After the British electorate voted to leave the European Union last June, things began to change rapidly. The prime minister speedily resigned and was replaced. His successor brought in a host of ministers – some new people and some rather old ones – to take account of this dramatic shift in public opinion. Those who had been on the fringes of the governing Conservative party – for example David Davis, an archetypal antique face – are now in the cabinet.
This reflects a wider truth: although the party was split over the referendum, and although it has lost its most charismatic and most successful leader in many years, the Conservative party is practically unchallenged. It reigns supreme, barely bothered by the opposition Labour party, whose internecine struggles and faction fights have riven the party for over two years.
The Liberal Democrats, until 2015 in government with the Conservatives, have been reduced to a rump, and the party still looks particularly anaemic and sickly. UKIP – which, as the only party officially to support leaving the European Union, should have posed some threat to the Tories from the right – has its own internal chaos; and Nigel Farage, its once and future leader, is altogether too keen on spending time in America at the side of Donald Trump to be of any use back home.
In this remarkable situation, what appears at first to be comfortable hegemony can soon become something rather less stable. The Conservatives may end up doing the opposite of what its leaders have intended for the past ten years: rather than firmly occupying the centre ground, the party could lurch to the right, with monumental consequences.
This poses serious dangers to the stability of the country, not least British foreign policy, which will have to chart a dangerous course after Brexit. This could lead to a major realignment of the country’s diplomatic fortunes, including a possible rapprochement with Russia.
After the referendum result was announced, something did change in British politics. This was not as dramatic as some like to suggest, in either a positive or a negative sense. Britain did not overnight become an international beacon of freedom, and it did not fall victim to an entirely unprecedented increase in race-baiting demagogy and public displays of prejudice. But it is true that something has changed: the Tory right, banished for over ten years during David Cameron’s period as Conservative leader, is back in office and in power. The more extreme elements of the Tory party therefore have an increased capacity – and willingness – to affect policy.
The Tory right exhibits an extreme antipathy both to the European Union and to its constituent countries, and many among its number harbour a corresponding appreciation of Russia and its authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin. In a post-Brexit environment – and with the spectre of Donald Trump and his traducing of NATO all around – the search for new trading partners and allies has made many of them think eastward.
If Britain is going to experience a ‘hard Brexit’, leaving both the European Union and the continental single market, something that looks increasingly likely, this may become more and more attractive. It is already something of an ideological aspiration for some on the Tory right, and it may increase as the years of trade negotiations to come, both within and without the European Union, drag on.
Some groups within the party are already very much in favour of Russia and Putin and in favour of his imperialist ambitions. They are decidedly on the right of the party, and are certainly fringe, but that is not to deny their capacity to influence ministers and members. One such organization is the Bow Group. The Sunday Times reports that its chairman, Ben Harris-Quinney, has travelled to Moscow specifically to praise Russia’s anti-gay laws, which have drawn international condemnation.
Furthermore, Harris-Quinney is a frequent guest on Russia Today, a propaganda arm of the kleptocratic state. He defends Russian policy in Syria, which is directly responsible for mass civilian casualties, and also pushes the Russian line that the United States is embarking on a ‘march to war’ by opposing Russian interests in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Another Tory think tank of similar vintage is the Bruges Group. It too was implicated in the Sunday Times story; one of its reports, purportedly written by a ‘foreign policy expert’, was in fact composed by Andrey Karbovskiy, an official affiliated with the Russian foreign ministry. Such naked propagandizing is not new to British politics, but it is still shocking.
People and organizations such as these are already engaged, consciously or not, in spouting Russian propaganda. And since the EU referendum they have been emboldened, and others have flocked to take up their cause.
See, for example, Hannah David, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, who in a piece for the influential ConservativeHome website advocates trading extensively with Russia after Britain leaves the European Union. This comes with the implicit suggestion that Britain lessen its diplomatic war of words with Putin’s regime, stronger now because of Russian war crimes in Syria, and cease upholding any sanctions that the G7 has instituted in protest against Russian aggression in Ukraine.
David is, so I have been told, no hardline supporter of Brexit or fan of Putin. But still she has taken up this cause, possibly scenting which way the wind is blowing. This is deeply disconcerting, not least because such a position necessitates that Britain turn its back on allies in Europe and around the world. It means looking to a tyrant for succour and support.
Some on the Conservative right have nourished a longstanding admiration for Vladimir Putin for years; they like his perceived toughness, his brutality, his muscular and chauvinistic Christianity, his strongman image. But until now they have been outliers, oddities with peculiar and unrealistic obsessions. In the world created by Britain’s exit from the European Union, they are no longer fringe figures; now they are in government. And this could have a disastrous effect on Britain’s foreign policy in the years to come.
This piece was originally published in National Review.