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Editorial: The Conservatives are split. But they should not be underestimated

THE Conservative Party is determined to proceed with its conference from this weekend despite MPs refusing a parliamentary recess for it.

As those Tories who can be spared from the Westminster pantomime (they have been denied the traditional recess) gather in Manchester busloads of protesters will head for the city from all over the country.

Thousands will demonstrate to tell the party of the bedroom tax, of universal credit, of humiliating “fit for work” tests, of the “hostile environment” that led to the racist Windrush deportations, of privatisation, in-work poverty and war that we have had enough.

And they can be brought down. The commitment of the Conservative membership to Brexit has led Boris Johnson — whose own record suggests he doesn’t give a monkey’s whether Britain is part of the EU or not — to push for a speedy exit despite this being anathema to the Tories’ traditional paymasters in the financial and corporate sectors. 

The divisions this has caused among Tory MPs, who like Labour MPs mostly backed Remain in 2016, have torn great ruptures in the parliamentary party.

Boris Johnson has not, so far, indicated any serious differences with the EU exit programme put forward by Theresa May and repeatedly rejected by MPs.

He has, however, adopted an entirely different approach to the management of the ruling party, expelling MPs who voted to legislate against a no-deal exit. 

So turbulent are our times, and so focused is the media on rubbishing Labour, that the extraordinary cull has not been given the attention it deserves.

He booted out the man who was the chancellor of the Exchequer till a few months ago (Philip Hammond), another former chancellor who is the longest-standing MP in the Commons (Ken Clarke), former members of Cabinet such as David Gauke, Justine Greening, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve, Rory Stewart, Greg Clark, Richard Benyon and many more.

The Tories have reshaped their party before in response to profound social and political crises, remaining a serious force through the centuries while the Whigs and Liberals faded away.

Johnson’s willingness to jettison many of the party’s most recognisable faces and most powerful players shows a ruthless willing to do just that. 

Many such MPs may find their way back into the fold before an election that Johnson knows will be the fight of a lifetime.

The Conservatives may be in crisis, but so is our whole political system and much of the Western world.

The status quo is clearly broken, and a new political settlement looms. The question is who will shape it: the socialist left led by Jeremy Corbyn or a race-baiting hard right that will only slam on the accelerator of social and ecological meltdown.

As Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump showed, any bid to see off the right with a status quo campaign will go down in flames.

Johnson has grasped that victory depends on looking and acting like the insurgent who is taking the Establishment on — even when he personally embodies that Establishment as much as any politician in Britain.

And for now despite having no majority, despite having been humiliated by the Supreme Court, he rides high in the polls.

Labour can turn that around. It was further behind in 2017, and it has the people power and the policy vision to fight a far more impressive election campaign.

Nor do Johnson’s recent public appearances suggest he is likely to come across well in debates or encounters with ordinary people. There is no need to despair. 

But there is no room for complacency either. Labour’s recent focus on court rulings and parliamentary procedure have the hallmarks of a Hillary Clinton approach.

Better to follow the lead of those MPs who will speak on the streets of Manchester this weekend, and fight a grassroots campaign for radical, revolutionary change.


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