We are now at a point in history where this contradiction has finally ceased to hold. Scott Morrison’s Coalition was torn apart, its liberal wing now amputated as the nationalists increasingly got what they wanted. Now they have a ruined party. Britain’s Tories could be heading for a similar fate. Truss is the perfect figure to encapsulate it because in reality, she is just the personal embodiment of these contradictions. It’s what happens when hard Brexiters get what they want: nationalism and neoliberalism at the same time. So now the victors can inspect their ruins. A poll projects the Conservatives to win just 22 seats in Britain’s lower house. Out of 650.
Is it possible to have too many wins? I’ve been thinking about it ever since Morrison’s resounding election defeat, following his miraculous victory in 2019. I’ve seen two such “miracles” in my life – the other being Paul Keating’s in 1993 – and the thing they have in common is that they ushered in a crushing and calamitous defeat. Perhaps a generational defeat. For the Labor Party, he gave way to Howard, who won four elections and reshaped Australian politics and society in the process. Even the Rudd/Gillard governments were spooked by his shadow and the terms by which he defined Australian politics: strong borders, low public debt.
Now consider Morrison. Is there a way to escape the conclusion that if only he had lost in 2019, the Coalition would now be in much better shape? Teals wouldn’t exist, leaving young liberal talents like Josh Frydenberg, Dave Sharma and Trent Zimmerman in the party room. Katie Allen would probably be there too. In short, they would remain something of the “big church” they often celebrate, and have a base from which to cobble together the next coalition government.
The Shorten government would now be three years old, having been battered by a pandemic and the economic chaos that followed. There is a good chance that the Coalition – existing in a form we recognize – will be back in government in the next election. Any Coalition supporter who sees these scenarios like me must surely have a serious bout of victor’s remorse.
Now who knows? Conservative Australia debates whether the Liberals should become more conservative or head to the center and rebrand the party more liberally. But the latter is hard to do if you don’t have liberals in your party to go in that direction. The teal are the incumbents now. This will make them difficult to move. It is possible that the Liberals will never reclaim their Liberal seats and that the Teals will become a constant insurgency. Or, for the Coalition, worse: a draw.
UK and Australian stories are not true duplicates. We have no equivalent of Brexit, which was not a Conservative victory but the culmination of a Conservative civil war. In a way, this Tory nightmare really started with a loss: in particular David Cameron’s lost bet that he could put Brexit to bed. But the Australian Coalition has found the civil war in victory, especially on issues like climate change.
Which probably explains the key similarity we see now. There is a certain Tory who believes that the extremists are now in control of their party, and who hopes that this hard landing could be an opportunity to eliminate them and restore a traditional conservative balance. There as here, the remorse of the winner must inevitably be reduced to the hope of the loser.