US and UK Tories are frozen in failure

US and UK Tories are frozen in failure

US and UK Tories are frozen in failure


In recent years, the United States and the United Kingdom have followed surprisingly similar political trajectories. Against all odds, populist uprisings won over conservative parties in both countries, secured power and embarked on projects of national transformation. These efforts went awry (to put it generously) and, in due course, support for the rebellions faded.

Lately, voters have called for rethinking. In both countries, it turns out to be more difficult than you might think.

In 2016, Americans stunned the world — and in many ways themselves — by electing Donald Trump president. This was a few months after the British somehow voted to leave the European Union. Then, just as Trump came to power on his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister largely on a promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Neither plan worked to the satisfaction of voters.

In 2020, after four years of making America great by putting people by their throats, Trump lost to Joe Biden (not the toughest opponent). In the recent midterm elections, Trump’s interventions crippled the Republican Party. The UK, meanwhile, has gone from one calamity (Johnson) to another (Liz Truss). Its economy is now setting records for poor performance and support for the historic Tory project has collapsed.

Still, conservatives in both countries find the 2016 revolutions difficult to reverse. Trump is now such a liability that Democrats must be eager to see him nominated in 2024. Republicans, though familiar with the same polling data, are unsure whether to drop him. Similarly, Britain’s Tories know Brexit has failed and they need to mitigate the damage. But they can’t bring themselves to say it. Everything will be planned, they insist. New opportunities abound and ‘Global Britain’ is well on its way to success.

The problem is not only that it is difficult to admit mistakes. When a political party sees that it needs a new leadership, a change of leadership is often enough. There is usually no need for an explicit apology. And changes in direction don’t always have to be dramatic — or substantial, for that matter.

Republicans don’t need to give up their platform, for example, because right now they don’t have one. The electorate simply wants to get away from Trump’s exhausting provocations, ignorance, vanity and impropriety.

The Conservatives are in a more difficult situation. Unfortunately, they have policies, and if the UK’s outlook is to improve, it must change. But the Brexit mistake cannot be undone. Even in the unlikely event that Britain asks to join the EU, for the foreseeable future the Union will not want her back. For now, the UK’s only recourse is maximum economic integration as a non-member – through deals such as those the EU has granted to Switzerland, Norway and other neighbors . It means to act as a supplicant. The Conservatives could not hide it and the EU is unlikely to help them.

At least Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who took office in October, is adjusting the tone – less pompous, more practical. Relations have warmed slightly and the prospects of a deal over Johnson’s troublesome protocol for Northern Ireland appear to be improving.

But a much bolder course change is needed, and there is no sign of it. The Tories have still not given up on the idea of ​​letting all EU-derived UK laws expire at the end of this year unless they have been reviewed and adjusted in the meantime. UK businesses are furious at the added uncertainty this threat – which has no apparent purpose – will impose on their operations. But the policy has not yet changed.

In the United States as in the United Kingdom, the conservatives seem frozen in these losing and destructive postures. And the reasons are the same: both sides are always at the mercy of extremists.

Angry Trumpists and real Brexiteers have lost not just the argument, but much of the electoral support they used to command. Yet they do not leave. Both parties lack leaders with the courage and spirit to defeat extremists, whose energy shows no signs of abating. Last week’s fiasco over the election of a new Republican Speaker to the House of Representatives illustrates the magnitude of the problem. Trump, if you can believe him, called for compromise; his rebel supporters were unimpressed.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, soon to be president of the University of Florida, delivered his farewell address last week. The biggest divide in America, he said, isn’t about politics, or red versus blue: “It’s pluralist versus political fanatic.” That’s true, and not just in the United States. Fanatics have energy, and energy drives politics. The results speak for themselves.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering the economy. Previously, he was associate editor of The Economist and chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times.

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