British Politics Heads to Radical Places

Updated on
  • Rees-Mogg the biggest draw as Tory conference leans to right
  • Move away from middle ground mirrors Labour socialist revival

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For a generation, aspiring British prime ministers on both sides of the aisle sought power by attempting to take the middle ground. It worked for Tony Blair, David Cameron and even Margaret Thatcher. Then Brexit happened.

The political rule book has been torn up in the wake of last year’s vote to quit the European Union and the back-to-back party conferences reflect a rush to the ideological fringes. Under its leader Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has soared in popularity by offering hard-line socialism.

Theresa May

Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

At the Conservative gathering in the city of Manchester, the disenchantment for the party’s leadership is palpable, with members flocking to side meetings extolling the virtues of unfettered free-market capitalism and a hard Brexit. The star attraction is Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Latin-speaking traditionalist against gay marriage and abortion.

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“He is quite old fashioned, but at least he isn’t a Liberal Democrat in a blue tie,” said Ross Atkinson, 24, a pub chef who was queuing all afternoon to see his hero. Pulling his shirt apart to reveal his ‘Moggmentum’ tattoo, he added “Theresa May just doesn’t come across as a proud Tory,”

The mood at the Tory conference is subdued after years in which they were either preparing for government or enjoying the fruits of power. While last year there was an atmosphere of euphoria following the vote to leave the EU, this year is a more reflective affair dominated by Boris Johnson’s antics and recriminations after May’s disastrous election performance.

“There is a sense that both parties are pursuing a more radical agenda,” said Jane Green, professor of politics at Manchester University. “If you are a voter who sees Brexit as a radical, risky proposition, and who sees Corbyn as a radical, risky proposition, it’s hard to see what the choice is for stability.”

Dirty Word

“It is not terribly popular now to call yourself a centrist,” said Ruth Davidson who, despite being a moderate, is one of the darlings at the conference. She told delegates at a packed side event that holding the middle ground had driven the Tory comeback in Scotland.

While May has announced a freeze in university tuition fees and offered pay rises to some public sector employees in an attempt to win back voters from Corbyn’s anti-austerity party, Tory activists are warming to Rees-Mogg’s commitment to spending cuts and austerity.

As a crowd of hundreds cheered Rees-Mogg’s ‘No Deal’ plan for Brexit in the ornate Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall, a smaller group were listening to a German politician in Angela Merkel’s party explain how the EU views the divorce.

“A win-win settlement is excluded and it’s appropriate to speak about a lose-lose result,” Detlef Seif said as his audience of Conservative activists listened in funereal silence.

Historic Mistake

Even though former minister Stephen Dorrell chipped in to say that Brexit is a “historic mistake” and this view “is alive and well in the Conservative Party,” other interventions made it clear that delegates fear their party is in thrall to the hard Brexit advocated by Rees-Mogg and to a certain extent Johnson.

They asked how they can effectively counter myths about the EU peddled by activists in their own party. One pro-leave delegate stormed out of the meeting, accusing the organizers of running a “remain and regret session” and being too negative about Brexit.

Corbyn on Sept. 26.

Photographer: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The situation in Manchester mirrors the flight from the center at Labour’s conference in Brighton last week. There, old-school socialist Corbyn was idolized by party members as moderates, including Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, felt compelled to pay tribute to cheers from the crowd.

There were queues around the block to get into fringe meetings about the future of Corbynism and T-shirts, pins and even scarves carried the leader’s name. It was clear that Corbyn and those around him had taken control of the party.

Usually at party conferences, the chance to attend side meetings to hear the views of senior figures close-up and question party policies is an irresistible draw for the party faithful, but in Manchester the ministers in the main hall and on fringes weren’t proving much of a draw.

The venues where Rees-Mogg has spoken have been packed beyond capacity. Meanwhile there were free seats and uneaten sandwiches at a question-and-answer session with Brexit Minister Steve Baker. 

— With assistance by Kitty Donaldson

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