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WINCHESTER, ENGLAND – JULY 30: Rishi Sunak, Conservative Party leadership candidate and MP, speaks to a crowd during his campaigning at Manor Farm, on July 30, 2022 in Ropley near Winchester, England. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the two remaining candidates in the leadership race to become Britains next prime minister. Both have stepped up campaigning by making various visits around the country and speaking to party members and the public. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe – Pool/Getty Images)
Are Britain’s Conservatives heading for an “Australian-style” election wipeout?

Are Britain’s Conservatives heading for an “Australian-style” election wipeout?

WINCHESTER, ENGLAND – JULY 30: Rishi Sunak, Conservative Party leadership candidate and MP, speaks to a crowd during his campaigning at Manor Farm, on July 30, 2022 in Ropley near Winchester, England. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the two remaining candidates in the leadership race to become Britains next prime minister. Both have stepped up campaigning by making various visits around the country and speaking to party members and the public. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe – Pool/Getty Images)

The party’s leadership candidates are leaving their left flank open to ambush by a Teal-style surge

The idea of an “Australian-style” points-based immigration system was already a decade old when Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former advisor, praised it as a key part of the Brexit campaign win in 2016.

Since then, we’ve also had the idea of an “Australian-style” trade agreement with the European Union and a Rwanda asylum policy borrowed from a botched plan created to neuter the Australian radical right.

It isn’t just a question of policy similarities – it is hard to think of a party system as similar to Britain’s. There is a symbiotic nature to the relationship: the debates are similar because many of the personnel are the same. The government strategists Lynton Crosby and Isaac Levido flit between Australian clients in Canberra and Conservative campaign headquarters.

The end result has been an “Australian-style” politics of cultural wedge issues and, yes, the occasional “dead cat” strategy of diverting media attention – that has inexorably shifted the centre of British politics to the right.

So when Australians went to the polls in May, Westminster was watching. And SW1 looked on as the so-called Teals – a group of independent candidates united by a commitment to a “green” mix of ambitious targets on net zero with traditional “blue” fiscal discipline, as well as a focus on political integrity and gender equality – became the surprise package of the campaign.

Independent candidate Monique Ryan who unseated Morrison’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg, May 2022

The Teal independents won seats from the centre-right Liberal Party in graduate-heavy, affluent areas of Melbourne and Sydney. For Wentworth and Warringah, the two seats in Sydney previously held by Liberal prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott, read Wimbledon and Winchester. In the UK it is the Liberal Democrats, which would pick up these two constituencies by significant majorities if an election were held tomorrow, that most closely approximate the Teal threat. 

The party is within touching distance of claiming around 30 Conservative seats in the next general election with an increase in tactical voting and a swing away from the Tories. The Liberal Democrats, like the Teals, are particularly competitive in graduate-heavy areas.

The Liberal candidates who lost their seats to Teals came from the moderate end of the party – most notably Josh Frydenberg, the treasurer in the Morrison government. The net result in Australia is that the Liberal Party has stepped further to the political right, with the election of Peter Dutton as its new leader.

The parallels with the UK here are striking, as the centre-ground “one-nation” wing of the Conservative party also has the most to fear from a Teal-style surge. More than half of those Conservative MPs who now face a strong Liberal Democrat challenger voted Remain in 2016, compared to around a third of the party as a whole. A Liberal Democrat surge could lead the left of the Conservative party to near-extinction.  

This threat makes the absence of any discussion around the Conservative party’s Liberal Democrat problem all the more stark. The core issues the Teals fought under – fiscal responsibility, net zero politics and political integrity – are now up for debate in the contest for the next Conservative prime minister. And it looks like the policy direction under the final two candidates could create more room for a Teal-style surge, not less.

Johnson made strong statements of intent on climate action and Cop26 president Alok Sharma has already pointed to the Teals as a warning of what could befall the Tories if key targets are ditched or watered down.

On the economic battleground, it’s Rishi Sunak who echoes the Teal mantra of “rational economics”. Liz Truss, the likely winner, recalls the economic populism of the Liberal Party under Scott Morrison in her call for tax cuts at any cost.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister on election night in Sydney, Australia, 21 May 2022

The British Election Study allows us to zoom in on “Lib Dem curious” Conservative voters – those who voted Conservative in December 2019, but have a favourable view of the Liberal Democrats – and their views on tax cuts and the environment. We can then begin to understand what the policy shifts underway within the Conservative Party are likely to mean.

On the environment, we can see that these voters stand out from the rest of the 2019 Conservative coalition. When asked whether they would prioritise economic growth or protecting the environment, they are significantly more likely to stress the importance of the latter.

There may be the assumption among leadership candidates that Conservative voters fed up with the political and ethical chaos under Johnson could be tempted back into the fold with tax cuts.  

Liz Truss campaigning for the Conservative Party Leadership in Marden, Kent, July 2022

But that is to fatally misunderstand this section of the electorate. When given the choice between cutting taxes and public services or increasing taxes so more can be spent on public services, the data shows this same set of “Lib Dem curious” Conservative voters are in fact more likely than an average member of the public as a whole to favour tax rises over cuts.

Much has been said about the state of economic and political unreality in which the Conservative leadership contest is taking place. What’s clear is that the lessons – and warnings – from a vote 9,000 miles away are being forgotten in Westminster’s midsummer heat.  

Dr Alan Wager is a research associate at UK in a Changing Europe

Photographs Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images, William West/AFP, Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg, Hollie Adams/Getty Images