their own officials having previously debunked it.
When it was pointed out by the BBC that there is zero evidence of the conspiracy taking place anywhere in the country, the Conservative minister Andrew Bowie replied that his Government was merely trying to address the “concerns” of people on “forums online”.
Yet rather than seeking to address those false concerns and unite the country, the Conservative party’s approach has been to deliberately divide it instead. As their Deputy Chair Lee Anderson put it at an ‘in conversation’ event on Tuesday, “I’m just getting [things] off my chest for you people in the room. I’m just saying what you’re thinking but daren’t say, and if I can’t say it then you don’t have a voice, so I’ll carry on being divisive.”
Such divisive politics can be dangerous, however. Throughout Anderson’s session, he repeatedly made jibes at journalists in the room. When one reporter from the I newspaper was picked to ask a question, Anderson groaned and complained about them being allowed into the room. Then when another journalist – Adam Payne of the Politics Home website – asked about Conservative MPs privately expressing unease with Suella Braverman’s divisive rhetoric, Anderson accused him of “making it up” and demanded Payne expose his sources.
When he refused, Anderson continued to berate Payne, with the audience quickly joining in with shouts of “name them”. Afterwards one member of the Trumpist mob stood up to further berate Payne to his face, while Anderson looked on. When Byline Times stepped in to tell the man to stop attacking journalists for simply doing their job, he replied “why shouldn’t I?”
A similarly reckless air hung over the whole conference, with all of the professionalism and careful stage management of the Cameron years long forgotten. Instead ministers and MPs openly criticised their own Government’s record, while embracing figures who had previously been considered well beyond the party’s fringes. At one event the party’s former leader Liz Truss engineered an ovation for the scandal-ridden GB News channel, while its host Nigel Farage looked on. Later on, footage of the former Brexit Party leader singing and dancing with Priti Patel went viral around the conference.
Trumpism Without Trump
It remains to be seen what impact this embrace of chaotic Trumpism will have on the Conservative party’s election hopes. The reaction to the likes of Truss, Braverman and Anderson, from activists inside the conference shows that, at least here, there is a huge demand for it.
Yet views outside the cosy bubble of the secure zone are quite different, with polls showing that dissatisfaction with public services and the Government’s mismanagement of the country is now overwhelming. Asked by one pollster this week what one word they now associate with the party, most voters picked “useless”.
The other big risk for the Conservative party in embracing this twisted form of Trumpism is that they are doing so without the benefit of a charismatic outspoken frontman like Trump. Far from being the “straight-talking” figure that this form of politics demands, Rishi Sunak instead spent his week engaging in incredibly awkward interviews in which he refused to tell the truth about what his plans are on HS2, as well as much else.
Sunak’s visible unease with the political strategy he has chosen may not matter all that much. With polls showing the party remains well on course for heavy defeat, the focus here in Manchester has instead been on those who are likely to replace him. At various fringe events the likely candidates have set out their stalls to an activist base that appears more than primed for a decisive lurch to the radical right.
As things stand that lurch to the right is unlikely to significantly alter the outcome of the next election. but it does set us up for a far uglier and more dangerous form of politics than the UK has ever been used to before.