The Conservative Party faces something graver than a generational defeat at the next general election. Brexit, the flagship policy that this entire Tory era will be remembered for, has, according to Nigel Farage, “failed”. Traditional stanchions of Tory Britain – the monarchy, the established Church and the armed forces – are in various states of disrepair. Access to home ownership, the great promise of Toryism since the 1980s, is now a chimera for many. Millennials are not becoming more conservative as they age, like their parents did. And the generation coming up beneath them are probably more likely to identify as demisexuals than Tories.
Looking back ten years illustrates the decline. A decade ago, the leading influence on Tory thinking was the Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein; today it is Farage and his fellow travellers. The primary concerns of Tory intellectuals in 2013 were education and welfare reform and embracing social liberalism; in 2023 they are the elite, immigration and gender ideology. In the party’s history its enemies have included French Jacobins, Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union. But today it is reduced to sustained (and ineffectual) battles with small-boat asylum seekers. In 2013 you might have watched Fraser Nelson of the Spectator explain what some coalition bust-up meant on The Andrew Marr Show; in 2023, you can watch GB News, where its in-house pundit deacon Calvin Robinson recently questioned whether it was “appropriate for a heathen Prime Minister to be reading a gospel reading” during the King’s coronation.
After 13 contorted years, British conservatives, whether they are members of parliament, members of the party, or its outriders in the media, no longer know what conservatism is. Everything has been tried – David Cameron’s bougie nudge-theory paternalism; Theresa May’s Home Counties authoritarianism; Boris Johnson’s One Nation Global Britain boosterism; Liz Truss’s kamikaze Thatcherism – and everything has failed.
Key conservative thinkers and gurus are exiled to Fox News in America (Steve Hilton) or blogging about Singapore (Dominic Cummings) or hived away in think tanks (Nick Timothy). The ideological barrel has been scraped clean. The Tories are left with Rishi Sunak, a brow-furrowed administrator genially managing national decline, in office but barely in power.
What comes after Sunak? At least a year away from the next general election, the question risks absurdity, but that has not stopped Tories from asking it. They ask it privately in their clubs, their think tanks and their WhatsApp groups. They sometimes ask the question in public too.
By odd coincidence, over the course of five days in May, two offbeat, unofficial and very conservative political conferences were held: two portals into potential Tory futures. In Bournemouth, there was the inaugural gathering of the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), and in Westminster, the National Conservatism Conference. Senior politicians attended both, trailed by lobby journalists and camera crews. Conservative Party members, Tory intellectuals and ubiquitous droning protesters followed after them. Attending these conferences, I could not tell whether I was witnessing the final crack-up of British conservatism or the birth of a new, harder-edged ideological programme that will dominate the party for years to come.
Traditionally, Bournemouth is a place where the English go to die. As I walked around in the sunshine, it was as if every pensioner in the country had descended on the town, for collection in bungalows by the seaside. “Is this milk?” a frail old lady said to me in a corner shop. She was clasping a carton of orange juice. Her confusion was an ominous sign.
The Conservative Democratic Organisation was founded last December by Lord Peter Cruddas, a leading Boris Johnson supporter and a Rich-Lister worth hundreds of millions of pounds. The CDO denied that it had anything to do with Johnson, and Johnson denied that he had anything to do with the group. It was odd, though, that the CDO had chosen the first weekend after the local elections in England – which saw the Conservatives bereaved of more than 1,000 councillors – for its first conference.
Some Tories began to speculate about the conference. Say Rishi Sunak turned out to be bad at holding the parliamentary party together. Say that the Privileges Committee investigation into partygate only lightly chided, or perhaps even whitewashed Boris Johnson. Say that the local elections indicated a huge Labour landslide in the next general election – well, what then? Wouldn’t the MPs’ decision last summer to force Johnson out of Downing Street against the wishes of the membership (and many donors) look less like a mistake and more an epochal outrage? Wouldn’t polling soon begin to show that only Johnson could woo the Red Wall voters again, and that he had been cruelly undone by supine politicians who did not understand the glories of the vaccine roll-out, nor the leonine courage of Johnson’s opposition to Vladimir Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine?
