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All revolutions devour their own children. Just look at the Brexiteers | Nick Cohen



As the Observer goes to press on Christmas Day, the UK’s ruling Conservatives are contemplating breaking the back of the National Health Service. Maybe they are right to avoid taking all but the most cursory precautions against Omicron. Perhaps the relative mildness of the new variant will outweigh its wild infectiousness. The fact remains that, although they want the crisis to be over, they have no idea if it is over. And on this speculative hope, Conservative MPs are prepared to run the potentially fatal political risk of collapsing the NHS.

So much attention focuses on Boris Johnson’s unfitness to be prime minister that the dissolution of the parliamentary Conservative party into warring bands of ideologues and fantasists is in danger of being lost. Its contempt for rules, its willingness to gamble away its chances of holding power show a movement in the grip of radical rightwing delusion. Contrary to much political commentary, the Conservatives have not reinvented themselves to advance the interests of their new working-class voters. The aristocratic disdain of a Downing Street that partied while forcing the country to lock down shows how widely the values of the Tory elite and the average voter have diverged.

A supposed truth about politics, which has been dignified with the technocratic title of “May’s law of curvilinear disparity”, holds that the professional politicians at the top of a party cannot afford to be as extreme as activists below them. Members are free to indulge their whims. Serious politicians must hug the electorate close if they hope to attain power. All attempts to create laws as certain as the laws of physics to predict human behaviour fail. The state of the Conservative party shows that May’s law is no exception. A study for the UK in a Changing Europe thinktank found Conservative MPs were more lost in rightwing ideology than Conservative members, Conservative voters and, naturally, the electorate as a whole. Almost a quarter of Conservative members and 73% of the public agreed that there was “one law for the rich and another for the poor” (as Johnson’s career has shown). Just 5% of the Conservative MPs the authors surveyed believed it. Large majorities thought that big business takes advantage of the public and that ordinary people do not get a fair share of the nation’s wealth. Conservative politicians did not.

The rightwing doctrine they cling to is not a coherent system of thought. I find the best way to understand it is as truculent over-confidence. Like angry children, Conservatives demand that the world be as they want it to be and not as it is. They do not realise that they have caught themselves in a feedback loop. The nationalism and Thatcherism that once brought them electoral successes are threatening to destroy the values they think they uphold.

Read the Tory press and you cannot miss the laments at the failure to turn the UK into a capitalist powerhouse. Lord Frost walks out of the cabinet saying Brexit should have brought a “lightly regulated, low-tax” country. Liz Truss positions herself to benefit from Johnson’s downfall by posing as a free-trade fundamentalist who will unchain Britannia from the shackles of the state.

They still cannot admit that Brexit was an attack on wealth-creation. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts it will cause twice the long-term economic damage of Covid, leave trade 15% lower, bring a £100bn annual hit to national income and cost £40bn in lost tax revenue. When you shrink the tax base, you have to raise taxes to cover the shortfall just to stand still. When you shrink the private sector, the size of the state grows in comparison by definition. When you pull your country out of the largest free-trade area in the world, you have no right to protest about economic decline.

“Move fast and break things” may work as a slogan in Silicon Valley but it isn’t a programme for government. The creative destruction Conservatives thought they were unleashing with Brexit has created nothing of value and left only rubble behind.

Their behaviour shows that at some level they grasp the magnitude of their failure. All revolutions devour their own children as the euphoria of the initial uprising degenerates into panic. The speed with which the Brexit revolutionaries are devouring theirs is the best indication of the depth of their insecurity.


They don’t even have the table manners to wait until the kids are out of nappies before sharpening the carving knives. Johnson won the Brexit referendum and the 2019 election. Now the right cannot wait to be rid of him. With a roar of “enough is enough”, Steve Baker bans Nadine Dorries from a Conservative WhatsApp group for the crime of praising the prime minister. Her work in undermining the BBC counts for nothing. In Conservative culture, as in all cancel cultures, you must show a demeaning adherence to the ideological line or you are finished. When Johnson made Sajid Javid health secretary in June, the Tory press hailed him as a Covid “hawk”, who would resist any attempt to lock down the economy. This month, fears about the Omicron variant compelled him to introduce modest restrictions. Conservative MPs did not say that, if even Javid believed there was danger ahead, they should take notice. They heckled him in the Commons as he made the case for caution with cries of “resign” and “what a load of old tripe”.

“Instead of taking him at face value, they are painting him as the enemy,” Labour’s health spokesman, Wes Streeting, told me in a voice filled with disbelief, and I thought, with a hint of anticipation as well.

Every senior opposition figure I talk to believes the Conservatives are no longer capable of governing themselves or the country. They have dissolved into an extremist rabble that is contorted by magical thinking, heresy hunts, fits of temper and doctrinal spasms.

If the opposition parties cooperate, and if Labour can break with the calamity of the Corbyn years, there is a chance that they can eject this government from power. A faint chance, I grant you, given the scale of the Tories’ electoral advantage but a chance nevertheless. And with that uncharacteristically cheery thought, I wish you all a merry Christmas.


Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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