After thirteen years in power, the Conservatives are running out of ideas. The culture war that won a referendum is waning despite countless fresh attempts to reignite it, the latest being the Home Office’s contentious illegal migration bill.
When the Conservative implosion is examined, it would be careless to overlook the effects of Brexit and the associated rhetoric on honesty in politics. The lead up to Brexit saw political accountability destroyed, disinformation weaponised, and an electorate convinced that Britain could leave a powerful economic alliance and its established trade agreements and become immediately richer and stronger for it.
The landscape has changed
Post-pandemic Britain, however, is a markedly changed landscape to the fever-pitched Brexit campaign years. We’re knee deep in a cost-of-living crisis. Is the divisive rhetoric of 2016 that scapegoated immigrants and “lefty lawyers and do-gooders” still a priority to people wondering how to heat their homes or pay their bills? The buffer of the Big State has scarcely been more crucial to us, leaving the party in power at odds with its own values. Brexit fever is in remission. People in full-time work are struggling financially. The NHS is breaking down. Traditional conservatism is an attractive prospect to those who are placed to thrive on it, but in a nation ravaged by the knock-on effects of Covid, a European war and an energy crisis, that is a privilege afforded to increasingly few.
Since the referendum, British politics has been a masterclass in Conservative disinformation, but their authority has been withered by a carousel of prime ministers. Boris Johnson’s combination of personality and populism saw him survive a tsunami of political scandal until even dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives were calling for his resignation. Liz Truss, with her delusions of being a second Thatcher, possessed neither the charisma nor the advisors that carried her predecessor so far. Her cataclysmic failure paved the way for Rishi Sunak, leaving us with a government lagging more than twenty points behind in the polls and with a reputation tarred by Covid cronyism, forcing them to rely even more heavily on division and gimmicks to win over the voter.
Deliberately stoking division
The illegal migration bill is a theatrically cruel policy, destined to crumble under any kind of legal scrutiny. Its purpose is not to be functional or effective, but to give an impression of a government that ‘gets things done’. A legacy of Brexit is the demonisation of due process and international law. As long as the Conservatives present the ‘British people’ as a monolith entirely behind their every strategy, anyone who points out their flaws or inconsistencies can be smeared as part of a mythical fifth column. After opposition MPs voted against the law at its second reading, the job was done. Suella Braverman could now claim that Labour wants “open borders and unlimited migration”, whether true or not. Hint: it’s not, but facts aren’t important when the aim is to misrepresent opposition to a harmfully inadequate bill as opposition to any kind of border control.
Suella Braverman’s trip to the proposed Rwandan deportation camp was a cynical piece of government PR. The home secretary invited only right-wing press to accompany her on the trip, barring journalists from The Guardian, The Mirror, The Independent and even the BBC from attending. Photographs of Braverman beaming in front of the Bwiza Riverside Estate building project in Kigali give the distinct impression that this is accommodation the British government is having built to house deported refugees. The Telegraph’s opening statement in their article on the subject was that “Suella Braverman was so impressed by the decor of the Rwanda homes being built for migrants deported from the UK that she joked she wanted the name of their interior designer”. In fact, this is a real estate building project, already under construction to provide affordable housing to Rwandan citizens, with no official figures released regarding its arrangements with the British government.
Old stunts may no longer work
These PR stunts from a government that is fighting a culture war on optics are not surprising. While this strategy has proved effective in the past, the Conservatives seem to be running out of road. That they sold Brexit to the populace as “the easiest deal in history”, but it went on (and on, and on) to become a series of protracted disputes and negotiations with no measurable benefits years down the line, has made even some of the most hard-line Brexit backers doubt the veracity of the government’s word.
Brexit was sold to us as a means of taking back control. Three years out of the European Union in a cultural climate that is still demonising immigrants, neglecting its citizens and destroying its health service has proved that was a lie. Even Conservative MPs have admitted that immigration has increased since Brexit. The referendum campaign blamed the European Union for the pressure on Britain’s immigration process. Now that the EU scapegoat has been worn to a husk, it is entirely the fault of the people smugglers sending small boats across the channel and the refugees themselves. Of course, providing adequate processing in both France and Britain would move to make people smugglers, to a significant degree, redundant.
Outlandish claims to fuel discord
The point isn’t, however, to solve the problem. The point is to keep public focus on the ‘other’, by any means. Take, for example, the following claims made by Suella Braverman in parliament:
“There are 100 million people around the world who could qualify for protection under our current laws. Let us be clear – they are coming here.”
“There are 100 million people displaced around the world, and likely billions more eager to come here if possible.”
The UN high commissioner for refugees estimated there are, in fact, 100 million people globally who are displaced, and that approximately 86% will remain in their own country or a neighbouring country. A small proportion of displaced refugees will make their way to other countries, including Britain, for a variety of reasons. Many refugees who make their way to Europe stop in the first country in which they feel safe. They may have relatives or friends here, they may have served with our military, or they may speak our language. As a wealthy western nation and signatory to the UN refugee convention, we have a responsibility to take in a fair share of displaced people, whether they have passed through Italy or France, or not.
The purpose of Braverman’s claim wasn’t to give the public accurate information, but to plant the preposterous figure of “100 million, and likely billions more” in the public consciousness in the hope that it yields a decent crop of xenophobic fear and British exceptionalism. The same is true of her dehumanising language in relation to refugees. It is a very deliberate choice to use words like ‘swarm’ and ‘invasion’ or even just referring to ‘the boats’ when talking about displaced human beings. If the public is distracted by this hyperbolic ‘swarm’, we’re less likely to focus on the incompetence in government that has resulted in such dire economic chaos and wealth disparity.
Signs that the old strategies may no longer work
At the height of Conservative popularity and following the collapse of the ‘red wall’, it appeared that traditional class divides had been obliterated by a blazing war for cultural dominance. By continually sowing division, those in power have chipped away fastidiously at our civil liberties, social care systems and nationalised healthcare. Their cosy relationship with the largely right-wing press ensures an institutional bias that pushes forward cultural debate and minimises real social issues. But this can only carry a government so far when an alarming number of its citizens are falling into poverty. When bluster and fear-mongering are stripped away from post-Brexit conservatism, the inequality that drives it becomes horribly exposed, and the polls would suggest those borrowed votes are creeping back leftwards.
When a party governs by stoking fear and division but repeatedly fails to deliver on its promises, its potency is inevitably diluted. The abject failure of Brexit has illuminated this government’s pattern of using fallacious claims, unattainable promises and partisan scapegoats to push through harmful and ill thought-out legislation. The revolving door of prime ministers only serves to further weaken its grip on power. Senior Conservative business leader Iain Anderson quit the party after learning from insiders that Rishi Sunak planned to “ramp up the culture wars” in the run up to the next election. Days later, the party deputy chairman Lee Anderson MP admitted that the next election will be “a mixture of culture war and trans debate”.
The polls are clear. People are growing tired of this government’s economic failure and social neglect. Even some of those that supported Brexit are becoming disillusioned by its poor return. The general election is just over a year away, but it’s hard to imagine that flogging a dwindling culture war will win the Conservatives back much of their diminished support.