So much seems unusual about this Conservative government: its constant disruptiveness; its preference for rhetoric over functional policies; its mixture of brazen U-turns and cult-like discipline; its flirtations with the far right alongside leftwing-sounding plans to “level up”; its deadly reluctance to curtail small freedoms in a pandemic.
It’s common to attribute some or all of these tendencies to the idiosyncrasies of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, or the effects of Brexit, or the rise of rightwing populism. But there is a less noticed and more surprising factor at work, too. Today’s Tory government has adopted some of the style, rhetoric and preoccupations of a defunct radical sect, the Revolutionary Communist party (RCP).
The RCP was a tiny British party, founded in the 70s, officially disbanded in the late 90s. Despite its name, most of its stances were not communist or revolutionary but contrarian: it supported free speech for racists, and nuclear power; it attacked environmentalism and the NHS. Its most consistent impulse was to invoke an idealised working class, and claim it was actually being harmed by the supposed elites of the liberal left.
A similar impulse has also driven the Johnson government, in particular its Brexit policy and the decisive capture in last year’s election of Labour’s “red wall”. This similarity is less surprising once you know that a former RCP member, Munira Mirza, is head of the Downing Street policy unit, and probably Johnson’s most important adviser after Cummings. In an article for Grazia magazine this year, Johnson called her “extraordinary”, “ruthless”, and one of “the five women who have shaped my life”. On Friday another RCP veteran, Claire Fox, was nominated for a peerage by the government.
Other RCP veterans, such as Frank Furedi, Mick Hume and Brendan O’Neill, are fixtures in the Tory press and its associated journal, the Spectator. For decades they’ve also organised a profusion of post-RCP organisations, including the magazine Living Marxism (later LM), the website Spiked, and the Institute of Ideas (now the Academy of Ideas), which runs political and cultural conferences with extensive corporate sponsorship and well-known participants.
Journalists have periodically probed the methods and motives of the ex-RCP network. Much less attention has been paid to why the Tory party and press have become so keen on them. What does the ascent of Mirza and her comrades tell us about modern Conservatism?
For a long time, Britain wasn’t ready for the RCP’s kind of politics. During the 70s and 80s the Conservatives already had their own aggressive, populist creed – Thatcherism. Yet as it ran out of steam, and the calmer but blander Blair era began, broadcasters who wanted rightwing controversialists to “balance” their shows discovered the RCP diaspora. During the 90s and 00s, programmes such as Question Time and The Moral Maze came to depend on Fox in particular.
The Tory press soon followed suit. They love to publish people from supposedly leftwing backgrounds who bash the left, and who use what seems like neutral logic to arrive at essentially rightwing conclusions. Both were RCP skills.
Eventually Mirza was noticed by the Conservatives themselves. In 2005, with the party long out of power and desperate for new ideas, she was hired by the rightwing thinktank Policy Exchange, which had recently been founded by would-be Tory radicals including Michael Gove and Nick Boles. “I sort of adore and am fascinated by Munira,” Boles recently told the website ConservativeHome. In 2008 another opportunity opened up for her, when Johnson, who was close to Policy Exchange, was elected mayor of London. Without much of a plan about how to govern, he hired Mirza as an adviser, then promoted her to deputy mayor for education and culture.
Former colleagues remember her as diligent and efficient – qualities Johnson lacks. Like Cummings, she revered modern technology and what he calls “normal voters”, and was keen to let people know she wasn’t a Conservative member. Yet beneath her measured manner and insistence that right and left were no longer meaningful categories, she appeared dogmatic in her dislike of liberal causes, such as multiculturalism, and leftwing institutions such as trade unions.
In 2016, Johnson stepped down as mayor, but the RCP network found another illiberal phenomenon it could get behind: Brexit. Last year Fox was elected as a Brexit party MEP. Spiked regards remainers with the same insatiable fury as the rightwing tabloids – which is one reason why its writers can move so easily between the two.
Last year, Mirza co-authored the Conservative manifesto. In its crude but effective repetitions, and its promises to “champion freedom of expression” and “unleash the country’s potential” by cutting red tape, there were clear echoes of the RCP network’s preoccupations and polemical style. When Conservatism is in a confrontational phase, as it is now, the relentlessness and conviction of ex-leftists can turn out to be very useful. Back in the 70s, one of Thatcher’s most valued advisers was a former Communist party activist, Alfred Sherman.
Even Mirza’s personal biography fits neatly with the themes of current Toryism. She is a working-class northerner from Oldham. One of its constituencies has a small Labour majority – another potential “red wall” target for the Tories. Meanwhile her immigrant background and contrarian views on racism – in 2017 she wrote on Spiked that institutional racism was “a perception more than a reality” – made her just the right person, in the government’s view, to set up its new commission on racial inequalities. If its conclusions are complacent – and Johnson’s record on race makes that quite likely – her Pakistani ancestry will provide cover.
Yet in other ways the relationship between the Tories and the RCP network has become trickier in recent months. Spiked hates the lockdown. “Cummings broke the lockdown?” wrote O’Neill recently. “Good. Welcome to the sensible minority, Dom.” Spiked also hates government campaigns against obesity, which it sees as state intrusion and “a war on the poor”. Covid-19 threatens to make such libertarian postures seem obsolete, or at least in need of adjustment. This week, one of the parts of northern England put back into partial lockdown was Mirza’s home town.
Former colleagues predict she will try to soften such emergency measures. Johnson may be receptive. On Monday, he said his new anti-obesity drive would not be “excessively bossy or nannying”. Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, his emphasis on the “common sense” of individuals has echoed an argument often made on Spiked, that states should treat citizens as “grownups”.
Yet if the crisis worsens again, or the government’s poll ratings resume their early summer fall, then Mirza and her comrades may learn a hard lesson about the Conservatives. They often seek help from outside the party. Their relationship with the RCP tells us that, as orthodox Conservative values such as support for free-market capitalism have lost their broad appeal, the Tories have become less and less squeamish about where this help comes from.
But once these outside ideas and allies have been assimilated, or stop being useful, the Conservatives move on. From David Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats to Johnson’s more furtive dalliance with the RCP now, relationships with the Tories are not built to last.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist