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Blair Gibbs: The U.K. Conservative Party’s survival instinct is about to be revealed

Commentary

As Tory members in Canada cruise towards the inevitable coronation of their next leader—someone they can have confidence in becoming a future prime minister—across the pond, British Tories are engaged in a more dynamic and interesting contest. 

The sudden defenestration of Boris Johnson earlier this monthBoris Johnson resignation: Your questions answered https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-62092075—despite winning a historic majority three years ago, surviving a formal confidence vote in the spring, and continuing to outpoll the Labour leader on who would make the best PM—still feels messy and badly timed. It no doubt looks odd from the perspective of Canadian Conservatives who have been out of power nationally for seven years. 

One of the totems that political science undergraduates learn is that the British Conservative Party has survived for so long because it is highly adaptable and when needed, proven to be unusually ruthless in sacrificing its leaders to ensure its own electoral survival. In one sense, the parliamentary system is geared this way, and the Conservatives—unencumbered by other producer interests in their policy-setting process or leadership races—can act more quickly to change course, purge the dissenting opinion (like today’s Remain-voting MPs after 2016) and switch out the leadership. With Union power enshrined, the Labour Party is never going to work like this. 

But there is something more fundamental happening in this leadership race. It is the first since 2005 to be a real choice where the party members will cast the deciding voteConservative Party leadership contests https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/conservative-party-leadership-contests (the 2019 contest which saw Boris defeat Jeremy Hunt was a forgone conclusion once gridlock over Brexit had brought down Theresa May). 

Not only is the race happening live and very quickly while the current Cabinet continues to govern under Boris as a “caretaker” PM—not the leisurely, dull and far too long campaigns seen in opposition in Canada—but it is also very diverse and wide open. 

As of Sunday, several major experienced cabinet figures have already launched their campaigns and quit as candidates, but there are still five potential PMs going into the next vote of MPs on Monday and four of them could still credibly argue they are able to make it to next week’s shortlist of two. It should really be a choice from three not two, but those are the rules. 

Grey beards are out—literally and figuratively. Together they are all aged under 50, and there are three women and only one straight white man. David Cameron has even resurfaced to try and claim credit for his modernising efforts, arguing that such a diverse field is proof that his positive discrimination efforts around candidates selection after 2005 have changed the face of the party for good. 

However they got here, the candidates are all fresh and interesting in their own way. And it is the sort of field that progressive parties in most Western democratic societies can’t produce, let alone the sort that any “Conservative” parliamentary party has ever managed to organically throw up. It puts the Democratic Party in the U.S. to shame, let alone the GOP. 

Crucially, MPs alone will not be able to decide the outcome with a coronation, as they did effectively with Michael Howard in 2003 and Theresa May in 2017. There is a front runner, but Rishi Sunak’s lead is not all commanding.UK: Indian-origin Rishi Sunak 4th in Conservative poll https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/uk/uk-indian-origin-rishi-sunak-4th-in-conservative-poll/articleshow/92942600.cms This time the party’s membership—still rather small, ageing and very rural and suburban and comprising not more than 150 thousand paid-up supporters—will have to pick the candidate they favour over the next five weeks. 

I have my own preferences, and I think only three could credibly do the job well, but the merits of each candidate and their professional credentials are not worth discussing. I’ve worked with some of them in a former life and they all have strengths. What is more interesting is what this diverse and dynamic leadership race says about the current state of the Right in Britain. 

The challenges facing the next prime minister are unusually daunting. Rampant inflation. The fiscal catastrophe of COVID. The regional instability of an ongoing European war. A sudden collapse in living standards. Industrial unrest. The domestic indicators for trust in politics and performance of public services like crime, court backlogs, and the health service are all flashing red. 

In normal times this would lead the party to want a senior, experienced figure that they could present as a stabilising force. A Major after Thatcher. Someone with proven ability who could steady the ship and restore some trust. And maybe that urge will eventually win out, and the credible, likeable, effective former-Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be that force. But many of the MPs and most of the members—judging by the polling so far—seem to want something else. 

Being a Brexiteer is important—and voting Leave at the time of the referendum is even more useful, as the Truss campaign has discovered—but we are witnessing the first post-Brexit candidate election where credentials and rhetoric on the defining issue of the new century no longer cut it. The selectorate want something more for tomorrow’s challenges. 

