British ministers have for some years noticed, when they travel abroad, that they meet fewer and fewer colleagues from the mainstream Right.
Can it be that Rishi Sunak now leads the last surviving Government in one of the major democracies to be run by a conventional Conservative party?
Not quite. The Japanese are still sound from the British point of view, and so are the Baltic states, with Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, and Gabrielius Landsbergis, Foreign Minister of Lithuania, outstandingly sound (see this interview with Landsbergis by Katy Balls).
But Australia went Labor last May, the French Right has repeatedly been routed in recent years, Germany acquired a Social Democrat Chancellor at the end of 2021, and by then many other countries had already turned Left, or else to populists of the Right. Jacinda Arden’s resignation will leave the political composition of New Zealand’s government unchanged.
In the United States, mainstream Republicans, or former Republicans, continue to express bewilderment at their overthrow, as in this recent conversation in The New York Times between Bret Stephens and David Brooks, published under the headline,
“The Party’s Over for Us. Where Do We Go Now?”
After articulating some of the reasons for their defeat, they find it hard to work out what if anything can be done about it. Brooks observes that across the western democracies,
“highly educated professionals have formed a Brahmin class. The top of the ladder go to competitive colleges, marry each other, send their kids to elite schools and live in the same neighbourhoods. This class dominates the media, the academy, Hollywood, tech and corporations.”
These educated voters think of themselves as liberals, not Republicans. On Monday I spoke to an American friend who is a member of the Brahmin class and said:
“It’s a very rich country, the United States. But it’s terrible for middle-aged, poorly educated white people in rural areas.
“They’re just dying off. The phrase used is ‘deaths of despair’. Suicide, depression, very poor lifestyle, family breakdown, the collapse of religion.”
Many Americans fear, with good reason, they are sinking in the social scale, and cannot bear the distant, condescending dominance of the Brahmins.
Donald Trump well understood this resentment, scorned as he himself was by the cultivated inhabitants of Manhattan as a disgusting figure, a suburban property developer and reality TV performer with no education and no manners.
He seized the opportunity to become the chosen instrument of revenge of redneck America. The more he pained the Brahmins, the greater his success with despairing, disregarded voters who lived a long way from Manhattan.
This dynamic carried Trump into the White House, but at the cost of making politics unbearable for moderate, educated, well-behaved Republicans.
As Stephens remarks in the conversation quoted above, “the populists turned on the intellectuals”.
Brooks observes that “authoritarian populism is a global phenomenon”, and wishes that in the 1990s he and his fellow intellectuals “had come up with conservative approaches to inequality, deindustrialisation, racial disparities etc.”
Every mainstream Right party now faces a war on two fronts. On one side it has to work out how to compete with populists who hate immigration and are attracted by simplistic, authoritarian solutions, while on the other side it must frame an appeal to liberal-minded centrist voters.
When Trump announced in June 2015 that he was running for the presidency, he said:
“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
Who could outbid such an implausible promise? In 2016, no one discovered a way to do so, and Trump thrived on hysterical denunciations by the Brahmin media.
This infusion of populism left the Republicans divided against themselves, and vulnerable to moderate, sensible, unthreatening opponents.
Centrist candidates are seldom exciting, but that is the point. They offer a calm, reassuring alternative.
Step forward Joe Biden. In the last presidential election his antiquity and dullness became virtues. Compared to Trump he was safe, decent, respectable, a small-c conservative who goes to church and knows how to behave.
In Germany, we find the mainstream conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, dominant for most of the period since 1949, now contending with similar difficulties.
On the one side, by adopting a determinedly pro-European policy the CDU left room for a populist rival, Alternative for Germany, to spring up in order to defend the idea of a national currency, and oppose unrestricted immigration.
On the other side, the CDU had to compete not only against the Social Democrats, who were in decline, and the Liberals, a small free-market party, but against the Greens, who were a relatively new force.
For a long time, the CDU leader, Angela Merkel, Chancellor from 2005, blunted the Green threat by coming out against nuclear power, and by promoting immigration.
Many German conservatives were appalled by her behaviour, which left Germany dependent on brown coal and Russian gas.
But these concessions kept her in power until 2021. Almost as soon as she retired, however, the CDU found themselves replaced by a coalition between the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens.
No one pretends the new Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat who had previously served under Merkel, is an inspiring figure.
But this absence of star quality will give hope to Keir Starmer and his supporters that despite being as uninspiring as Scholz, he can vanquish the Tory incumbent.
In France, the predicament of the mainstream Right, the Republicans, is much worse than in Germany.
In the first round of the presidential elections, held on 10 April 2022, the Republicans obtained a mere 4.8 per cent of the vote, crushed between Emmanuel Macron, the centrist incumbent, and Marine Le Pen, his right-wing populist rival, and also by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the Left.
Macron failed, in the parliamentary elections which followed, to retain a majority of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, but this was scant comfort for the Republicans, who found themselves in fourth place with a mere 56 seats.
Should they now support Macron? Some of them think they should, and thereby try to convince themselves that they are still a governing party, but there is really no getting away from the fact that they are a shadow of their former strength.
The British Conservative Party has long understood the need to stick together, something facilitated by the first past the post electoral system.
When UKIP threatened to become a serious rival in Westminster elections, David Cameron blunted the threat by promising in his Bloomberg speech of January 2013 to hold a referendum on EU membership, should the Conservatives win the next general election.
Win they did in 2015, so the Brexit referendum had to be held, and gave an opportunity to angry voters, some of them with few educational qualifications, to give the British Establishment an almighty kick.
Here is a version of dilemma faced by other parties of the mainstream Right: whether to pursue the votes of progressive, well-educated, cosmopolitan-minded liberals, or of angry working-class voters who see immigration as a threat to their wages and feel let down by Labour.
Boris Johnson’s answer to this either/or question was to say “both”. In the summer of 2019 he persuaded Conservatives he was the only person who could rescue the party from the desperate predicament in which it found itself by the end of Theresa May’s leadership, and in the general election campaign at the end of that year he won a famous victory by promising better public services and an end to the Brexit misery.
Yet after only three years as party leader, his own MPs threw him out, his immediate successor lasted only 49 days, and the Conservative Party now finds itself about 20 percentage points behind Labour, and in an unsettled mood, by no means certain in what direction salvation lies.
British Conservatives have thrived for longer than any other comparable party by understanding the vital importance of sticking together, and by working out how to achieve this.
Perhaps Sunak will be able to revive Conservative fortunes. But when one looks at the recent success around the world of parties of the Centre Left, often with distinctly lacklustre leaders, one cannot help thinking he has come in at a very difficult time for any party of the mainstream Right.