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8 December 2022

Can anyone save the Tory party?

Many Conservative MPs seem either not to have noticed or not to care about the impending doom facing the party.

By John Oxley

Everywhere you look now there are conservative commentators saying that the party is either in an existential crisis or about to enter one. I can probably take some credit for fuelling this trend. These aren’t simply arguments about whether the party is too Wet or too Dry, but rather that it is too listless, unable to answer the issues of the day and, ultimately, headed to electoral oblivion in both the short and long term.

One of the striking things about this debate is that it’s not simply an argument between ordinary members and voters. Both in public and in private conversations, those who hold influence within the party seem to feel the same. The lack of direction seems obvious to many, yet no one seems clear on how to fix it. It is perhaps less a sense of the pilots ignoring the warnings, but of everyone thinking someone else is in control.

Consequently, solving the issue seems remote. Even those who think they have the right ideas see no real route to seizing the party or steering it out of this fall. In many ways, the institutional make-up of the Conservatives that has made it relatively impervious to entryism and factionalism also makes it hard to pull out of its current decline. Anyone serious about saving the party will have to find a way through this.

Compared with the other major parties the Conservative Party is a deeply undemocratic body which gives its members almost no say. There are no directly elected national volunteer representatives. There is no direct member input on policymaking. The party conference is a show-and-tell from the party machine, not a place for debate. Almost all power within the party resides in unaccountable and opaque institutions, which all factions of the party tend to assume favour the others.

The only input the rank-and-file members really have beyond their constituency is electing a leader and selecting local candidates. In both instances this remains highly fettered. The leadership election uses the parliamentary rounds to submit just two candidates to the membership (recent Labour contests have offered between three and five) and can be stage-managed to avoid a vote of members altogether. Removing a leader remains entirely within the 1922 Committee’s control.

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The selection of candidates is almost equally weak. Candidates are first vetted for approval by party headquarters, and the party machine has a strong hand in shortlisting. Where local associations have pushed back against this, the central office has prevailed, with the ominous “Slough Treatment” (suspension) meted out to recalcitrant constituencies. The power of the centre has also been repeatedly affirmed by the courts when challenged.

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Even within these constraints, choosing an MP depends on living in a place where there is a vacancy the Tories are likely to fill. Deselection powers are weak, so associations generally have to wait until a sitting MP retires or loses. In recent snap elections, unwinnable seats get no choice at all. If you joined the Tory party after 2006, you will have almost certainly voted in more leadership elections than candidate selections.

Taken together, this makes it almost impossible to have any sort of grass-roots rebellion in the Conservative Party. Perhaps the closest this has come to happening was in the latter days of the May era, but that was against a leader who was already losing her backbenchers and was accelerated by voters abandoning the party in the European elections, rather than anything inside the tent. As a further example, the apparent attempt by members to prevent Boris Johnson’s defenestration in July petered out quickly.

The weakness of the Tory membership can often be a strength for the organisation. It makes it much harder for an unsuitable leader to remain in place (seen twice this year), avoids the public factional fighting which seems to dominate Labour social media, and stops members from pushing mad policies too much in public. However, it can lead to a more disengaged membership and stops ordinary Tories from effecting a change of direction.

Ultimately it seems to result in a milquetoast organisation. Though the parliamentary party can be cut-throat, and the various incarnations of the now prohibited youth wing have been vicious, the broader party is slow-moving. Recently some common sense, housekeeping style changes to the party constitution took nearly a decade to pass despite no real opposition. The voluntary party struggles to turn sharply on anything, really. It’s unlikely to come to the party’s rescue now.

Even if the Tory grassroots were able to storm the citadel, it’s unlikely to be a solution to the party’s woes. Time and time again it’s stressed that a big part of the problem is the party’s alienation from voters under fifty and its concentration in the richer, older, nimby-and-the-triple-lock faction. This is even more true among members than voters, and part of the reason MPs and councillors feel so keen to stand in the way of moves that might attract younger voters.

Generally, the Conservative Party’s ideas tend to be generated outside of it. Most policies drift in from think tanks, either wholly or in some modified form. This was perhaps most apparent with the Truss government. Her brief premiership was a product clearly moulded by think tanks – part of the reason why it failed to really connect with her backbenches or the public. Yet these organisations aren’t in a position to fix the party.

I am probably less cynical than most about the role think tanks play. Almost all are well-meaning, produce robust research and are keen to engage with the substance of what they talk about. However, their relationship with political parties is by their very nature parasitic, and their interests and their answers will always be swayed by their need to appeal to both donors and Westminster powerbrokers. This doesn’t stop their research from standing (or falling) on its merits but does mean certain issues get more attention than others.