This is a moment where the Right should be reverting to its psychological default of safety first. They should be feeling cautious. Having lost the proven winner, better back the proven successor. Can’t risk electing someone untested in a time of crisis. Recover a reputation for discipline and show they still have the competence to govern well in tough times and back Sunak. 

And yet there is another mood that seems to be taking hold. Conservatives know they have lost a striking, charismatic, and once ultra-popular leader and they have at most 22 months before the next election. Everyone wants a competent prime minister who won’t turn out to be an embarrassing over-promoted career politician. But who will stop the march of the Left in the new culture wars and call out the wokery? And crucially, who will stop the Tories losing their way and becoming the opposition?

Even if Labour cannot win outright under Keir Starmer, most Conservatives know that a hung Parliament is a real possibility next time, and with that comes the risk of the SNP and the Union itself fracturing with another Scottish independence vote. The recovery of the Liberal Democrats plays into this fear too—we are learning that Brexit becoming history has other beneficiaries too. 

So against their better instinct and the traditional urge, the minds of many MPs and party members are already on the next election, and not predominately on whether a certain candidate would make the best PM for two short years come the vacancy in September. 

That suddenly changes the calculation and it is causing Conservatives everywhere to give each candidate a proper second look. MPs are switching allegiance and many are not revealing who they are going to support even now. Betting odds are changing wildly. They are waiting for the debates. Waiting for the slip ups. Watching to see who has the spark of a future winner. 

In “normal” times an Asian MP from a northern seat who voted Brexit would be dynamite for the Tories. But is that enough anymore? His record as a Chancellor who has overseen a rising tax burden has clearly tarnished him in some member’s eyes. Is he still the candidate that offers the best chance of winning the Tories a fifth term in under two years’ time? And if not, are the others any more likely to? 

The surge for Boris in 2019 reflected a bit of this tendency too—the last roll of the dice with an unconventional candidate. May’s disastrous premiership had run into the sand. Brexit was close to being lost and overturned by Parliament and the courts. And all of his flaws were known and priced in. But MPs knew where the public was and members followed Boris enthusiastically. 

The 80-seat majority he delivered and the electoral coalition he created in that subsequent general election campaign was and is remarkable. It will be studied by political science students for years. And it still—just about—holds today. However, it is a new, fragile and unfamiliar coalition that will need to be nurtured if it is ever going to take root properly. This new Tory coalition is more Northern, more working class, and less economically Thatcherite than the party has been used to for decades. It may prove not to be sustainable now that Brexit has happened and that mobilising force and its main champion has receded from view. 

But if it is going to hold together for a new Tory leader so that seats won in the Midlands and the North in 2019 are retained in 2024—even as some historically Conservative seats are lost in the South—then that new Tory leader is going to have to be something radically different from your “typical Tory”. Not like Boris himself. No one is capable of that and the appetite is now there for someone more focused, more serious. But someone fresh and exciting who will make all these new Tory voters look twice and stick with them next time over the promises of change coming from Labour. There might even be entirely new voters to reach, new immigrants, and non-white middle class voters and women under 30 that the party has struggled to reach, even under Boris. 

Commentators say that Boris was a gambler who’s luck eventually ran out. But it could be that the Right in Britain has got a taste for picking a radical candidate—someone who represents a gamble themselves. Maybe the gamble will fail. Maybe the next leader won’t make it. But winning a fifth term from this point in the cycle feels like a pretty big hurdle in every scenario. So in the face of crisis and uncertainty, will the party’s famed survival instinct come back? Are we about to see the biggest gamble of all? Britain’s first black female prime minister, aged just 42?Kemi Badenoch: Anti-woke campaigner making waves https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-62176280

Stay tuned…

Opinion: Correcting Canada’s mistaken Cuban narrative

Commentary

The Cuban regime is one of the oldest dictatorships in the world, and the situation is only worsening. Following the July 11, 2021, pro-democratic and peaceful protests, the Cuban regime cracked down. Repression of human rights defenders rose to unprecedented levels. Arbitrary detentions became so commonplace that Cuba now has the highest number of detained political prisoners in the Americas. The Cuban regime is collaborating with other, bigger authoritarian players including Russia and China. Yet, Canadian policy regarding Cuba has not adjusted. 

