Vivek Ramaswamy is a 'rising star' in the Republican party - Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Week-in-Review: Does the first Republican presidential debate offer a glimpse into the Conservative party’s future?

The United States has perfected the art of politics as theatre. While British journalists stir in the stillness of recess, American politicos feast on the fallout from the first debate of the Republican party primaries — over a year and two months ahead of the general election set for 5 November 2024. 

The debate comes as Republicans sift through the prospective candidates to challenge the incumbent Democrat President Joe Biden, who has declared his intention to run for a second term. Right now, the Republican frontrunner is the four-time indicted former President Donald Trump — who, according to one CBS News/YouGov poll, is leading his closest rival Florida governor Ron DeSantis by 46 points. 

Trump boasts such a significant lead over his rivals that he decided to skip the first debate on Wednesday — lest he have his record tarnished by critical candidates polling in the mere single digits. Thus the Presidential hopefuls lined up on Wednesday evening, from long-shot to even-longer-shot, with the shadow of the elephant-not-in-the-room looming ever-large. 

From the vantage point of British politics, it is easy to dismiss the Republican primaries as some irrelevant sideshow as the government glides inauspiciously through its grid of “media weeks”. But if everything runs according to form over the next few years, the Conservative Party will soon be facing a leadership contest of its own — its first to be conducted in opposition since 2005. 

And so overpowering is the sense of fin de régime that, with the party 19 points behind Labour in the polls, public appearances by senior Conservatives are increasingly seen through the lens of future leadership bids. In this way, the unfolding Republican primary — and perhaps especially the debate on Wednesday — may offer some important clues as to the tone and substance of the contest (expected) to come.

The caveats…

But first, some caveats. The Donald Trump factor is, of course, all-consuming in Republican politics right now. Powered by a renewed sense of victimhood, a vice increasingly integral to his populist pitch, the former President looks to be on a straight path to the Republican nomination. But here, on the other side of the Atlantic, there is no obvious parallel. 

Boris Johnson, once dubbed “Britain Trump” by his fellow fair-haired right-winger, languishes in the political wilderness in the UK. He now scribbles a weekly column for the Daily Mail after scurrying into self-imposed exile ahead of the release of the privileges committee report into “partygate”. So leaving the prospect of a sensational, unprecedented return to parliament to one side, Boris Johnson will not be a candidate for the future Conservative leadership. But, as I explain below, his lack of presence, like Trump’s on Wednesday, could nonetheless be significant. 

It is also worth relating that some of the key issues that divide up the American right do not map neatly onto our politics. The declarations of rising star Republican Vivek Ramaswamy, for example, that “the climate change agenda is a hoax” and his insistence that the US should cease aid to Ukraine, would likely be too extreme for a Conservative election field. As prime minister, Johnson made a virtue both out of his support for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and his patronage of green causes.

And, finally, the process by which the US selects its presidential candidates means anyone who is American (as long as you are 35 years old and a natural-born citizen — even if you are incarcerated) can run. The selection rules of the UK Conservative Party mean only MPs are qualified to be considered by their colleagues as a prospective candidate. It means unless the party suffers a Canada 1993-style blowout, and loses a significant swathe of seats precipitating an unlikely rule change, there will be no real outsider candidates like Ramaswamy or even a Trump-style figure. 

The culture war

Caveats catalogued, a first observation is that — when it comes to key culture war issues — it is no secret that Britain lies downstream from the preeminent polluters in American politics. 

The Conservative Party has in recent years frequently been accused of importing American-style right-wing politics into the Westminster arena: the politics of immigration, moralising over gender self-identification, even voter ID — something Jacob Rees-Mogg recently suggested was akin to American-style voter suppression. Indeed, Rees-Mogg’s admission on this latter point came in a speech delivered to the National Conservativism Conference, or Nat Con, a right-wing get-together patronised by the Washington DC-based Edmund Burke Foundation. 

The intellectual vim the conference stirred on the British right, with contributions from Rees-Mogg as well as those tipped for future leadership bids like Suella Braverman and David Frost, shows the intersection between American and British conservatisms and is well-advanced and, even, advancing. 

Ramaswamy vs. Pence

Regarding a future Conservative leadership race’s culture war posturing, one exchange from the recent Republican debate may be singularly instructive

Flowing ostensibly from a question about crime rates, the back-and-forth of former Vice President Mike Pence and 38-year-old entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy provided the clearest distillation of the Republican party’s inner acrimony. 

The rising star Ramaswamy began: “The reason we have that mental health epidemic is that people are so hungry for purpose and meaning at a time when family, faith, patriotism, hard work have all disappeared”.

He added: “What we really need is a tonal reset from the top … we will close the southern border … and that is also how we address the mental health epidemic in the next generation that is directly leading to violent crime across this country.”

Pence parried, invoking the inner goodness of the American people in traditional Reaganesque tones: “We don’t have an identity crisis. We’re not looking for a new national identity”, he explained. 

But Ramaswamy had not finished his brooding broadside: “We live in a dark moment and we have to confront the fact that we’re in an internal sort of cold cultural civil war and we have to recognise that”. 

