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UK Conservatives Are Channeling Trump in a Desperate Bid to Retain Power

Conservatives in the UK are attacking asylum seekers, fearmongering about “Islamists” and rallying against trans rights.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gestures as he attends a Q&A at The Queens Hotel, a JD Wetherspoon pub, on March 7, 2024, in Maltby, Rotherham, United Kingdom.

Eight years have passed since 2016 — the fateful year when U.K. voters delivered a political earthquake by voting to leave the European Union later, and when U.S. voters delivered a second earthquake by electing Donald Trump as president.

Now, both countries are again facing critical elections. In the U.S., Trump is making another bid for power despite facing four criminal trials and huge fines in civil cases. Meanwhile, in the U.K., the beleaguered Conservative government — responsible for a series of rolling crises since Brexit, and now on its fifth prime minister since mid-2016 — must call a general election by early 2025, with most observers predicting the election will be held sometime in the autumn. It’s entirely possible that both the U.S. and the U.K. will be voting within weeks of each other.

The U.K. opinion polls paint a bleak picture for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government. The standard of living for average Brits is in sharp decline (wages haven’t stagnated for this long since the Napoleonic Wars). The once-vaunted National Health Service is in seeming freefall. And with the country mired in labor strife on a scale not seen since the 1970s, with everyone from doctors to transport workers going on strike, public opinion has turned vastly against the Conservatives since the last election, which took place in December 2019.

In the U.K.’s 2019 election, a triumphalist Boris Johnson led the party to a massive parliamentary win, breaking down Labour’s so-called red wall in northern England, and ushering in what Johnson believed would be decades of a newly populist Conservative hegemony. Five years is, however, an eternity in politics. And now, it is the Conservative “blue wall” in southern England that looks like it could collapse.

Johnson saw an ignominious fall from power in the wake of a series of COVID-era scandals, and his brief successor Liz Truss’s economic policies resulted in an overnight implosion of the U.K. economy, a stock market swoon and a currency crisis. For at least a year now, the Conservatives have trailed Labour (a party led by the determinedly moderate Sir Keir Starmer) by double digits. Some polls put the Labour lead upward of 25 percent. Recent polls suggest it’s a little bit lower, at about 19 percent.

Either way, these numbers suggest the Conservative Party is facing an electoral wipeout on a far larger scale, even, than that experienced by a divided Labour Party in the 1983 election, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party took advantage of Labour’s swing leftward and the emergence of a centrist third party that split the opposition vote, to win a crushing election victory. In that election, Labour’s representation declined to 209 members of parliament (MPs), and the Conservatives won just shy of 400 seats. If the parliamentary elections were held today, Sunak’s party would win fewer than 100 seats, with the Labour Party, having shed its supposedly radical baggage after ditching left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn and purging many of his supporters from the party’s ranks, winning more than 450 seats.

Not surprisingly given the political climate, a huge number of Conservative MPs, including many senior figures who have served as top cabinet ministers, have already announced that they do not intend to run for reelection.

The Conservative MPs who remain are, increasingly, resorting to Trump-style attacks on what they see as “woke culture” in a last-ditch effort to reanchor their political fortunes. They have ramped up efforts to expel would-be asylum seekers to Rwanda (with which the government signed a deal a few years back to take a number of people seeking asylum off British hands, a policy that they have stuck with despite a series of defeats in the courts and in Parliament, and despite estimates that it will cost far more to deport each asylum seeker to Rwanda than it would to house them in the U.K.). They have amplified their rhetoric about the U.K.’s way of life purportedly being under assault from “Islamists.” Like their conservative counterparts in the U.S., they have sought to exploit public opposition to increased rights for the transgender community. And they have, increasingly, turned against their own environmental pledges in an effort to paint the Labour Party as being more concerned with abstract green environmental goals than with quality-of-life issues.

There is also some talk — probably fantasy — of a leadership challenge from the right, aimed at ousting Sunak as prime minister and installing another Tory leader going into the election. In reality, it’s far more likely that members of the hard right will wait until the party goes down in a humiliating defeat and then seek to cement their power in the aftermath, installing a Trumpist sort of leader who will form alliances with Nigel Farage — the architect of Brexit and leader of a series of nationalist parties and movements over the past decade and a half — and will fully embrace the sort of flag-waving nationalism so popular these days on the U.S. right.

None of this has improved either the party’s polling numbers or Rishi Sunak’s personal approval ratings: When he won the Conservative Party’s leadership contest and assumed his role as prime minister, Sunak was underwater by about 9 percent; now he is underwater by a staggering 28 percent, with fewer than one in four voters expressing confidence in his leadership. By contrast, Joe Biden is underwater by 16 percent, with 4 in 10 voters approving of his performance at this point in the election cycle. That’s not good, but it’s less bad than Sunak’s numbers. So, too, Trump is underwater by far less, at around 10 percent. Quite simply, the British public has lost all confidence in the Conservative Party’s leaders and their ability to govern. For a party that has, historically, marketed itself on its avowed competence and steady hand, that represents an extraordinary fall from grace.

Meanwhile, Labour is doing everything it can to avoid specific policy and economic promises, on the assumption that any tilt toward radical, progressive politics will remind voters of the Corbynite policy priorities they resoundingly rejected in 2019. Starmer’s party has announced that it won’t revisit Brexit and has also gone out of its way to minimize expectations of dramatic and sudden changes in public spending levels. Starmer has publicly stated that the country is in the worst economic malaise it has experienced in half a century and that, in consequence, Labour won’t “turn on spending taps” if it forms the next government.

Labour’s strategy may well make pragmatic sense, but is, from a progressive viewpoint, obviously rather dispiriting.

Post-Brexit Britain is stumbling from one political and economic crisis to the next. Its governing classes are facing a crisis of legitimacy on a scale not seen in generations. That revolt from below will likely sweep Sunak and his Conservative Party from power later this year. But, without an ambitious set of policy proposals that Starmer and his incoming team can stake their fortunes to, and a blueprint for reversing the U.K.’s wage stagnation and corrosion of vital public sector institutions, it’s entirely possible that their honeymoon will be brief. After all, Starmer’s approval ratings are also underwater — albeit by nowhere near as much as are Sunak’s — and Labour’s soaring prospects have at least as much to do with the public’s antipathy to the Conservatives as they have to do with proactive support for Labour.

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