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Populism is not to blame for Tory failures

Whodunnit? Credit: Getty

May 15, 2024 - 2:10pm

When does the great Tory blame game begin? The morning after the expected electoral wipeout? Not for Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times: he’s starting right now: “If the Tories are smashed at the coming general election,” he writes in his new column, “it will be the fault of these people, and almost no one else.” By “these people” he means the Conservative Right — or, as he goes on to specify, “the populist right”.

His accusations come with a plan: “the Tories have to finger the correct culprits for their defeat, then stigmatise them.” This is “vital work”, he claims, which the Conservatives got “wrong” the last time they suffered a landslide defeat, in 1997. Yet the idea that one party faction and “almost no one else” is to blame is nonsense. It is said that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan, but what Ganesh is looking for is a scapegoat to be punished for the collective sins of the Conservative Party.

He itemises three sins in particular — Partygate, the Liz Truss disaster and Brexit — which should be pinned on the populist Right.

But in what way was Partygate populist? It was an institutional breakdown of discipline that had as much to do with the Civil Service custodians of Downing Street as it did with Boris Johnson. Even in the case of the former prime minister, his culpability had everything to do with his personal flaws, not his political beliefs (whatever those are).

As for Truss and the calamitous mini-budget, the ideological inspiration for that came from the free-market fundamentalists of Tufton Street, not anything resembling populism. Tax cuts specifically targeted at the rich are about as unpopulist as it gets. Perhaps Ganesh is confused by the fact that the surviving Trussites have since tried to rebrand themselves as Popular Conservatives — a grotesque irony that should convince no one.

Does he have a point in regard to Brexit? That can certainly be described as a populist phenomenon. The “get Brexit done” general election of 2019 produced the biggest Tory majority since the 1980s. What went wrong is that two of the three big promises of that election were abandoned. Brexit did get done, but the Conservatives didn’t take back control of our borders. Far from it: immigration has since reached record levels.

The Tories also promised to level up the land, but instead of transformative investment their new voters have been given trinkets. No one is more to blame for that than Rishi Sunak, who starved the levelling-up agenda of funds, reorganised Whitehall to remove all trace of industrial policy, and used his party conference speech in Manchester last year to cancel the HS2 link to, er, Manchester. As an “up yours” to the North it was the epitome of anti-populism.

Tory Right-wingers should not be absolved of responsibility. Such is the extent of the party’s disgrace, only a group effort could have delivered it. But make no mistake: the Tories’ downfall lies in the fact that their 2019 manifesto was betrayed, not honoured. The big mistake wasn’t populism, but capitulating to the establishment and pandering to vested interests.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Ian McKinney
Ian McKinney
11 days ago

The great irony is that if the tories had been more ‘populist’, they wouldn’t be where they are in the polls. Delivery of ‘populist’ demands – lower immigration, proper levelling up, harsher sentences for criminals, crackdowns on nonsense protestors – it’s the fact that they *haven’t* done this that is their problem with voters.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
12 days ago

Ganesh writes for (panders to…) a particular and small sector of the populace for whom democracy is totally undesirable. After all, most voters aren’t their “sort of people”. He, and they (and Sunak…) have no idea what “those sort of people” ie people other than them, actually want and hate it when they don’t do as they’re told.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
12 days ago

Apparently, to achieve electoral success, the Tories need to return to their glory days of elitist paternalism. Swan and truffles for everyone!

John Tyler
John Tyler
12 days ago

It’s hardly atypical of the FT to invent illogical ideas in order to bash anyone to the right of centre

David McKee
David McKee
11 days ago

It’s just warmed-up Remoaner arguments. That it comes from the FT is no surprise at all.

Peter B
Peter B
11 days ago

Absolutely right.
Partygate – noise (in the long term scheme of things). And mainly a Civil Service issue as noted. Weaponised by a jealous and vindictive media desperate for revenge on Boris Johnson (who also carries some fault).
Liz Truss – there was no actual “disaster”. Temporary market reaction. Nothing permanent. All her own fault of course. But she’s certainly not wrong about the systemic incompetence of the Bank of England, especially in their handling of pension funds (a point too technical to be widely registered and one largely beyond her limited ability to communicate).
Brexit – this was driven by popular demand in the country as a whole. Much as Mr. Ganesh and others would like to pretend otherwise. You don’t get 53% support if your votes only come from those on the “right”.
And how low the FT has sunk over the past 15 years or so.

R Wright
R Wright
11 days ago

Ah, so the historical revisionism is already beginning. They blame the Tory right. It was the Tory ‘wets’ that blocked Brexit for three years against the popular will amidst legislative game playing and politicising the judiciary. It was the Tory wets that overthrew May’s ‘hostile environment’ policies. It was the Tory wets that encouraged the foolish Boris Johnson to open the borders through the liberal points scheme, dropping Cameron’s “tens of thousands” target. It was the Tory wets that leaked and briefed to all and sundry during the Covid years, leading to Johnson’s ousting.

For fourteen years the acolytes of ‘Call me Dave’ and Blair have blocked any meaningful reform to this country’s sclerotic institutions, turning the Conservative party into an ideologically muddled clusterf*ck. Hopefully these treacherous morons will be unemployed in a few months’ time, but I doubt it. I expect half of them to be working for neoliberal think tanks and NGOs before the end of the year.

j watson
j watson
11 days ago

I think Author is correct in criticising Ganesh’s definition of Populism. However let’s not let Populism escape considerable responsibility for our current state. Populism is where promises, simplistic sloganeering and demonising get way out ahead of well considered policy and honesty about trade-offs. Populism is fundamentally divisive deception camouflage for electoral gain.
The classic example is immigration. The Right doesn’t want to reduce cheap labour immigration. It doesn’t even really want to quietly and effectively deal with issues like the Boats. It wants cheap labour and students fees to avoid other industrial challenges and it wants to perpetually weaponise immigration fear.
The problem for Populism is it has a short shelf-life once you are in power and actually have to start being honest and competent.

Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
11 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Nailed it.