Has Britain ever had a government with so little support and yet such an appetite for expanding its powers? Less than a quarter of the electorate plans to vote Conservative, according to the polls, making this one of our most unpopular governments ever. Behind this stark figure looms an even deeper dissatisfaction, built up by 13 years of scandals, lethal policy failures, broken promises and out-of-their-depth prime ministers. Whatever the Tories offer between now and the election – probably a repeat of this week’s tax cuts based on dubious public spending forecasts – a decisive majority of voters may have already made up their minds against them.
The more the government’s authority shrinks, however, the more it acts as if it has a huge mandate. It seeks to crush or ignore opposition in ways that previous, much more popular administrations such as Margaret Thatcher’s or Tony Blair’s rarely dared. The verdicts of the supreme court, the operational independence of the police, the right to vote, strike or protest, the rule of domestic and international law: these are merely obstacles, it seems, to the government’s primary task of giving the Conservatives as close to a monopoly of power as our already highly centralised political system allows.
Rishi Sunak is an unelected prime minister who did not even win a leadership contest, and whose lack of authority over the many Tory factions is regularly apparent. Yet his administration increasingly seems to tolerate dissent only within the party itself. Were many Britons not so invested in the idea that our democracy is robust, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary, the government might be widely seen as attempting a kind of slow-motion coup. “This is a dangerous place to find ourselves in,” said the UK director of Human Rights Watch, Yasmine Ahmed, this week. “This can start to look very much like authoritarianism.”
One explanation for the Tory power grab is pretty straightforward. They see confronting and weakening the whole range of tabloid bogeymen, from “lefty lawyers” to trade unions, as one of the few remaining ways to get re-elected, now that most of their other policies have so obviously failed. In their desperation, the Conservatives are behaving even more than usually like the reactionary newspapers that sustain them, trying to shout down and delegitimise their enemies while presenting the minority of Britons who are consistently rightwing as “the people”.
But there are also deeper and less parochial forces at work. Worldwide, conservatism is increasingly about rightwing governments, parties and movements trying to leverage limited support – often drawn from a shrinking part of the population that is elderly, white and male – to impose traditionalist ideas on a diversifying wider society that sees those ideas as repellent or just unsuited to modern life.
This coerciveness is clear in national conservatism, the influential transatlantic movement whose London conference this year was addressed by Suella Braverman, Michael Gove and the Tory deputy chairman, Lee Anderson. “We believe in a strong but limited state,” says the movement’s grandiose statement of principles. “In those [places] in which law and justice have been manifestly corrupted, or in which lawlessness, immorality and dissolution reign, national government must intervene energetically to restore order.” To anyone who likes living in a liberal city, those words ought to be ominous.
Conservatism in Britain and the US has failed to recapture the relatively broad support it enjoyed in the 80s under Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, with comfortable election victories becoming rarities. So the right has increasingly come to rely on democracy-distorting measures: gerrymandering, restricting the right to vote and designing campaigns to win office with smaller and smaller shares of the vote. Conservatism has also tried to magnify its narrowing appeal by merging with, or turning into, populism, a form of politics that often relies on sleights of hand – such as “strong” leaders claiming to represent a whole country when actually they are politicians like any others, with weaknesses and limited support bases.
Sunak’s lifestyle and manner are probably too privileged and his power grabs generally too clumsy for him to become an effective authoritarian populist. His crude pressure on the police to ban the pro-Palestinian march on Armistice Day proved spectacularly counter-productive. Yet there is a chance that his expansion of state powers, combined with the typically cynical pre-election Tory tax manoeuvres that began this week, will limit the scale of the coming Conservative defeat, at least. Giving voters a taste, however illusory, of economic liberation while taking away many of the political freedoms of controversial anti-establishment groups such as climate activists is a Tory recipe that has worked many times before.
In some ways, the Conservatives’ expansionist approach to power also goes with the grain of our history. Exercising more power than you have the right to is very British. This is a small country that used to control much of the world. We have an electoral system that traditionally turns vote shares well below 50% into dominant parliamentary majorities. And our prime ministers, however unpopular, have always had more sweeping powers than the leaders of most democracies.
The danger for the Conservatives may not be that many voters see their power grabs as sinister, but that they find them risible. Incompetence in government is now one of the Tories’ most widely recognised characteristics. Another is their discontent with the society they have ruled for so long. The more they rage and try to act against “wokeness” and other culture war adversaries, the more they inadvertently admit that they have failed to reshape the country as they wished. After a similar stretch in office, more effective governments such as Blair’s and Thatcher’s no longer needed to fight constant battles, as they had beaten most of their enemies.
The period between now and the election could turn out to be just an unpleasant interlude. The further Tory power grabs that are likely to happen may ultimately be remembered as the flailing around of a dying government. But they are also setting ominous precedents for future governments, and especially for when Conservative rule returns.