The relationship between the think tanks and the Tories will be interesting as the party loses power. Out of office, most lobbyists are uninterested in you, after all; they care more about getting their plans into action rather than opposition manifestos. Even the openly right-wing ones will have to adapt to a Labour government or a new challenger party appearing if they want any of their ideas implemented. The think tanks, when working well, can provide smart ideas for the Tories to pick from, but have no interest in saving a party that can’t save itself.

The deepest reserve of power in the Tory Party really sits with the leader and their inner circle. This cabal holds most of the levers that really matter. This has been evident over the last decade where each successive leadership has pivoted away from the policies of the last. When the Tories were last in opposition it was a reforming leader, David Cameron, who ushered in the vibe shift – providing not just election-winning policies, but also a polish which made them electable again. Equally, Boris Johnson was able to bring the party back from the downward slide of May’s ministry in 2019 to an eighty-seat majority. Its limit, however, is the extent to which it can drag the rest of the party with it.

In the current state, the centre seems to have a weak grasp. The debacle over housing targets has shown that the Sunak premiership is unwilling to confront the backbenches, perhaps wary of the fate of the last two PMs. Equally, parliamentary discipline becomes harder when so many MPs are planning to leave parliament or know they are likely to lose their seat. The carrots and sticks of the whips’ office have far less effect when your political career is almost over.

Many Tory MPs seem either not to have noticed or to care about the impending doom facing the party. They seem uninterested in reinvigorating the appeal of the party to the young and affluent, or in solving pending problems like the housing crisis, childcare costs or social care. They instead relish being the internal anti-growth coalition. Their happiness to rebel over these issues undermines Sunak’s ability to engage with them, even if he wanted to.

This weakness means the only real force for change within the party is neutered. The fight seems to have gone out of the party, and Sunak never seemed like much of a slugger anyway. His managerialism may be a strength following the chaos of the Johnson and Truss eras, but it is unlikely to do much to turn the Tories towards the things that threaten their long-term survival. It seems inevitable they will be looking for a saviour in opposition.

If the party is to bounce back quickly, this means someone among the current crop of MPs. The post-election leadership contest may offer a chance to right the ship, but equally offers lots of opportunities to make things worse. After 2010, Labour turned being just 68 seats short of a majority into a decade of opposition and infighting. The temptation to do what you did before but harder and louder will be there, just as much as the opportunity to really explore why the party has lost its way.

It will be crucial in the next few years to see who of the potential leaders gets this. Party unity of course means they will have to bide their time, but only someone who is already listening to why the party seems so lacklustre will be able to fix it in one term. They will need a strong inner circle, an open mind and the will to challenge much of the status quo in the party. A full rejuvenation can only come with fixing the party’s plan, branding, and the operations that push it into action.

As part of that, the new crop of 2024 MPs will also be important. With grandees stepping down in winnable seats, it’s important that the party replaces them with dynamic, forward-thinking candidates. The problem the Tories will have with this is that their loss of popularity with the young constrains their usual vanguard. Previous Tory regenerations were driven by young, ambitious professionals – exactly the group where the party is now least popular. The failure to win over these sorts is likely to compound the struggle to bring the Tories back to power.

A vocal group on the right sees the predicament the party is in. Some are pretty ordinary; some are pretty close to where the power lies. But there is also a sense that the depth of the struggle hasn’t resonated with many in parliament, CCHQ or the rank-and-file membership. Most seem to anticipate a defeat is coming, but not the potential scale or the reality that, with the party utterly alienated from the under 50s, it might be permanent. The structure of the Conservative Party makes it hard to fix this unless you are already at the top of the tree – there is little power or influence from ordinary party members, and those that do remain are probably already largely ignorant of just how bad the state of things has become.

A saviour can only come if someone already close to power, and likely to end up leading the party in the next election has the wherewithal. They must understand where the party has gone wrong, have the instinct to bring in the right ideas and have the determination to see those through and transform the party – winning elections and doing the right thing. It was this sort of revolution that Thatcher brought in, busting through the status quo of the post-war consensus with the smartest minds she could find. Cameron arguably did similar, if more in style than in substance. The party’s longevity and success are a testament to its ability to reinvent itself, but past performance is no guarantee of future success. The question is whether from the ashes of the next election such a phoenix can rise again.

The Tory party is structured in a way which means this change can only really come from the top. It already seems like Sunak is either unwilling or unprepared to make it.  The chances of a Tory resurgence rely on current MPs understanding the full predicament the party is in, new MPs bolstering that cause, and the party uniting on a leader who has the vision and strength to enact it. Without that, the time in the wilderness could be quite long.

John Oxley is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. A version of this piece originally appeared on his Substack “Joxley Writes”.

[See also: Which Tory MPs are standing down at the next general election?]