Protestants are fond of quoting John Calvin’s claim that if you take all the relics of the True Cross and put them all together, they would fill a large ship. This is not, and never has been, actually true. But Calvin’s idea was that the concept of relics, the life-giving body parts or possessions of saints, is flawed, and thus needs to be supported by lies to have any hold over the faithful.
If you put the British Conservative Party MPs, and those who still cling to their Brexit dream, all together you really could fill a large ship, and more than one. But the more time goes on, the more obvious it becomes that the ideas behind them are flawed, and can only be supported by lies.
That’s why we had Boris Johnson. A consummate liar who tries to pretend that doesn’t matter was the only person who could sell the con, and get away with it by making fantasy more important.
Boris was finally booted out for upsetting even his own supporters by doing this too often, with nothing to show for it. His party members then replaced him with Liz Truss, the unprincipled loudmouth who crashed the pound and was then forced out after the shortest premiership ever, with her own MPs declaring her not up to the job.
Now Rishi Sunak, the man those MPs actually voted for in the election which Truss won, has been appointed to take her place without involving the membership; all this is legal and above board in the UK, and Sunak does not have to call an election until December 2024, so he is hoping to spend the next two years reversing the damage his predecessors have done.
But how is the man who is presenting himself as the decent, moderate, reasonable Conservative in contrast to his predecessors in the same party, going to achieve this? By going back, he says, to the values set out in the 2019 Conservative Party election manifesto.
The 1983 Labour manifesto, full of commitments regarded as “loony left” by the general public, has been known ever since as “the longest suicide note in history”. Unlike that one, the 2019 Conservative one worked, and delivered the party an 80 seat majority, but on the central promise of “getting Brexit done” – the very thing which has made all the law-breaking, corruption and economic lunacy seem not merely a collection of isolated aberrations but the eggs which Brexit laid: if they can get away with Brexit, they think they can get away with anything.
The Good Old Days
The legendary psephologist F.W.S. Craig produced a series of highly detailed volumes of parliamentary electoral results in which all the results were ultimately analysed in terms of swings to the Conservatives. This is because turning to the Conservatives is what the British electorate usually do, over time, because they have successfully branded themselves as the party of common sense and reason, with the others as ideological, and beholden to unsavoury elements.
Rishi Sunak will never be able to turn his party back into a force of reason and common sense as long as he sticks to the 2019 manifesto. Of all the Conservative manifestos ever produced, this was the prime example of blind ideology and rabble rousing pie in the sky, as it was designed to be.
This same Sunak also told his MPs, on being elected, that the party was facing a threat to its very existence. It is the ideological insistence on Brexit and associated viciousness which has created this threat.
Sunak will not only be unable to stem the tide, he will only make matters worse for him, his friends and his country by trying to make out that the 2019 manifesto represents reasonable conservatism. Or that the voters can be made to want that, now they have seen what “Get Brexit Done” actually means.
The Emperor’s New Broom
Much has been made of Rishi Sunak being a Hindu and an immigrant – particularly as many people voted for Brexit so they could get rid of foreigners and immigrants. He is also known to be a multimillionaire who married a billionaire, and is thus seen as a sort of honorary white, a coloured man who is now better than what he is because he has a lot of money.
It is all very reminiscent of Martin Bendelow, another young thruster who made a lot of money in order to advance through the ranks of the Conservative Party, believing this to be the best way of doing that. Bendelow impressed so much that he was selected as a parliamentary candidate in 1979, in a safe Labour seat, and was on his way to standing for a safe Conservative seat, and thus entering parliament, at the next election.
The fact that Bendelow had made most of his money by dealing cocaine didn’t seem to bother anyone enough to ask questions. His greed and ambition simply confirmed the existing prejudices of the party grandees, who decided that walking the walk and talking the talk, and having the bank balance to be called a success, covered every sin in the book.
If Sunak doesn’t look like a Tory but sounds like one, this makes Tory ways superior and appropriate for all. To that extent he is exactly what is needed, as the party which delivered Brexit, and kicked out many of the genuinely traditional members for not being prepared to sign a pledge of allegiance to that policy and Johnson, is trying to save itself by saying that whatever they’ve done, everyone still wants to be like them, so they must be alright.
But Sunak has no choice but to continue down the same disgusting road as his disgraced immediate predecessors, who he did of course serve as a minister, backbencher or party member. His pitch to both MPs and party members is that the party is basically right, the 2019 manifesto is basically right, but flawed individuals have made mistakes. But he cannot avoid making those same mistakes for as long as he stands by the manifesto which created them by being a license to criminality.
Cast Iron Alibi
Sunak told the world when he was elected that he wanted to restore integrity to his office. He then compromised this position the same day by reappointing Suella Braverman as Home Secretary.
Braverman had been forced to resign a few days before for breaching the Ministerial Code, specifically for sending a sensitive official document from her personal email. She claimed when resigning that this had been an accident, but it later emerged that she had committed the same breach on several other occasions, had been told she was doing it, and had been deemed a security risk by the same security service she was supposed to be in charge of as Home Secretary.
