The Tories’ Weird Incoherent Collapse

The contradictions of Brexit and a choice for conservatism

Prime Minister Liz Truss leaves 10 Downing Street on September 23. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

At the heart of Brexit was, it is now becoming ever clearer, a contradiction. For some on the economically liberal right, it was a chance for Britain to wrest free from becoming a highly regulated, highly taxed province of the European Union. It was a chance to create what the EU always feared: a low-tax, deregulated Singapore-on-Thames that would snag more business investment and realize its Thatcherite potential. For others — call them Red Tories — it was a way to preserve the nation, to listen to working-class voters who felt they had become the victims of the free market and free movement of labor across Europe, and to return to a conservatism that sought to protect rather than liberate.

Boris Johnson represented both wings — he had a liberal mind but a Tory gut. And his emphasis on more public spending, redistribution of wealth from South to North (“leveling up”), new infrastructure projects, and pissing off EU technocrats all pointed toward a much broader coalition for the right. He won a stonking majority on those grounds, re-branded the Tory party, and provoked writers like me to grapple with a new bigger-state Toryism, much more similar to its Disraelian past than its Thatcherite inheritance. It was a risk — but one that reflected a genuine shift among many ordinary people, responding to the catastrophic success of the Thatcher/Blair revolution. And his charisma and charm sold it.


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