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Britain’s Right Is Following a Canadian Playbook

Labour won, but Farage’s Reform credits Preston Manning’s ‘huge’ guidance for its plans to take over the wounded Conservative Party.

David Climenhaga 8 Jul 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at AlbertaPolitics.ca. Follow him on X @djclimenhaga.

As the world reeled from the unexpected outcome of the United Kingdom’s disastrous Brexit vote on June 23, 2016, Jason Kenney notoriously tweeted: “Congratulations to the British people on choosing hope over fear by embracing a confident, sovereign future, open to the world!”

Well, we all know how that turned out.

At the time, the former Stephen Harper government cabinet minister was still being paid to be the Conservative MP for Calgary Midnapore. He was known, though, to be seriously pondering a run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta, with an eye to bringing the province’s disunited conservative parties together and becoming premier.

In that ambition, Kenney succeeded — for a spell.

As for the suspicion Kenney’s long game was to eventually return to Ottawa as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada and to occupy 24 Sussex Drive thanks to his successes in Wild Rose Country, well, the probability of such an outcome seemed much greater then than it does now.

Still, it’s worth remembering Kenney’s sly dog-whistling about Brexit, when it is evident that some of the chickens from that disastrous decision by the U.K.’s voters have now come home to roost.

Kenney presumably still stands by what he said. At any rate, his notorious tweet remains visible to this day on the social media platform now known as X.

One of those roosting chickens, obviously, was the well-deserved humiliation — if not quite the outright destruction — of the U.K. Conservative Party in Friday’s British general election.

A certain amount of schadenfreude about this is entirely justified, and I for one will not deny myself the satisfaction of enjoying the richly deserved comeuppance that has been delivered to the British Conservatives, who are largely responsible for the Brexit disaster.

One hopes, of course, that Kenney feels a little bit of reflected heat from that burn, although, being who and what he is, it is unlikely it will trouble him much.

We should hope, obviously, that the Labour Party led by Prime Minister Keir Starmer provides good government, improves the quality of life for British voters after the Brexit catastrophe and enjoys many happy returns at the polls.

Of this, though, we cannot be so confident. By all accounts Starmer — or I should say Sir Keir — is nearly as conservative as the Tory he has replaced, just not as rich.

Is there a chance he will disappoint Labour’s natural constituency with his conservatism while at the same time gaining nothing from the well-organized and thoroughly digitized political right for essentially adopting their favoured neoliberal policies? Of course there is.

I can’t claim to be an expert on British politics, but judging from the testimony of those who are, it is likely that after a short spell at 10 Downing Street, Britain’s new prime minister will end up as the U.K.’s version of Rachel Notley or Justin Trudeau — who as Alberta premier and Canadian prime minister reliably delivered neoliberal policies all the while being excoriated as extreme leftists by the neoliberal propaganda machine for the effort.

Which leads us to the second British chicken that found a nice place to roost Friday. To wit, Nigel Farage, the oleaginous leader of Britain’s Reform party, previously leader of the Brexit Party and before that of the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party, also known as UKIP.

Variously described as “a deeply unembarrassed racist,” “a power hungry narcissist” and an outright fascist, Farage has at last secured a seat for himself in the House of Commons at Westminster.

He has only four Reform comrades with him in the House today, but this will not necessarily prevent him from ultimately succeeding with a very Canadian reverse hostile takeover of the Conservative Party.

First, consider the strategy devised by Preston Manning and eventually completed by Stephen Harper to split the Canadian conservative right into the formerly dominant centre-right faction, then known as the Progressive Conservatives, and Manning’s much more extreme Reform Party of Canada.

When the dust from that escapade finally settled at the end of 2003, the Reform party (by then rebranded the Canadian Alliance) was in the driver’s seat. The newly united Conservatives dropped the Progressive from their name. Eventually Harper became prime minister, which would have been an impossible outcome in the old PCs, taking the country in a distinctly un-Canadian direction from which we may never recover.

A similar strategy unfolded in Alberta when the Wildrose Party was engineered to split the conservative movement and eventually emerged as the dominant faction in the new United Conservative Party created by Kenney.

Disaster for Conservatives may have seemed imminent at the moment in December 2014 when Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith crossed the floor of the Alberta legislature with eight of her MLAs to join the PCs, then led by Jim Prentice, with Manning in the background playing Svengali.

But, ultimately, Kenney was able to pull off a kind of double reverse hostile takeover, first of the PCs, still struggling to come to terms with their 2015 election loss to Notley’s NDP, and then of what was left of the Wildrose Party.

The result was the UCP, created in 2017 and led to power by Kenney in 2019, a new party that the old extremist fringe now dominated.

So what does this have to do with the U.K.? Well, it is said here that the resurrection of the “Reform” brand in Britain is no coincidence.

In 2013, Farage showed up at the Manning conference, Manning’s eponymous annual conservative clambake in Ottawa, where he was feted by the gathered business big shots, right-wing political hacks, think-tank propagandists, right-leaning pundits and other undesirables who congregated at the event.

Certainly they had some private chats about Manning’s by-then-proven strategy for uniting the right around its most extreme domestic elements.

How important was the influence of Manning to Farage’s U.K. Reform party? “Huge, huge, huge,” Farage told a CBC reporter last month.

“Farage’s often-stated ambition is for Reform UK to eventually replace the mighty British Conservative Party,” wrote the CBC’s London reporter, Chris Brown. “He said his blueprint for doing so is modelled after what Manning did in Canada.”

In Farage’s words: “I set the Brexit Party up for a reason, to complete the Brexit process, and we were very successful.... I rebranded it Reform UK, thinking very much of our Canadian cousins. In the end they sort of ‘reverse took over’ the old Conservative Party. They are the model. That’s the plan.”

Remember, to permit the takeover of a long-dominant centre-right party by the extreme right, first you must all but destroy the centre-right party. Once you have hobbled it and put it back together with its former radical fringe in charge, you rely on voters’ tribal loyalties to prevent them from thinking too much about what the change really means.

Call it the Manning Formula.

We’ve now seen it work twice in Canada.

Harper, the former Canadian prime minister who was sent packing by Justin Trudeau in 2015, now heads the misnamed International Democracy Union, the neoliberal Internationale. From his perches in Munich and Calgary, he will be happy to lend a hand to Farage.

Starmer’s victory is likely far less secure on its own merits than the number of seats won by Labour suggests.

Labour got less than 34 per cent of the vote. That was the lowest popular vote for any governing party in British history, nearly six points below what Labour received in the 2017 election under Jeremy Corbyn, later reviled and driven out by centrists like Starmer.

The outcome looks lopsided because the right-wing vote in many ridings was split between the Conservatives and Reform, just as happened in Canada and Alberta, and because Scotland largely abandoned the Scottish National Party to return to Labour.

Meanwhile Britons, who don’t pay much attention to Canada, let alone Alberta, and who think our politics are boring and insignificant, are unlikely to realize the same thing could be about to happen to them that happened to us.  [Tyee]

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