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The price of not policing the Tories’ paranoid frontier

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A man who was until recently Conservative deputy chair accuses London’s mainstream Muslim mayor of being controlled by Islamists. A former Tory prime minister sits mutely on a US platform as her host describes a violent far-right activist as a “hero”, and launches into conspiracy theories about the deep state destroying her premiership. The previous home secretary writes that the “Islamists are in charge now”. Welcome to a week in British politics.

The first of these, Lee Anderson, is now suspended from his party, although in ways that suggest he might still be welcome to return were he to apologise. Allies worry he will defect to the Faragist Reform UK and want him to be offered a route back. The second, Liz Truss, is still in the party peddling her ideas. (Truss also attacked the FT as a friend of the deep state. Since she said it while sitting with Steve Bannon, all I will say is that I prefer our friends to hers).

The third, Suella Braverman, is a contender, albeit a fading one, to be Tory leader. There are always mavericks on the edge of a political party. The key point is that they should remain fringe figures. 

Major parties must police their own political frontiers and Britain’s ruling Conservatives are struggling to do so. One reason is that the party is no longer sure exactly what it is and consequently it is unclear where its boundaries lie. 

After 40 years of relative stability, MPs sense that the party’s core principles are shifting. Brexit and identity politics have changed its electoral coalition. Conservatives have seen centre-right parties in other countries drift in this direction and many want to do the same. They see political advantage in talking about immigration and assailing multiculturalism.

Something similar is happening with attacks on what is variously called the deep state, the blob or the liberal establishment. Even ministers find it useful to nod to lazy conspiracy theories about a sinister “woke” ruling cabal to build alibis for their own failures. Inflammatory and nonsensical arguments are used to justify unorthodox responses.

There is, it must be acknowledged, a growing issue of intimidation in politics and political Islamists are part of that problem — though so too are the far right who have set out to intimidate politicians over Brexit and Covid vaccines. There are important debates to be had on immigration, on where the supremacy of UK law resides and how to tackle political extremism. But the necessary sober conversation is increasingly being hijacked by bad actors stirring up division for partisan ends. Moderate politicians must not leave these issues to populists but they will fear being tarnished by association if they speak out while political standards are not enforced.

More sanguine Conservatives respond that the party has shown it can still police itself. Johnson was ousted by ministers revolting over his persistent rule-breaking and dishonesty. Truss was forced out by her own MPs, Anderson suspended and Braverman sacked. But each time the elastic has been stretched. Johnson, remember, survived unlawfully suspending parliament.

The most uncompromising MPs number only 10 to 15 per cent of the party but they have energy, activist support and media backers. A major factor is the creation of GB News, which encourages ever more hardline positions and has created a lucrative space for Tories on the right who might once have languished in exile.

The prime minister at times seems paralysed. His action against Anderson, his own appointee, was slow and halfhearted. This creates the impression that he wants a few privateers dog-whistling to a segment of the voters.

He need only look at what happened to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn or the Republicans since Donald Trump to see the cost of waiting to take a firm stance against hardliners, charlatans, paranoid fantasists and rulebreakers. The Republicans did not fall to Trumpism overnight. They lost their party in a hundred small compromises and failures to confront him, culminating in their cowardice over his claims of a stolen election and the Capitol riots.

The prime minister is hanging on to his party for now. But if it heads into opposition, shorn of the disciplines of government, the boundaries will be pushed at pace. The last two contested leadership elections have seen manifestly unfit leaders selected because they were ideologically closer to the party right. All contenders will face that gravitational pull.

Sunak and his most senior ministers are all mainstream Tories, albeit unmoored from previous orthodoxy by Brexit. But they appear exhausted and uncertain about defending their boundaries with Reform on their right flank. It is weak and it is a mistake. Ask the Labour moderates how long it takes to reclaim a lost party. Sunak needs to be more assertive in setting standards, slapping down and disciplining those who breach basic political decency before they consume his party. He must face these confrontations, however unwelcome. There is more at stake than one election.

MPs have rightly voiced their fears over the impact of intimidation on parliamentary procedure. But the Conservatives must also recognise the dangers posed by those who accelerate the paranoid and sectarian views that can fuel violence. Often the greatest threats to the body politic come from within.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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