The Tory failure to take on Trump is not just shameful: it’s bad politics


EPA/Olivier Douliery / POOL

written for The Guardian, 10 February 2017

Nazi comparisons are two a penny these days, but when they come from self-loathing Tory MPs, they still carry a certain flair. On Wednesday, amid Brexit votes and rumours of a Labour leadership challenge, the British government quietly announced it was dropping its commitment to child refugees under the Dubs amendment.

Shortly afterwards, a despairing senior figure texted friends a popular clip from the Mitchell and Webb TV series. Two SS officers, festooned with the grim regalia of death’s heads across their caps, scarves and drinking goblets, look at each other and slowly query: are we the baddies? The joke, of course, is about the power of denial.

The death of the Dubs amendment is by no means the only touch of Trumpism among the Toriesthat has the more liberal in their ranks worried. But it mirrors a global tendency to let fear and intolerance shape policy: policy that has a sharp effect on the lives of the most vulnerable.

With regard to Trump himself, the British prime minister’s position on the diplomatic stage is unenviable. Downing Street is right to point out that there is little an ally can do – and what a weak ally this Britain has become – to rein in Trump, without putting British citizens further at risk. But there is a difference between confronting a US president with his fingers on the nukes, and confronting his fellow travellers here at home.

There are plenty in the British Conservative movement who can smell a bad odour creeping into the house – call it fascism, call it populism – but, like good dinner party guests, aren’t quite sure how to point it out. The government’s confused, contradictory noises about the US president’s toxic travel restrictionsled to a series of frantic telephone calls around junior ministers demanding a response while Theresa May was in Turkey. (“None of us slept that weekend,” says one.) But few are speaking out.

Some are holding their fire to focus on Brexit battles, others fear career consequences should they add to the pressure on the prime minister. Tory civil liberties movements, so restrained by distrust of the mob and the bandwagon, have only a shallow history to draw on. As May flew back from Washington and Turkey, a group of liberal parliamentary candidates attempted to organise a gentle public letter requesting she do more to denounce Trump’s new anti-Muslim travel ban. The letter never surfaced, due in part to fragmented organising structures, and in part to the explicit promise of Downing Street’s displeasure.

Yet more Conservative condemnation of Trump could be the best thing to happen to May. The prime minister, a naturally cautious politician, is well aware that the public mood is still susceptible to the teeny-Trump act offered by Nigel Farage. We all know she once warned the Conservatives against becoming “the nasty party”; what she knows now is that large segments of the British population are rapidly making us the nasty nation.

Shaping this landscape is a network of Conservative British newspapers and thinkers whose fixation on the Great British Brexit has inspired a Faustian determination to defend even Trump’s worst excesses. Threaten a judge? All part of providence’s great plan for a new Anglo-American free trade alliance. Forget that awkward “America First” business. No wonder the prime minister has so little room to manoeuvre. The silence of liberal Tory ministers, writers and editors has left her with little political cover to confront the headwinds of Breitbart UK.

This is shameful. It is also a strategic disaster for Conservatism as a long-term movement in Great Britain. Not just because this fortnight’s spinelessness has undermined years of effort by the Conservative party to attract BAME and Muslim talent among its candidates. How May behaves in the current global crisis will define the Conservative party’s reputation for generations. The electorate may be ambivalent today about closing the door to refugees, but populations have a remarkable capacity for forgetting their own complicity in moral crimes – and for holding politicians to account with perfect moral hindsight.

It was into this political gap that John Bercow, a man who never misses an opportunity he can exploit, leapt on Monday. Those in his party who despise the man should be asking themselves why they’d failed to claim such politically fertile ground first. It’s not a good look when the only senior Tory in the Commons to denounce Trump’s Muslim ban is the one whose job should prohibit him from doing so.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks marches condemning Trumpism have been organised, respectively, by women’s movements, the Guardian’s Owen Jones, and the SWP. Measured on the bizarre womb-fixated axis of US politics, the organisers of the Women’s March on Washington limited itself to the left by refusing to work with anti-abortion groups. The London march was more welcoming, but female Conservative MPs stayed away, leaving Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan to take the megaphones. The Conservative movement will live to regret letting Jones, Cooper and Lucas become the faces of Britain’s moral conscience.

True, Tories have always had an aversion to the politics of protest. Crowds are smelly, noisy, messy – it’s all a bit French revolution. But the flamboyant visual signalling of neo-fascist politicians such as Trump requires an equally visual response. Those who oppose Trump go far beyond the “anarchists, thugs and paid protesters” the president described on Twitter. Trump’s obsession with “ratings” is not an idiosyncratic bug of his populism, it’s a feature. Moderates might not like to measure political power by the energy of rallies and crowds, but those are the rules that Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán play by also. If Conservatives are serious about joining the international opposition, they will need to strap on backpacks and hold their noses.

Conservatives, particularly liberal Conservatives, have spent years telling lefties that they’re nice people. “Of course we care about the poor – we just think welfare dependency is what really hurts.” “No, we’re not racist – but we need to confront the conservatism of British Muslim communities.” “We strongly oppose military abuses – but they deserve more credit for keeping us safe.”

These arguments still hold, and these political debates still matter. But if British Conservatives fail to denounce the toxicity of Trumpism – if they shrivel under the scrutiny of this moment in moral history – then they will deserve every name the left has ever flung at them.