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The Tories are deluded if they think the Brexit Party can't supplant them

Theresa May
Theresa May’s staggering incompetence and the establishment's deranged complacency spell doom for Conservatives Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media

Leadership contenders are still obsessed with appealing to the centre – but politics has changed

Nothing to see here: risibly, that remains how many senior Tories view the remarkable rise of the Brexit Party. To them, Nigel Farage’s return is a spectacular but ultimately meaningless final act, a last howl of rage by an angry minority exercising its right to protest at an irrelevant election. But a real, serious, game-changing threat to the political duopoly that has governed the UK for so long? Don’t be ridiculous.

There is something in the Conservative psyche that breeds this kind of deranged complacency: the conceit that theirs is the “natural party of government” is especially toxic. Many of the candidates for the party leadership, and not just the Remainers, genuinely believe that the ongoing political earthquake is in fact nothing more than a minor tremor.

  • Read Allister Heath's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Wednesday night from 9.30pm  

To these establishment types, Brexit voters will come flocking back to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t elected, and everything will return to normal. It will be a hairy few months, thanks to Theresa May’s staggering incompetence, but the ancien regime will reassert itself. Why? Because this is Britain, and this is how we do things. Delusion has long been the default position of politicians facing an outcome too bleak to consider: most would find it impossible to continue if they didn’t lie to themselves at least some of the time.

Hence why it feels that so many Tory leadership candidates remain stuck in the late Blairite mid-Noughties, suggesting stultifying minor policy tweaks or sending various coded “messages” intended to appeal to floating voters. Many are hoping that the old ways are merely in temporary abeyance; as soon as “Brexit is sorted one way or the other”, they pray, politics will once again be limited to a narcissism of small differences.

The reality was that the late 1990s and early 2000s were unusual in their lack of ideology, a legacy of the Thatcherite triumph and end of the Cold War. The Blairite and Cameroon moments have long since passed: all over the West, the mushy centre isn’t holding. The radical Left, including greens, and the radical Right, including populists, are on the rise. We live in furious, tribal, oppositional times, turbocharged by social media; voters, for good or ill, are desperate for “authenticity” and leadership. They are unimpressed by bland technocrats, or by endless triangulation.

Why should it be any different in the UK? Why shouldn’t the established parties’ utter failure on Brexit not blow up the status quo permanently? Yes, we have a pro-incumbent first-past-the-post voting system, but so do many other countries that have seen new parties emerge and old ones die, not least France and Canada.

The logic of those who are in denial about all of this is as simple as it is flawed. The latest poll from ComRes suggests that the Brexit Party, which didn’t exist five weeks ago, is now polling at 27 per cent for the European election, ahead of Labour on 25 per cent. Such a result looks great for Farage, but in both his and Labour’s case those percentages are identical to those gained in 2014. There has been no real progress, or so the delusional Tory narrative goes.

The following year, they reassure themselves, the Tories won the general election with 330 seats, against just one for Ukip, and Labour was crushed. Farage collected 12.6 per cent of the vote, and yet the Tories triumphed. So why panic? Why would the next election be any different? There is in fact no Brexit Party landslide, these establishment Tories would have us believe: the share of hard-core Eurosceptics is steady at under a third of the electorate. True, the Tories are on a miserable 15 per cent, but that’s merely because of Mrs May. Oust her and everything will be fine.

Westminster insiders are obsessed with general election playbooks: they used to love Philip Gould’s The Unfinished Revolution: How the Modernisers Saved the Labour Party and the Cameroons kept trying to repeat its lessons. But the 2015 general election was quite different: the Tories lurched back to their base, promising a referendum, dumping their green agenda and playing on fears of a Lab-SNP coalition hiking taxes. Like a praying mantis, they gobbled up their coalition partners.

That’s not how the Cameroons would like us to remember it, of course. They paint a picture of a stunning triumph from the centre, as Cameron supposedly hoovered up floating voters. But the reality was nuanced: the Tories did attract new voters, but primarily by using fiscally conservative language, and they wouldn’t have won without clinging on to enough of their base.

The surprise victory of 2015 is what many Tory leadership contestants hope to replicate. Influenced by the conventional explanation of what happened, they assume that this means reaching out to base and centre, to Brexiteers and Remainers, to attack Corbyn’s tax plans and hope for another miracle. Yet the idea that politics is about to return to normal is nonsense. Something has snapped. The relationship between the Tory party and its core electorate has shifted permanently. In 2014-15, many people lent Ukip their vote; today, many are gifting it to the Brexit Party out of loathing for the Tory betrayal. Their passion should terrify the Conservatives. They would be foolish to assume that Farage’s share of the vote has peaked.

Cameron only won because he was able to attract enough Eurosceptics, but that electorate is now radicalised. It wants an immediate no-deal Brexit, and it won’t vote for anybody that disagrees. At the same time, the Lib Dems are bouncing back, squeezing the Tories from the Left. Their time in purgatory is over: they are the Remain party, and their voters will never back a Brexiteer. Meanwhile, Project Fear-style arguments won’t be enough to derail Corbyn. Cameron’s coalition of convenience has been shattered and cannot be put back together again.

We live in febrile times and it would be madness to dismiss Farage. His party could yet become the UK’s main force on the Right. Can the Tories win again? Of course, and they could reach new demographics with an optimistic message. But not without earning back their base’s trust first. The Tories’ next leader must stop taking Brexit Party voters for granted, and beg them, on bended knees, to return.

  • Read Allister Heath's latest column on telegraph.co.uk every Wednesday night from 9.30pm