Opinion

Tories seem to think pandering to the extreme right is a vote-winner. But where's the evidence?

To put it simply, the Tory government has tried xenophobic demogogy, and the polls haven’t budged

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and then Home Secretary Suella Braverman in October 2023. Credit: Flickr / Number 10

Last week the government suffered what University of Manchester political science professor Rob Ford called “the Conservatives’ worst performance in local council elections for a generation”. 

The Tories lost 474 council seats to Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and independents, while West Midlands mayor Andy Street was ousted by Labour. Nationally, the Conservatives remain 20 points behind in opinion polls.

Luckily, the Tory right has the answer: The Conservative Party needs to be even more conservative. 

Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, writes in the Telegraph that the results are “a wake-up call”, and urged the government to “start listening to our troops on the ground and the British people who are crying out for a reason to vote Conservative”. Evidence for such people is scant, but Braverman appears to know their heart’s desire. 

By chance, it’s the familiar shopping list of policies she and like-minded Tories have been demanding, from tax cuts to getting tough on crime, and in particular “a legal cap on migration” and leaving the European Convention on Human Rights to “stop the boats”. Lord Frost argued much the same in the Telegraph, while Braverman’s former deputy, Robert Jenrick, is reportedly drafting a general election pamphlet about cutting migration.

Leaving aside whether the public is “crying out” to leave the ECHR (did it come up on the doorstep last week?), is this not a bizarre diagnosis? In the days before voters went to the polls, the government released footage of migrants being arrested pending deportation.

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It fed The Sun newspaper a story about a migrant leaving for Rwanda (voluntarily, having been paid £3,000). The government has staked everything on its Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act, which it hopes will see asylum seekers deported to that luckless African country, and which was passed by parliament a week before the local elections. 

To put it simply, the government has tried xenophobic demogogy, and the polls haven’t budged. 

Take another example. In London, Sadiq Khan was re-elected for a historic third term as mayor despite expanding the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ), which charges drivers of polluting vehicles. This was also despite a sustained campaign of racist propaganda from the right, including from the Conservative Party and its mayoral candidate Susan Hall.  

Ahead of the vote, an investigation by Greenpeace’s Unearthed team revealed that Conservative Party staff were running anti-ULEZ Facebook groups packed with racist abuse of Khan. 

Posts in the groups, which boast an employee of Conservative campaign HQ as an administrator, called the capital’s first Muslim mayor a “terrorist sympathiser” and a “khaki punt” (I’m sure you can decode that one). The Conservative Party’s lame response that it “unequivocally condemns all discriminatory language” is very telling. Why not be specific? 

Perhaps because this material was only the nasty version of official Tory attacks painting Khan’s London as a crime-ridden hell-hole. In March, the party released a (now-deleted) video claiming “London under Labour has become a crime capital of the world”. The video was deleted after it was pointed out that it contained footage of the New York subway. 

Hall made knife crime her main campaign issue, and brought it up again on Saturday in her graceless concession speech. At the last Conservative Party conference, Hall suggested that Jewish Londoners are “frightened” by Khan’s “divisive attitude”. 

As anti-racist campaign Hope Not Hate has documented, Hall has a record of shady social media posts on race issues, from endorsing Donald Trump in 2020 to liking Twitter posts about Enoch Powell, which she has declined to explain. Hall’s team also told voters that Khan was planning to impose “pay-per-mile” charges on drivers, a claim branded “deceptive” by factcheckers Full Fact. 

This swirling nonsense has led to Khan receiving death threats and needing extra security. For what it’s worth, knife crime in London is currently lower than it was under Boris Johnson, and is lower than in the West Midlands and Cleveland.  

Meanwhile, “law and order” Braverman was sacked as home secretary in November after accusing police of left-wing bias, and stirring up fears of a Palestine protest on Remembrance Sunday, which saw a far-right mob abuse police at the Cenotaph. 

Ahead of the local elections, this Conservative drift to the right accelerated into a sprint. In April, Braverman cosied up to the European far-right at a ‘National Conservatism’ conference in Brussels, which was headlined by Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Liz Truss – who, lest we forget, was prime minister – continues to shmooze the US right, with a star turn at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where she discussed the “deep state” with nationalist Steve Bannon. Her book Ten Years to Save the West blames her crashing the UK economy in September 2022 on a vast left-wing conspiracy, and calls for the return of Donald Trump as US president. 

Truss also attended a 60th birthday celebration for Nigel Farage, whose anti-immigration party Reform UK calls the Tories “con-socialists”. The birthday party also featured a video message from Trump. 

And of course, former Tory deputy chair Lee Anderson defected to Reform UK, declaring “I want my country back” (without specifying who had taken it away), and handing Reform its first ever MP. 

Clearly this is a party which needs a tough sheriff to lay down the law. The Conservatives are facing electoral disaster, and need to clean house. So where is that nice Rishi Sunak? 

It’s notable that his party has taken no action against Braverman and Truss, who are both still Tory MPs – as is former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who works as a presenter on right-wing broadcaster GB News. Anderson was suspended, after saying Islamists had “got control” of Sadiq Khan, who the MP said had “given our capital city away to his mates”. But the government declined to call his remarks bigoted, and it was Anderson’s choice to leave. 

When Sunak was asked about the ULEZ Facebook groups at Prime Minister’s Questions last week, he ignored the question and endorsed Susan Hall. (Intriguing, it was later reported that Sunak did not vote for Hall.) 

And of course, Sunak has embraced the Rwanda deportation albatross as his own. 

The PM is also not above throwing muck. He has repeatedly accused his Labour rival Keir Starmer, who opposes the Rwanda scheme on practical rather than moral grounds, of being “on the side of people smugglers”. 

When banning the terrorist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir in January, Sunak made much of Starmer having given the Islamist group legal advice in 2008. Asked in an interview whether he thought Starmer was a “terrorist sympathiser”, the prime minister replied: “I would say let the facts speak for themselves.” 

The facts are speaking, alright. As the hard-right is on the march in the EU and the US, with tough elections in June and November respectively, the Prime Minister has decided to bet everything on public xenophobia, while turning a blind eye to the radicalisation of his party. 

Principles aside, is this good politics? Despite generous media coverage, Reform won a mammoth two council seats last week. Some on the right like Lord Frost are openly saying the Tories face “disaster” at the general election, and should work on building a more right-wing party to succeed Sunak. 

The mistake our Brexit-blinded prime minister has made is thinking that right-wing politics is led by popular demand. But as the right’s response to the local elections shows, its failure at the ballot box will not stop the supply. 

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