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Righter than right: Tories’ hardline drift may lose the public | Conservatives

It is a thread running through the Conservative leadership campaign, as shown through the apparent desire to be toughest on asylum seekers, the biggest advocate of tax cuts, sceptical about net zero measures: this is a party that feels like it has shifted decisively to the right.

Some argue the arms race of populist policies from Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak exemplifies a new Conservatism, one fundamentally altered by Brexit and Boris Johnson, which has gradually absorbed the priorities of those who used to support Ukip.

Others, however, say robust talk on immigration is nothing new for a party that pioneered the hostile environment and was already trying to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, while talk of tax cuts is almost mandatory when the Tories pick a new leader.

But could all this be missing the point? Some experts query whether the avalanche of hard-right policy ideas, particularly on immigration and asylum, simply show a party out of touch with a public now notably more worried by issues like the cost of living.

One change does seem obvious. While the Conservatives have always had a strain of authoritarian rightwing opinion, this was balanced by a more liberal wing – one which, since Johnson became leader, has almost disappeared.

Anna Soubry, the former Conservative minister who quit the party for the ill-fated Change UK, argues that people with views like her, Kenneth Clarke, David Gauke and Dominic Grieve were once “pretty much the mainstream”.

Graph showing that among Conservative voters, immigration remains more of a concern than health, Brexit or the environment

“We weren’t the radicals, we were the norm, and now everything has changed,” she said. “Almost none of us are in parliament any more, and the ones who are left are now the fringe. And the mad people are running the government.”

As to whether the leadership contest shows a further rightward drift from Johnsonism, there was some evidence of this in early skirmishes which featured bullish, US-style talk about identity politics and a drastically reduced state from the likes of Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman.

With the cast now shrunk to Truss and Sunak, the focus has often been on immigration and asylum, with both promising to further toughen the Rwanda policy.

Nick Lowles, the chief executive of Hope Not Hate, which monitors populist right and far-right sentiment, points to polling carried out for the group that shows what he calls a “notable shift” among Tory members on immigration and connected issues from 2018 to 2020.

“The centre of gravity in the Tory party has shifted to the right quite considerably,” he said. “It’s no surprise that whether candidates privately support the Rwanda policy or not, they take a hardline public position.”

Similarly, the leadership contest has seen a mass of pledges to cut taxes, with even the once fiscally sceptical Sunak performing a U-turn to say he would suspend VAT on energy bills.

Graph showing that among UK adults, concern around immigration has halved since the Brexit referendum

Neither has explicitly embraced the state-shrinking ethos of the likes of Badenoch, but the repeated talk of efficiencies and leaner organisations does imply a reduced role for public services.

Both the final two have also been notably cautious over the climate emergency, with Truss committed to suspending green levies on energy bills, while Sunak has all-but ruled out any role for new onshore wind projects in England.

The decision on which of the pair succeeds Johnson is made by Conservative members, which to a great extent explains the ideological tilt. There are, however, some signs the candidates might have misread even their own audience.

New polling for the Onward thinktank has shown that Conservative voters are notably keen on the target of net zero emissions by 2050, with almost a quarter saying they would no longer back the party if the commitment was ditched.

Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, argues that on immigration and taxation the party also risks becoming “increasingly out of line with where the public, and even the Conservative-voting public, are”.

Graphic showing that Conservative MPs sit to the right of party members, councillors and voters on economic values

He points to research led by Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, showing that while Conservative members are, as you might expect, notably more rightwing on economic issues, Tory MPs are even more right-leaning.

“This tax-cutting, Singapore-on-Thames Thatcherism has always been a kind of elite hobby,” Ford said. “There has never been a mass electorate for that stuff. But the people who like it, like it so intensely that they kind of project this idea on to their membership.”

On immigration, long-term YouGov tracking of the three issues voters view as most important has seen the percentage picking immigration more than halve since before the Brexit referendum in 2016, while the proportion citing the economy has shot up.

“For a very long time, and not without reason, the Conservative party has regarded being authoritarian on immigration and asylum as essentially a no-lose position,” Ford said. “And I don’t know if that’s true any more.

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“Attitudes towards immigration are more positive now than they have been at any point for which we have polling in modern politics. It’s a strange context in which to be launching very hardline immigration policies.

“It’s also not a pressing issue with voters in general, or Conservative voters, or even with socially conservative Conservative voters. This is an answer to a question no one is asking anymore.

“People care about paying their gas bills. The bit of the Home Office they’re concerned about is getting a passport in time to go on holiday. It all risks looking out of touch, which wasn’t true in the past.”

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