Stephen Davies, whose work on party realignment I’ve referred to a few times, has a nice piece at the UnPopulist last week on the Conservative Party leadership contest in the United Kingdom. Davies classifies Conservative supporters into three broad philosophical categories, which he calls “Thatcherites”, “Cameronites” and “populists”. He explains it thus:
The first were pro-Brexit Thatcherites who melded opposition to “wokeness,” free-market economics and Thatcher’s latter-career skepticism of the European Union … The second were cosmopolitan in outlook, rejecting things like Brexit or at least the hard form it took, while embracing an economic and social liberalism that reflected less of the party’s free-market Thatcherite views and more of its focus on fiscal prudence under David Cameron. (…) The third were strongly pro-Brexit populist voters who combined nationalism and social conservatism with interventionist economics, such as the “levelling up” industrial policies that [Boris] Johnson espoused during his tenure.
To put it in terms of the traditional two-dimensional spectrum, the Thatcherites believe in social control and economic freedom, the Cameronites believe in both social and economic freedom and the populists believe in both social and economic control. (There’s no group for people in the lower left quadrant, who believe in economic control and social freedom; those who think that way don’t join the Conservatives in the first place.)
Of course it’s not quite as simple as that – it never is. For one thing, economic “freedom” under the Thatcherites has tended to be more about favoring the rich at the expense of the poor than about genuine liberalisation. For another, social conservatism can cover a broad range of views: those who are agitated about immigration are not necessarily the same people as are agitated about which bathrooms people use.
Nonetheless, I think Davies’s analysis captures what’s going on in the Conservative Party pretty well. The Cameronites are in the process of abandoning the party; their natural home is in the Liberal Democrats (as Cameron himself recognised when he took the Lib Dems into coalition). The leadership instead is being fought out between Rishi Sunak, a Thatcherite, and Liz Truss, who appeals to the populists, with the latter appearing to have the advantage.
As Davies explains, in a party trying to keep all three groups within the tent, the Thatcherites are the middle group – they have some common ground with each of the others. But the populists and the Cameronites have nothing in common philosophically; in the long run, it’s reasonable to think that the party will only have room for one of them.
Moreover, because the two sorts of freedom can never quite be insulated from each other, the Thatcherite group is plagued with inconsistency in a way that the other two are not. When it comes to an issue like free trade, for example, the Thatcherite instinct for free markets is in tension with its cultural conservatism. Markets are only a tool; at some point, their proponents need to decide whether they want to use them for liberal purposes or authoritarian ones.
Davies describes Sunak as Cameronite rather than Thatcherite, but I’m not convinced this is right. He supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum and has never disowned that view, even though, for want of anything better, he now has the support of the party’s remaining anti-Brexiters. Signs of social liberalism on his part are fairly thin, although of course his ethnicity is itself enough to unnerve a certain segment of the social conservatives.
Fundamentally, however, that’s a side issue. Regardless of his own social views, Sunak embodies the Thatcherite position that economics is more important: if the membership prefers Truss, as seems likely, it will be a rejection of that position rather than an endorsement of any particular economic stance.
Truss, herself a Thatcherite to the extent that she has any real convictions, understands that the members don’t want to have to worry about economics or about the various contradictions embedded in the party’s economic views. As Robert Shrimsley put last week in a very strong analysis of the contest, she “offers Johnsonism without his personal deficiencies and unleashed from Sunak’s tiresome demands that spending must be funded.”
There’s still a month to go before the ballot closes, but for now it seems that the populist ascendancy that the Brexit referendum unleashed is unlikely to be challenged.