The Conservative Party has had a long year: three prime ministers, four chancellors, and a precipitous drop in public support. Though polling at this stage doesn’t guarantee the outcome of the next election, it points to something between defeat and destruction. All of this should worry the party, but so too should a trend buried beneath this – the growing disillusionment of its members.
Tory members never seem particularly ecstatic with the way the party is headed. As the most committed minority, an estimated 1 per cent of the party’s voters, there is always a sense that the party should be doing more, achieving more, in one direction or another. That instinct tends to be placated by winning, but with the prospect of a continued Tory government diminishing, the apathy is becoming terminal.
Throughout the party, members I speak to seem to be drifting away. Most of those I know, youngish professionals in cities are already the rump of the party’s support in those areas, but now they are fed up. After a decade of more of government the party has delivered little of what they hoped for. Their taxes are high, yet the public sector is failing, and the economy is sluggish. No part of the promise of a dynamic, low-tax economy with efficient public provision has come true.
These members see the Tories failing to deal with several pressing issues. Housing and healthcare are foremost in their minds, but equally they worry about social care for their parents’ and grandparents. Repeatedly they express a similar view – that if they are struggling with these costs on objectively high wages, anything else must be intolerable. It’s not the most sympathetic of views, but an honest one – if the Tories aren’t even delivering for those in the top few income percentiles, who are they helping?
Outside of these circles, the Tories seem to be lacking enthusiasm. On the right of the party, there is a feeling that Brexit has been poorly managed, and that rhetoric on this and other issues has failed to materialise into policy. The Northern Ireland protocol rankles, but so too does rising immigration rates and the small boats problem. On each of these, the Tories talk tough but effect little. Equally, for those who believed that leaving the EU would deliver higher domestic public spending, it’s hard to see where the money has gone.
All this is pushing the usual grumbles into something deeper. The mismanagement of the last year has offended everyone, from the Boris Johnson die-hards to the liberals who felt his longed-for defenestration was squandered. It feels the polling is particularly disastrous because even those who were committed to the party are now straying.
The rightmost edge has always threatened flirtation with Ukip and its successors, but now the same is happening elsewhere. Outside of those employed by or elected for the party, almost every Tory I speak to is showing open dissent and disagreement. Even the former are pretty scathing behind closed doors. It’s no longing grumbling about the party in private but attacking it in public. It’s also flowing through to voting intentions.
People I have known for years as members doubt whether they will back the party next time around. Some who were at the party conference a few months ago plan to vote Labour. Even some of those who rose to prominence in the party’s attempts to drive grassroots social media activism after 2017 now run openly anti-Tory accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Almost everyone seems some way in their journey of disengagement from the party.
All of this will make Rishi Sunak’s job harder. Those who habitually vote for you should be the building block of an electoral coalition. If you are having to win them over too, you are working twice as hard. Equally, if members drift away, they take with them both money and campaigning resources – a double blow. Moreover, those that do remain will be less and less representative of the wider political world, and more likely to skew you in one direction or another.
Sunak probably has a year until the next election campaign really kicks off. In the next 12 months, he needs to find a way of re-enthusing the regular Tories if he is to stand a chance at all. There’s a narrow path to forming a government ahead of him, and a broader one to limiting the damage. If he can’t find a way of bringing the disillusioned Tories back into the fold, he is unlikely to find either. If Rishi Sunak follows a troubled year with a wasted one, the one that follows could be disastrous.