Under those conditions, the weekend of the Conservative Democratic Organisation conference – which its founders insisted was about giving Tory members more of a say in the running of the party and absolutely, definitely not about reinstalling Boris Johnson as prime minister – would become something else. The summer of 2023 would then be indistinguishable from the summer of 2019. The CDO conference would be the moment desperate Tories realised that only one human antidote could cure the party and rescue the country: Boris Johnson. The revival would sweep all before it. Order, sanity and decency would be restored. Chequers would be made safe for Carrie once more.
[See also: Suella Braverman wants to fall on her sword]
None of it happened. While attendees, or “like-minded patriots” as the publicity emails called them, dripped into the Bournemouth International Centre, the one undeniable fact was that the Johnson restoration was dead on arrival. The MPs had not been lunatic enough to fully turn on Sunak. The disaster at the local elections had been priced in to their thinking months ago. And there was no appetite anywhere in the country – apart from this one, humid, echoing hall – to bring Johnson back.
So Lord Cruddas, enthroned on a stage alongside seven Union flags, scowlingly presided over a birthday party where the birthday boy was never going to show up. There was nothing left to do but bitch about the Conservative Party, and bless a version of Johnsonism that existed in their minds, if not in reality. Cruddas, a bald, brutal-looking man who has a faintly demonic aspect, sat for hours as the speakers, who ranged from former cabinet ministers (Priti Patel) to obscure right-wing internet micro-celebrities (Sophie Corcoran) railed against other Tory MPs, “communist” train strikes, asylum seekers housed in hotels, low corporation taxes, and all those involved in “coups” against Johnson and Truss.
The bitterness towards the Conservative Party was profound. Anguished speeches lambasted the distant party bureaucracy and its efforts to control the members. There was, said one speaker, an “enemy within” Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). The glamorous few at the centre of the party did not “believe in conservative values”; CCHQ had to be “taken back” by the members. You could see the accretion of decades of conspiratorial thinking, folk libertarianism, and Daily Mail editorials.
For the CDO delegates, the Tory party had become what the EU once was, what the Labour Party and the truculent civil service and the lefty lawyers and the Remainiac judiciary are: a monster to be staked with heroic whines. When CCHQ’s wobbly piñata on the scene, Paul Holmes, the MP for Eastleigh, arrived to take his beating – followed by a weak promise to take the CDO’s literature back to his colleagues on Matthew Parker Street – he left the stage to a lone, strangled scream: “Sunak out!”
That was the height of the drama. Other speeches had a reheated quality, or, as when Annunziata Rees-Mogg called Theresa May a “Conservative in name only”, were odd asperities dealt out for Brexit-era slights. Not even Andrea Jenkyns MP, and her bracing announcement that “infant children are taught words like masturbation”, could wake the man seated next to me. He rested his large pink face on his fist, attached to an arm which rested on his expansive stomach. He breathed heavily through his nose. A deep, patriotic sleep.
That night the like-minded patriots gathered for a black-tie gala dinner and auction on the seafront. “I’m a Thatcherite,” one small, spruce cat-like man purred at the bar. “You don’t remember what it was like.” He was right: I was not alive in 1984 when the Brighton bombing happened. “She was on stage eight hours later.” He shook his head admiringly. Strength. Hairspray. Pearls. Conferences on the beach at Brighton; the dramatically realised threats of the IRA; the actual presence of Mrs Thatcher. A mist moved into the man’s eyes. “That was the real Conservative Party… This is the real Conservative Party.”