Canada has a policy, generally, of standing up for human rights and democracy around the world. This should be applied in a principled manner. Standing up for human rights should not be political, partisan, or geopolitical. Canada should stand up for human rights and democracy across the board. Doing so requires that we look critically at our policy toward regimes like the one in Havana, which we have been historically soft on, and pursue approaches that better cohere with our interests and values.

One aspect of this is adjusting how the Cuban story is told in Canada. To this day, the narrative most prevalent in Canada is that the United States’ embargo is responsible for the ongoing poverty and oppression in Cuba. This narrative ignores or minimizes the responsibility of the Cuban regime itself. This view has been driven by the Canadian government’s engagement with the private sector (investors in Cuba) and other such stakeholders in its formulation of its Cuban foreign policy. Notably, this view does not include the perspectives of human rights defenders and members of the peaceful pro-democratic movement in Cuba.

We must confront reality: this narrative at the core of Canada’s policy toward Cuba is more like a myth than a view rooted in fact, and it has been weaponized for decades to justify an inert approach to abuses perpetrated by the Cuban regime. 

This problematic narrative ignores the Cuban regime’s own repressive laws and practices as well as its unwillingness to adopt comprehensive economic and political reforms. There are numerous examples of this, including the banning of private participation in 124 professions such as journalism, publishing, cinematic audiovisual production, wholesale, key economic and cultural activities, and more.Cuba Names Journalism, Music Production, Cultural Programming as Among Banned Private Professions https://www.artforum.com/news/cuba-names-journalism-music-production-cultural-programming-as-among-banned-private-professions-84997 Additionally, consider the numerous repressive laws such as Decree Law 370Cuba’s Decree Law 370 and the EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-9-2020-004117_EN.html which censors information that is “contrary to social interest,” or Decree Law 35Cuba: Telecommunications Decree Curtails Free Speech https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/08/25/cuba-telecommunications-decree-curtails-free-speech which censors online content, as well as Cuba’s Criminal Code that criminalizes dissent. 

These laws exist and repress, independently of any embargo. Focusing on the impacts of a U.S. embargo is a distraction when we should be focusing on the regime’s own bad policies and the policies of countries that serve to enable its oppression. It’s time for Ottawa to listen to the people of Cuba who have been making this case at great personal risk and develop an approach to Havana that reflects our values.

This starts by recognizing how out of sync Canada’s policy is when compared to the policies of our allies. Canada has lagged behind the European UnionEP Resolution of 16 December 2021 on the human rights situation in Cuba https://www.europarl.europa.eu/delegations/en/dcam/documents/ep-resolutions and the United States CongressH.Res.760 – Expressing solidarity with Cuban citizens demonstrating peacefully for fundamental freedoms, condemning the Cuban regime’s acts of repression, and calling for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained Cuban citizens. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-resolution/760 in condemning repression in Cuba and asserting solidarity with human rights defenders on the island. While the European Parliament passed three resolutions condemning repression in Cuba in 2021 (two after the July 11, 2021 protests), and similar initiatives were undertaken by the U.S. Congress, Canada’s House of Commons has not passed a single resolution on the human rights situation in Cuba. 

It is also long overdue that the Canadian Parliament takes a public stance calling for the release of political prisoners in Cuba. The handful of comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, denouncing the repression on July 11, 2021, are insufficient when compared to what has been said and done by democratic governments elsewhere in the world. 

Public condemnations should also be paired with concrete actions. Canada has numerous tools at its disposal to address human rights violations, all of which should be used to stand up for human rights in Cuba. 

For example, one key tool that Canada can and should leverage is its ability to impose targeted sanctions on human rights abusers using its Magnitsky Act. This Act enables Canada to impose property-blocking sanctions and visa bans on individuals with responsibility for gross human rights violations or acts of significant corruption. Canada has imposed targeted sanctions, including using its Magnitsky Act, in response to gross violations of human rights across the world, including in Nicaragua and Venezuela. However, Canada has not yet imposed targeted sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights abuses in Cuba. Canada should do so.

Canada is one of the most democratic nations in the world and prioritizes standing up for human rights and democracy across the globe. Applying these values in a principled manner means taking action in response to authoritarianism and human rights abuses in Cuba.