It all seemed so different a year ago. Arriving in the United States in early 2021, I assumed that there was much for US conservatives to learn from their British cousins. Boris Johnson had just gained an almighty majority – the largest since Margaret Thatcher’s days – winning in places that had not voted Conservative since before the Second World War.
American conservatism, by contrast, appeared in poor health. Donald Trump had lost the White House in November 2020. States that only a decade earlier had leaned solidly towards the Republicans had suddenly become competitive – and the Republicans seemed determined to lose those competitions. On January 5, 2021, they compounded their defeat in the presidential race with a disastrous special election campaign in Georgia. What should have been a shoo-in ended with them losing control of the United States Senate. Things got even worse the next day. A mob, stirred up by conservative commentators who should have known better, stormed the Capitol. In those grim moments, it looked as if the party of Ronald Reagan was in terminal decline.
Fast-forward to today, and there is still a striking difference between these movements – but with the roles dramatically reversed. As President Biden continues to underwhelm, the Republicans anticipate big gains in the midterms next year. They are ahead in key states such as Virginia – and, indeed, won a hat-trick of statewide contests there only a few months ago, in a state that many assumed had shifted irretrievably leftwards. They are polling remarkably well among middle-class Asian and Hispanic Americans.
In Britain, by contrast, a recent YouGov survey suggests that Boris Johnson’s winning formula is failing, with support plummeting in almost every demographic group. The decline is especially ominous in blue-collar Britain, whose support allowed the Conservatives to win a swathe of formerly Labour seats. After 12 years in office, the Tories have raised taxes to their highest point since the 1950s. Since the last election, median household incomes have fallen, and a cost-of-living crisis is on its way.
Boris may have delivered Brexit and the vaccine rollout, and supported Ukraine brilliantly, but I doubt mentioning that will do the Tories much good. In electoral terms, the vaccine is ancient history. Brexit might have been a wedge issue at the last election; today it conjures up a vague feeling that more might have been done to capitalize on the opportunities.
“Surely,” you might say, “it’s all a question of incumbency.” Aren’t British conservatives simply tanking because, like Biden, they happen to coincide with a cost-of-living crisis while in office? Yet if the Tories are floundering for the same reasons as Biden’s Democrats, it does rather raise the question of why they should be governing as leftists in the first place.
In both countries, inflation is rising rapidly because governments have hosed money and achieved very little growth to show for it. Biden has thrown an additional $2 trillion into public spending since coming to office. Yet while Rishi Sunak has spent such eye-watering sums you might be forgiven for thinking that Corbyn had won the last election, in America, Republican-run states have responded to the cost-of-living crisis by cutting taxes. My own state of Mississippi just passed the largest tax cut in the state’s history. If only British ministers were as receptive to free-market thinking.
US energy costs are soaring in part because the federal government canceled pipelines and discouraged investment in oil and gas. Yet Britain’s Conservatives have somehow gone even further: outlawing fracking and regulating the energy market as you might expect to see in a socialist state. Though leadership feels ever-more dysfunctional in both countries, US conservatives are brilliantly tapping into public anger by devolving power away from the state. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Johnson administration has become a byword for big government.