Earlier, Lord Jackson of Peterborough had used his speech to commune with the same ghosts. What a magnificent time the Eighties and Nineties were to be a young pinstriped lad! What an “exhilarating moment” to see Norman Tebbit blistering about something or other at a party conference, back when party conferences were proper party conferences. Whenever anyone was engulfed by the nostalgic reveries washing over the conference, it reminded me of Edmund Wilson’s criticism of Brideshead Revisited: “The last scenes are extravagantly absurd, with an absurdity that would be worthy of Waugh at his best if it were not – painful to say – meant quite seriously.”
Dinner, too, was absurd, painful, and meant quite seriously. The two party members I sat between were angry. Jenkyns singing three verses of the national anthem as the starters were brought out did little to cheer them up. But were they not right to be angry? Every time they were asked to choose a leader, the MPs kicked that leader out. “We didn’t want Rishi,” said the old woman next to me, “he’d taken our man away.” Our man. That was Johnson. He was her hero, and nothing could change her mind about him. There were real reasons why Johnson was removed, reasons that “bubble” people like me refused to understand. “They were all out to get him.”
The plot against Johnson was vast: she had heard he was planning to sack 90,000 civil servants, so the blob had defenestrated him. Her partner told me that I was a lefty so I couldn’t possibly understand the stakes. It did not matter if Sunak turned up to work, was well briefed, organised, attentive, sagacious, socially conservative, a dedicated Brexiteer or devout in his religion and uxorious towards his wife, they said, because, unlike our man, “Rishi has never won.”
Winning again seemed a distant prospect. The delegates had attended the conference to vent their grievances in the style of a struggle session, because they had no real power within the party and likely never would. I ambled over to Priti Patel, as a jazz band on stage played “Simply the Best”, and asked her whether she thought this was all a bit… silly? Patel frowned at me, then strode off to take selfies with the members, to bask in their thwarted love, which found an object in her.
The ever more blatant vacuum beneath Sunak, where ideas and energy and activism ought to have been, would not be filled by Lord Cruddas and his fortune. When the auction began, and the CDO chair and former Ukip MEP David Campbell Bannerman began to sell off a round of golf with Lord Cruddas (my cheapskate bid was a failure), and everybody at the tables kept talking over him, I realised that this was a wake for an entire Tory generation.
The Thatcherites were fading out here in Bournemouth. Those succeeding them, the young Tories who cared enough about conservatism to spend a Saturday in May at a political conference, were not here. They would not take up the banners of the Eighties, the nostrums of Nigel Lawson, nor have the opportunity to bid on “an exclusive lot for every true Thatcherite”: a set of six boxed silver-plate teaspoons engraved with holy images of Mrs T. Young conservatives, and the future, were elsewhere.
Outside, in the hot dark seaside night, the Bournemouth Big Wheel slowly rotated. People jumped on the wheel. People went up and took in the dreamy view, but only briefly. People came down and were dumped back on the street’s hard reality. Here was an ancient Tory principle in action: life is not fair.
“Are they going to lock us in here,” said David Aaronovitch, “and chuck a grenade in?” It was the dawn of the National Conservatism Conference, and we were deep down below the main hall of the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, in the lower-intestinal spaces where the press were invited to scratch their heads and feel worried. We are (probably) several awful years and decades away from grenades, jackboots and militias, but Aaronovitch’s anxiety quip was illustrative.
Inside the hall above us, the NatCons had truly arrived on the British scene. When they held their last conference in London, in May 2019, it was a one-day affair, with 12 speakers and little media coverage. Nine months later, after the Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski had attended another NatCon gathering in Rome, he was made to apologise by CCHQ for showing his face at an event with Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán. And now?
Not only were Conservative MPs attending the (three-day) conference this time, but the Tories’ indestructible philosopher king Michael Gove would be speaking in the prime keynote slot on Tuesday afternoon. Suella Braverman’s bid-for-the-leadership speech on the Monday had already been briefed out to the lobby and screamed across several newspaper front pages.
