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2 July 2024

Will the Tories ever recover from this defeat?

The party will need to repudiate the failed policies and personalities of the past.

By David Gauke

This was an election campaign that – from a Conservative perspective – was all about damage limitation. As the campaign concludes, even that meagre objective appears unlikely to be met. 

There is still hope that long-time Tory voters who had previously been undecided may return for fear of a Labour landslide. Reform voters might finally be deterred by evidence of racism and Putin appeasement. Perhaps left-wing electors might get their sense of betrayal in early and start voting for protest parties even before Keir Starmer moves into Downing Street. If all of that happens, the Conservatives might comfortably exceed 100 seats. This is what constitutes Tory optimism.

A heavy election defeat has long been anticipated but its occurrence will still be a shock. Even in a best-case scenario, the result is likely to be fewer Tory MPs than at any time in the party’s history. It is true that there were Conservative ministers ten years after the catastrophe of the 1906 general election (when the party was reduced to 156 MPs) but it took a world war for that to happen.

It will not just be the number of seats held, but the likelihood that none of the remaining seats can be considered safe. Few, if any, will have majorities above 10,000, perhaps even 5,000.  

Local parties in formerly safe seats who have already lost many of their councillors will now lose their MPs. At a national level, financial donations are likely to dry up. Becoming a party treasurer is unlikely to result in the prestige and a peerage that was once customary (other than those on Rishi Sunak’s resignation list, there will be very few Tory peerages for the next five years). Even compared to 1997, the Conservative Party enters this election as a hollowed-out organisation.

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All this before we consider the ideological conflicts within the party. The question of who is to blame will be at the forefront of many minds, especially initially. To some of us, the answer is obvious. The Conservatives’ poll ratings plummeted during the partygate scandal and in the aftermath of the mini-Budget. The Tories lost any reputation they had for integrity and economic competence thanks to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Sunak failed to distance himself from his predecessors and has been tarnished as a consequence.

One can go further and argue that these incidents were the likely consequence of a fundamental change in Tory temperament. During the Brexit years of 2016-19, out went any respect for institutions, an understanding of complexity, a preference for incrementalism, and a caution over risk. In came a love of big, bold promises unmoored by reality. The Conservative Party ceased to be comfortable being a serious party of government.

In a related development, its voter base changed. It became overly dependent on angry, populist voters who believed that the elite were part of a conspiracy to do them down. Johnson exploited this feeling with great success in 2019, but it was only a matter of time before those voters identified the people who actually governed the country as the elite. They then turned against them.

There is, of course, an alternative view. Taxes are high. Immigration is high. Therefore, it is argued, we have a left-wing government out of touch with Conservative values. This is an argument that is made by those who got the Brexit they wanted and – in Johnson and Truss – the leaders they wanted but, whatever happens, it is never their fault. They will point to the Reform vote and argue that the political priority must be to close down the threat on the right. The advance of Marine Le Pen in France and the prospect of a Trump presidency in the US will give them encouragement.

Wrong-headed though this approach may be, it will probably prevail, because that is what the party membership believes. It will not, I suspect, involve bringing Nigel Farage into the party, something that was not a given two months ago. To some extent, his campaign has been too successful. He now represents an existential threat to the Conservatives when he was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off. Even the Tory right recognise that he would be uncontrollable within the Conservative Party. 

On the wider question of where the Tories should go, the party should take a little time. Sunak could stay on or, more likely, an interim leader could be appointed until a new leader is chosen in December. The party will be in a state of shock and it will take months – if not years – to absorb what has happened. One of the few advantages of opposition is the luxury of time.

The Conservatives should begin by considering how other defeated parties have recovered. In 1997, 2010 and now in 2024, oppositions have won power by being credible and offering reassurance, by focusing on the voter – not the activist – and by appealing beyond their natural ideological base.

None of this comes easily to a political party, which partly explains why changes of government are so rare. For the Tories it requires, for example, a complete reversal of temperament, a sustained appeal to voters who have long abandoned them and a repudiation of the failed personalities and policies of recent years (including its stance on Europe).

None of this looks imminent. At present, it is not clear that the Tories would ever have what it takes to enable such a shift. The Conservative Party is in a perilous state.

[See also: Labour’s missions are no substitute for ideology]

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This article appears in the 02 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Britain