Why did the stupid man do such a thing, and even raise a rebellion in his own ranks on the very day he was anointed as their leader? There have been rumours of some dirty backroom deal, as if the only way Sunak would have a clear run to become Prime Minister was by promising to give his fellow dubious Asian her job back.
The truth is more likely to be that Braverman has got to where she is by being a pit bull version of Sunak himself – another foreign-origin bigot who will say and do the most outrageous things to pander to the most reactionary elements. The same forces who, by all analyses undertaken, gave the Conservatives their victory in 2019 by regarding the party of the established order as a bunch of iconoclasts set to destroy that order because it had failed them, most spectacularly during periods of Conservative government.
When Braverman resigned she portrayed herself as a victim of an “anti-growth” culture, represented by opposition parties, who were determined to destroy her because she was standing up for the people. Since being reappointed she has made similar statements in parliament when asked why she is allowed to be the Home Secretary after what she has done.
What we are supposed to hear is that the people supported the 2019 manifesto, and therefore it has to be pursued at all costs, regardless of laws or consequences. When it continues to go pear shaped, Sunak will do exactly what his predecessors have prepared the ground for – say that sticking to the plan makes the party decent, but the negative consequences are all the fault of the electorate.
This is why Conservatives have babbled endlessly about Brexit being “The Will of the People” since the 2016 referendum. It’s all the fault of the voters, not the good, decent Conservative Party which just did as the electors told it.
No one was asked in the referendum about whether they wanted the serial law breaking, corrupt contracts, demonising of unbelievers and significant economic damage which came with Brexit. But these are all being presented as consequences of the people being stupid. The Conservatives must really be better than that, because they were once, but have become the unwilling victims of an electorate so venal that they empowered the poor politicians to commit all these crimes on their behalf.
Sunak’s version of restoring integrity to the premiership is to do all the things his predecessors did, but say that if there’s something wrong with it that must be someone else’s fault. So he and his friends can walk away saying politics is a dirty business, and leave others to clean it up without them having to apologise or betray their donors, whose agendas have been well documented.
Johnson and Truss became seen as corrupt because they were being the bastards the people voted for. Sunak was part of all that, but now everyone else is the bastard. When those bastards then vote them out, whoever comes next will be the new bastards, whilst the Conservatives will seek to rebuild by appealing to the decent folk who have abandoned them because of their behaviour.
Whether those people will return to the fold remains to be seen. But Sunak does know this won’t happen until this misadventure has run its course, and has decided martyrdom is his only way out.
Adding Up To Zero
Standing or falling by the 2019 manifesto does give Sunak one advantage. He can say that whatever he does is not a reflection of some abstract notion of the public good, but something specific, which anyone can still read about, check and decide whether it is being done or not.
It also means he can again blame the voters. Anything which can be related to a manifesto commitment, however tenuously, can be said to be what the public chose to do to themselves, because there are no other parameters. If people disagree, only the party which wrote the manifesto can be the authority on what it meant, even though that manifesto is being given primacy because the voters supposedly knew what it meant, and thus supported it.
The primary 2019 manifesto commitment was to get Brexit done. The United Kingdom has now left the European Union, and is dealing with the consequences.
People supported Brexit because they thought they would be better off in certain ways relevant to them. So is Brexit already done, and the government can wash its hands of those consequences? Or will it only be done when people feel better off as a result, if they ever do?
In that same 2019 manifesto the reason given for “getting Brexit done” was to move on to other things instead of Brexit dominating all policy and discourse. So Sunak’s party has no intention of getting Brexit done, it just wants it to go away. In other words, Sunak’s idea of integrity is to ignore the consequences of Brexit, and then blame the voters when they refuse to move on from the situation, he claims they created.
Those same voters were told that the money the UK gave the EU each week could instead be given to the National Health Service. Having been called out on both the figures and subsequent attempts to say this was not a binding promise; the 2019 manifesto promised the watered down 50,000 more nurses and 50 million more GP (local doctor) appointments per year.
The government does maintain that it is on track to provide these new nurses by 2024. And if you only look at those joining throughout the profession that is, and ignore those who are leaving: The NHS is operating at 11% below the required staffing levels, despite the promised Brexit dividend. GP appointments have increased, but the number of GPs has fallen, making the integrity of the whole manifesto, “work more for less pay and less support in order to make the government look good”.
There are such examples throughout the manifesto. In each case, the message is that the party has high ideals and values, but if they don’t bring any benefit, it is the fault of you, the voters, for either voting for them or not doing enough to make them work. The public won’t stand for being treated like that, but when the backlash comes, what will the Conservatives have left? Only this supposed integrity, all other things having been rejected by the electorate.
Sunak’s suicide note has been there since 2019, all he has to do is show it was hiding in plain sight. That will be the whole purpose of his government. He will go down with the ship, but with his wealth intact, and when the next lot mess up, he is hoping that the blood of their martyrdom will obscure that of the millions they themselves martyred to get to this point, because is that what has always happened to his party, when people who really were sensible and decent were running it.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.