Cabinet ministers were the light, press moths flapped awkwardly towards them. There were TV crews around. TV crews from Germany. Westminster’s sketch writers and political editors stared blankly at the NatCon crowd of young Tory influencers, cancelled podcasters, Scrutonians, free-speechers, TradCaths, Evos, Neoplatonist thinkers, UnHerd columnists, reformed Ukippers, and Israeli and Norwegian and Romanian and Maltese and Canadian and American nationalists, who buoyantly filled the Emmanuel Centre on the first day, on 15 May. Michael Crick and Robert Peston turned up too, perhaps after a frantic morning google: “What is National Conservatism?”
It began with Donald Trump and ended with the ideological transformation of the Republican Party in the US. When Trump announced his run for the presidency in June 2015, he sent several breeze blocks flying through the Overton window of American conservatism. The settled alliances and policy programmes of the establishment GOP were smashed to pieces. Trump was a pure, pulsating IED, a political stand-up, a man who had never even thought about thinking. Yet as he scythed through the Republican field that year, and then did the same to Hillary Clinton, it became clear to parts of the American right that someone would have to stitch, sew and spin all the discordant emotions, gagging postures and strident attitudes of Trump the man, and create Trumpism the ideology.
To survive, the movement would need more than Trump’s Twitter account. It needed institutions, intellectuals and cadres. The new nationalism needed to go global. America First, yes, but then: a brotherhood of nations, a blissful springtime of populist peoples needed to be mobilised: from Brexit Britain to Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Step forward Nigel, Bibi, Orbán. Now was the moment.
The first person to articulate that vision was Steve Bannon, the instigator of National Conservatism. Bannon was Trump’s former chief strategist, and, after he left the White House in August 2017, he was the first to try to forge an economically nationalist, globally populist movement from the heat of Trump’s election victory.
Bannon set himself up as the ne plus ultra of populist ideologues. He was a counter-revolutionary St Paul, the digital Thomas Paine of the 2010s. He criss-crossed the world via private jet, trailed by documentary crews and shielded by bodyguards, and launched a maverick, one-man holy war to slay the globalist kraken. “It’s not over,” Bannon said in Zurich in 2018, of the populist surge. “It’s just beginning. The tide of history is on our side.”
Bannon lost. Continental populists rejected his overtures. Even Ukip, led then by the far-right politician Gerard Batten, refused to join Bannon’s crusade. His plans for a populist “gladiator school” in the hills above Rome came to nothing. His king’s gambits generally terminated in failure or ambivalent misfire, denouements that ruined his reputation for strategic acumen. Similar to his former boss, he was soon stuck in grinding rounds of lawfare in the US court system. The pillars of Davos quivered but did not fall. Goldman Sachs was still trading. China remained the workshop of the world.
The ideas, however, endured: “Globalism” was a journey to nowhere; the nation state must be sovereign; liberal individualism was diseased. These points were lovingly adopted, with more care and precision, by people with far less baggage than Bannon, who shared his passionate illiberalism but not his self-defeating spleneticism. The 58-year-old Yoram Hazony, an Israeli academic, continued to tend the hothouse flowers of National Conservatism in the US. He published windy paeans to nationalist virtue. He founded a think tank, the Edmund Burke Foundation, in 2019 and, with great near-Hayekian assiduity, he organised. Hazony triumphed where Bannon failed.
By the third National Conservatism Conference in Miami last year, the roster included Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida and potential presidential candidate favoured (in private if not in public) by the GOP’s elites; the Republican senator Marco Rubio; the former head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rick Scott; Josh Hawley, the influential Missouri senator; and several Republican candidates for Congress.
National Conservatism, defined by a deep revolutionary distrust of existing institutions, hostility towards the media, a communitarian ethos, an embrace of patriarchal morality and pessimism about America’s future, is reshaping the GOP from within. Hazony has successfully created a counter-elite in the Republican Party. The question that was brooded over in the Emmanuel Centre was whether the same might happen to the Conservatives in Britain.
