In the past decade, Nigel Farage has traumatised the Conservative party and transformed it for the worse. His suggestion that he could return to politics after his stint on reality TV will trigger paroxysms of Tory despair. The prospect of the former Brexit party leader’s comeback only emphasises that Rishi Sunak is fighting for his political life after his party’s civil war restarted over immigration. The prime minister’s appearance at the Covid inquiry is unlikely to help much. His flagship scheme to boost the restaurant industry after the first lockdown was known in Whitehall as “eat out to help out the virus”.
The Tory splits over shutting down the country were shallower and less treacherous than on immigration, which has replaced Europe as the party’s great division. But they run along similar lines, with each side having their own facts. Tory MPs are restive because they were elected as Brexiters who have proved incompetent at exercising the control over immigration that they sought. For some, Mr Sunak’s proposed law goes too far in limiting migrants’ rights to challenge deportation, while for others it does not go far enough. The return of Mr Farage in such circumstances torments Conservatives.
Another cause for Tory unease is the widespread perception that 13 years of Conservative prime ministers have run the country into the ground. Patients in the UK are waiting longer to see a doctor than people in Kenya. Crumbling concrete means schools and courts are being closed down before they fall down. Unicef said this month that the UK, among 39 of the world’s richest nations, had the biggest jump in child poverty in the past decade. The extent to which Mr Sunak prioritised the economy over wider society’s needs as chancellor during the pandemic was at the heart of his evidence. When campaigning to lead the Tory party, he told the Spectator last year that scientists were given too much power and that he had complained about the cost of lockdowns early in the pandemic. However, in response to questioning, Mr Sunak would only admit to resisting the imposition of restrictions in September 2020, shamelessly saying he had been talking to the Spectator about the government’s communications strategy.
Britain’s direction of travel needed reappraising post-pandemic. Countries that had handled the emergency well had strong welfare states. However, the government prefers a more simplistic, Panglossian and selective view. In education, the international rankings for England’s secondary school pupils flattered to deceive and were based on ropey statistics. But ministers opted for cheap political point-scoring – no doubt influenced by the fact that Mr Sunak’s Treasury was accused of starving schools of the cash required for children’s learning recovery. At the Covid inquiry, he was forced to deny claims he called parents who couldn’t afford to buy food for their children “freeloaders”.
Mr Sunak has overseen rising inequality, public-sector austerity and regressive tax reforms. Today’s Conservative party has a clear interest in diverting public attention from its policy failures. Mr Sunak gambled that, in the short term, his party benefited by shifting attention from unpopular economic policies to cultural issues that inflame public opinion, such as immigration. But in the long term, this strategy strengthened the hard right – both within and without his party – so much that it has left him facing the biggest test of his premiership.