Ramaswamy’s pitch forms the analytical crux of National Conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic. That is the belief that national revival must be preceded by a top-down cultural counter-revolution, whereby the values of institutions must be uprooted and reframed with a faithful, nationalistic ethos. In truth, for the National Conservative, everything flows from the culture war — be it our loyalty to our national community or our society’s ability to reproduce itself (sometimes literally) and its values and beliefs. 

It is a point of principle that has been advanced enthusiastically by British parliamentarians as well. Note the contribution of Miriam Cates, the rising star Conservative MP, who told the NatCon conference in May this year: “When culture, schools and universities openly teach that our country is racist, … boundaries are tyranny and self-restraint is oppression, is it any wonder that mental health conditions … and epidemic levels of anxiety and confusion characterise the emerging generation?”.

She also argued that “liberal individualism has proved to be completely powerless to resist a cultural Marxism that is systematically destroying our children’s souls”. It is the essence of Ramaswamy’s stunning repudiation of Pence’s traditional conservative pitch.

In right-wing politics on both sides of the Atlantic, therefore, we are seeing a retreat from the “New Right” into the tropes of “cultural conflict”. Here, in the UK, it is a trend that could become far more pronounced in a Conservative leadership campaign as candidates, potentially after a historic electoral reckoning, compete to become the champion of their party right. Certainly, the intra-party competition on all things “woke” will provide strong incentives for candidates — individuals like Lord Frost, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch — to form increasingly intractable viewpoints on salient “culture war” issues. 

It is an ideological battleground on which Kemi Badenoch, the business and trade secretary and bookies favourite to emerge as the next Conservative leader, will feel especially comfortable. Serving also as a minister for women and equalities, Badenoch has been praised for her trenchant stances on divisive “culture war” topics by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis himself — Trump’s challenger-in-chief who has placed the “war on woke” at the centre of his campaign. 

The ‘Johnson factor’

Another lesson from Wednesday’s Republican debate is how Boris Johnson could loom large in a future Conservative leadership contest even if he is not a candidate. 

Donald Trump was not present at the Republican debate on Wednesday, but candidates were nonetheless forced at every turn to reckon with his legacy. Some candidates, like Ramaswamy, have chosen to remain close to Trump — whereas others, such as former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have founded their whole political pitch on denouncing him.

One of the little-noticed trends of the privileges committee’s investigation into partygate was how the matter could in time bleed into other issues — including a future leadership contest. Ultimately, those positioning for a future Conservative leadership race surely eyed potential political risk in decrying Johnson, voting against him in the privileges committee showdown lest an “aye” vote be used against them down the line.

Today, Johnson is largely an irrelevance to the national political scene, but his past missteps could be revived in a future leadership contest as questioners and debate moderators seek to emphasise dividing lines between the contenders. 

The enduringly ambitious Penny Mordaunt, for example, has been as critical as any senior Conservative of the former prime minister. She voted for the initial privileges committee report after leading it through the commons. 

Potential future rivals Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman opted to abstain on the vote. Still, the home secretary may emerge as purest on Johnson — Badenoch has in the past been criticised by loyalists for being one of the many ministers who resigned from his government in a bid to hasten his resignation as PM.

The party record

Another prominent theme of the Republican debate on Wednesday was that the party’s record, both in Congress and in the Whitehouse, emerged as a point of contestation. 

Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and former US ambassador to the UN, was the most forthrightly critical of her party’s record in office, taking the unusual stance of blaming Republicans for their role in driving up debt and stoking inflation: “The truth is that Biden didn’t do this to us”, she said, “Our Republicans did this to us, too, when they passed that $2.2 trillion Covid stimulus bill”.

Haley’s bid to make political capital out of her party’s own failures could be a recurrent theme of a future Conservative race in the UK, with issues on immigration, economic growth and housing building all likely to feature centrally. 

In the end, a party in crisis tends to focus more on the rights and wrongs of its record than new ideas. The best way to distinguish yourself in a crowded field, future candidates may therefore conclude, is to tear pieces out of your opponents and the record in government they represent.

Looking ahead to 2024/25

Stepping back and disagreement in a political party, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. But the creeping incoherences of conservatism, with candidates competing with seemingly irreconcilable visions, could soon become a feature on this side of the Atlantic as much as it is on the other. So, too, could the brashness, the verbal grenades, the goading of rivals and the acrimonious exchanges as candidates try to emerge from what could be a crowded field with some surprise candidates. 

The real political problem amid an acrimonious intra-party election, as the Republicans are finding, is how to stay relevant when the focus is primarily on tearing down fellow candidates. And in the UK, it is no secret that cross-factional warfare can distract from the dogged business of opposition — something the Conservatives, if the party loses the next election, will already need some time to bed back into. 

In this way, some pertinent questions arise as to the future of British Conservatism after an expected election defeat. They are thus: can Toryism, in theory endlessly flexible and adaptable, cope with the potential post-election rigours to come? Or will a crisis of identity and direction — like has taken place in the US — mould the party into a more muscular, more overtly populistic outfit, one in which dissent is decried as heresy? 

The bottom line is that, if National Conservative-allied MPs have their way, a leadership election conducted in opposition may produce a party that looks rather a lot more like its American counterpart. 

Follow Josh Self on Twitter here

Picture taken from Gage Skidmore’s Flickr account