The Emmanuel Centre was built by Herbert Baker in 1928, and has been owned by the evangelical Emmanuel Church since the 1990s. The main hall is sepulchral, filled with organs, and adorned with biblical passages: “I have come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The wooden, Bible-paper smell you only get in churches hung in the warm air. The NatCon line is Christian, in an explicit way that British politics usually shies away from.
Not that there would be anything over the three days as coherent as a single line, unless endless threadbare invocations of Benjamin Disraeli’s “One Nation Toryism” and Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” counted. The British NatCons are not so advanced as their American counterparts, who have solidified into a genuine force in Republican politics. British National Conservatism remains embryonic. As such, there were really two conferences going in the Emmanuel Centre.
The first belonged to the world of Westminster rigmarole, and starred the higher echelons of the Conservative Party. This conference was where Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman, Michael Gove and David Frost were speaking, and where the grander journalists were listening. Their speeches, with the exception of Gove, were not about National Conservatism. They were doing spadework for the trenches of a post-Sunak war zone. The most explicit leadership bid was Braverman’s, the most popular speech in the hall was Frost’s, and the most incoherent was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s – who pointlessly used the opportunity of his keynote to describe St Thomas Aquinas as the “first Brexiteer”.
It was this conference that made the news weather: the speeches interrupted by protesters, the spectacle of cabinet ministers, a mere ten minutes’ walk from Downing Street, shamelessly lining up to criticise their own government, or, in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s case, admitting that the government’s recent changes to voter ID laws were an attempt to “gerrymander” the electoral system which “came back to bite” the Tories. Did they realise how damaging this was for Sunak’s authority? Did they realise they were in public?
The question was asked most of all about Gove. His very presence was mysterious, and widely commented on in the rooms around the hall. His apparently last-minute decision not to make a keynote address, but instead be interviewed on stage by the Telegraph’s parliamentary sketch writer, Madeline Grant, only invigorated the mystery further. Gove was – by some distance – the highest-profile politician at NatCon, the biggest fish the organisers had managed to dredge up from the sumps of British conservatism.
The list of who was not speaking at the conference was at least as long as who was. No Nick Timothy, no Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the last Conservative manifesto, no Munira Mirza, Boris Johnson’s former head of policy. No Kemi Badenoch or Neil O’Brien. No Liz Truss or Richard Tice or Farage. No Dominic Cummings or Fraser Nelson or Peter Hitchens. Nor were we graced with the presence of Jordan Peterson, and Peter Thiel failed to beam over from his Silicon Valley lair, though he had been invited, as had Ron DeSantis and Giorgia Meloni.
I heard that the post-liberal philosopher Patrick Deneen, who has been at least as influential on National Conservative thinking as Hazony, was not in London because he was too worried about the forbidding direction of NatCon thought to risk attending. (Earlier in the year, Deneen had tweeted: “The justified opposition to wokeism increasingly dominating the mainstream right is in danger of descending into very dark places.”) When I spoke to another well-known communitarian thinker, who said they were invited numerous times to speak at the conference, and asked why they had not acquiesced, they said: “We are not ethno-nationalists in this country.”
Gove is no fool, and would have known that attending a conference where, for instance, David Starkey would decide to make pugnaciously outré remarks about the Holocaust and slavery, might have resulted in unpleasant press coverage. Yet there Gove was, on the second afternoon, sunk into a chair in front of a packed audience. He opened his mouth and burped out a series of – in this socially, radically and pessimistically conservative room – lead balloons. He announced that he was a “liberal” on social questions. Reaching his stride, Gove told the hundreds massed in the audience he was “naturally inclined to look forward with optimism” and that Sunak gave him “hope”.
Confusion filled the room, a bewilderment so physical you could throw a dart at it. What, Grant asked, should Tories do if they lose the next election? Gove smiled murderously. He said it was “vitally important” that Tories “read widely”. Go away: read Jane Austen and George Eliot. “Conservatives,” he warned at last “should never retreat into nostalgia.”
