Today’s Times cartoon had Liz Truss, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson, plus three PopCon acolytes, crowded into a broom cupboard with the overhead caption, “Standing room only!” The implication wasn’t especially ambiguous: who cares? Who’s this for? Will anyone actually show up to the Popular Conservatism launch, especially after polling this week found that Truss might just be the least popular politician in the country?
As it happened, the caption proved apt, as SpAds, hacks, Tory traitors and assorted nerds kettled into a small conference hall in Westminster this morning. The room was packed out, spectators there to see another “family” added to the burgeoning Tory mafiosi, and talk of revolution was in the air.
Truss, the star attraction, spoke last in the hour-long slot. Warming up for her were former Institute of Economic Affairs bossman and now PopCon leader Mark Littlewood, Trump-supporting Tory “rising star” Mhairi Fraser, and the oddly endearing double act of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson. “Me and Jacob have one thing in common [sic],” intoned the Ashfield MP. “We were both born on estates.” Anderson’s every argument — Net Zero “never coming up on the doorstep”, politicians not caring about voters — was a grasp at authenticity. He referred to Parliament as “that place over there” three times, and MPs as “that lot”. But “that lot” should really have been “us lot”, including the many Tories in the front seats.
And so PopCon, positioned as a radical alternative to the establishment, featured as its top names a former prime minister and the “honourable member for the 18th century”. Indeed, when Rees-Mogg made a point of referring to “Sir Anthony Blair, Knight of the Garter”, his own Knight Bachelor status went unmentioned. Much of the policy focus presented this morning — opposition to Net Zero, the need to tackle “wokeness” in schools, and the importance of stricter immigration controls — was practically indistinguishable from Rishi Sunak’s.
Yet there is a substantial difference between the Truss troupe and the Sunakites: these are libertarians, not busybodies who don’t want your toddler to light a cig. “It’s time to put Nanny [statism] to bed,” was how Fraser chose to end her speech. The enemies common to all the speeches were “globalists”, “internationalists”, “Eurocrats”, “bureaucrats” — anyone who stifled the individual in favour of collectivism. Rees-Mogg declared that the “age of Davos Man is over” and heralded a coming victory over a nebulous “cabal”. Never in a one-hour space has the word “quango” been used so often.
The official line was that PopCon isn’t trying to sink the Tory Party, just convince it that Sunak’s way is the wrong one. But insisting “we’re not regicides” is harder to pull off while sharpening your knives out in the open. The PopCon influences are diverse: just as Suella Braverman did her best Jeremy Corbyn impression at Conservative Party Conference in the autumn, Littlewood found time to quote Tony Benn and, in the vein of Boris Johnson, the mayor from Jaws.
Truss’s brief, chaotic premiership was, all along, the elephant in the room. This was heightened by the announcement this morning from her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, that he would not be standing at the next election. She and her allies are now on a crusade against a system, consisting of the Civil Service and assorted bureaucratic agencies, which is “actively working to stop policies happening”. The ex-PM regretted that “you have responsibility but not power as a minister”, as if to say that the mini-budget of 2022 and its outcome were really the doing of those omnipotent quangos.
Claiming that “the Left is on the march globally”, despite the projected victories of Right-wing parties in multiple European elections this year, Truss rallied her troops. It may be the same old tune, but that’s no reason to dismiss the PopCons. Sunak’s government isn’t providing much hope for Tories at present. With her modestly-titled book Ten Years to Save the West published in April, might this be Truss’s year — again?