Gove, it seemed, was thinking much further ahead than the other politicians at NatCon. He was addressing – and perhaps attempting to collapse – the second conference that was taking place in the Emmanuel Centre.
This was the conference of brimstone religiosity, and speakers who thought the choice that faced British conservatives was between nihilism or God. They were the speakers the public had never heard of, but who right-wingers had been reading and watching for years. They thought the left so culturally dominant and liberalism so menacing that conservatism had to become a counter-revolutionary movement to put an end to both.
“There are those who think the power of the state should never be used against the opponents of the right,” Douglas Murray said, identifying a fault line in conservative thought during his Monday evening keynote. “And there are some of us who think that if somebody picks up a tool and uses it with abandon, they might need it to be used against them as well some day.” Whether these new conservatives would end up mirroring what they think the left has become – intolerant of all thought outside a small set of beliefs – was an uncertainty that itched just beneath the surface of the second conference.
These NatCons dwelled in a catastrophic Houellebecqian universe of malaise and doom. Speaker after speaker described “dead” liberalism, or “dead form” liberalism; the “perpetual power machine” and “cultural Marxism” and “soft tyranny” and “narcissistic elite” and “radical woke progressivism” of the left. They noted the collapse in global birth rates as a tragic loss of faith in the future, they urged the hall to reinvent a fertile culture, and the young men in the pews shivered and shuddered.
These speakers bemoaned the loss of faith, of unity, of values, of babies. They resented the false promises of liberalism. “We were promised things would get better,” said Matthew Goodwin, who was admired all across the right for abandoning his left liberal world-view for this strain of national populism. But things had not gotten better. The NatCons did not seek to explain the present. They vilified it. All they wanted was for people to be together again, for a new faith, new fixed standards, and freedom from all the rocketing doubt that comes with unlimited choice. That was the core of National Conservatism. A terrible loneliness and all the hopeless resentment that sprang from it.
Outside of the hall, in newspaper columns and tweets, serious “grown-ups in the room” pundits lined up to issue sputtering condemnations of all the craziness. How alien it was from British tradition! How appallingly out of touch with the wider country it all was! Well, I doubt Ukip looked dangerous when it was called the Anti-Federalist League. And I’m sure the Institute of Economic Affairs was a left-wing punchline in the 1960s.
“They are not exactly movers and shakers, are they?” a journalist observed to me at one of the many drinks parties, held in a gloomy church, which occurred during the conference. No, the NatCons were not beautiful social butterflies. But they were surprisingly young, and they understood something about the country that older people (who owned suburban homes and had families and who were formed in the loose, happy days of the 1990s) could not see. I knew enough about the NatCons to realise that if the roof of that church had collapsed there and then, what would have gone along with the ceiling was the future of the British right.
“We must get back to basic Conservative principles,” said Denis Thatcher in 1997, “but don’t ask me what they are.” It looks certain that a similar sense of doddering confusion and crack-up lies in wait for the Conservative Party. Over five days the CDO and the NatCons showed what might emerge when that moment arrives. Elderly Thatcherites, the party activists who have knocked on doors and handed out leaflets for the Tories for years, would like to restore Johnson to the leadership. That scenario is not completely outlandish, but Johnson is administratively incapable and personally feckless; doomed to blunder away any opportunities he is given.
It was at the National Conservatism Conference where, in spite of Michael Gove’s warnings, a more likely future was being developed. There is no reason why, whether through a weathervane politician such as Braverman, or someone else, they cannot capture the Tory party, or at least furnish it with ideas and rhetoric. In a distant present the NatCons may one day offer Britain a route back to a romanticised past in an imagined future. Whether the public accepts that offer will depend on how great its sufferings become.
[See also: The Tories are falling into incoherence]
This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up