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15 May 2024

The strange death of conservatism

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s first obituary of Tory England was premature – but now, he says, the party is beyond saving.

By Colin Kidd

Pundits anticipate an “extinction-level event” for the Tories at the next general election. Conservative politicians are feeling the same vibes: in the past few weeks alone two Tory MPs – Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke – have crossed the floor to Labour. The recent council election results in England saw the Conservatives lose almost half the seats they were defending, and that was without much of a challenge from the right-wing populism of Reform, which was only on the ballot in a small proportion of council wards. Labour’s Gaza problem notwithstanding, polls on voting intention at the next general election consistently show a comfortable gap of around 20 percentage points between Labour and the Conservatives. With some of their voters lured towards a cautiously unradical Starmerism and the Liberal Democrats in the centre, and others attracted to a populist insurgency on the right, it looks like the Conservatives are in an unprecedented struggle for survival.

Except we have been here before. In the 1997 election, Tony Blair’s New Labour obliterated the Conservatives, who lost over half their seats, reduced from 343 to 165 MPs. On the BBC election programme as the exit polls came in, its guest expert, the late Professor Anthony King, resorted to that very simile of an extinction-level event: it was like “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. When the country next voted in 2001 little had changed. After four years of reflection and reorganisation the Tories, with 166 MPs, had gained a single seat. And a further four years after that the Tories were still uncompetitive. In the run-up to the 2005 election, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, the distinguished journalist and historian, published a book-length obituary of the party, The Strange Death of Tory England. However, by 2010 the Tories were back in government in a hung parliament with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, and have since emerged as the dominant party in three further UK elections.

Is that because we have witnessed what Wall Street and City traders call a “dead cat bounce”, the misleading and temporary recovery of a stock in long-term decline? Or, alternatively, that the Conservatives – described recently by Jacob Rees-Mogg as “the Duracell bunny of political life” – possess a capacity for longevity and relentless inner renewal in adverse circumstances? After all, what started out as a landowning, Church-and-king party ill-fitted for a democratic age has outlived all previous predictions of its demise, holding office, whether as a single-party government or in various coalition pacts, for around 100 of the last 150 years.

Wheatcroft presents his new book, Bloody Panico!, as a “coda” to the hasty post-mortem he conducted on the Tories in 2005. His previous analysis, he suspects, was not so much wrong as “premature” in its verdict. Wheatcroft’s perspective is that of the disenchanted former insider. Although he grew up among the progressive intelligentsia of London – a milieu so Labour-dominated  that it “might have been a Welsh mining village for all the Tories one was likely to meet” – he reacted against his upbringing and drifted rightwards. He was literary editor of the Spectator between 1977 and 1981 and a columnist on the Sunday Telegraph for several years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the right-wing press has changed enormously in recent decades. Whereas the Daily Telegraph was once a staid, suburban paper, right-leaning in sentiment though generally “honest and even-handed” in its news coverage, it is nowadays, he laments, “as hysterical as the Daily Mail”. Similarly, the witty and eclectic Spectator that he knew – then under the stylish editorship of Alexander Chancellor – “would never have published today’s bestiary of cranks and crackpots”.

Indeed, as Wheatcroft notes, the Tory media has played a crucial part in the shrivelling and hardening of modern conservatism. Emblematic of this transformation is Charles Moore, influential former editor of the Spectator and both the Daily and Sunday Telegraph. Wheatcroft invokes a nameless Conservative cabinet minister’s “first rule” of politics: “If you listen to Charles Moore and do the complete opposite of what he says, you won’t go far wrong.” The most recent phase in the Tory party’s unravelling began when Boris Johnson – importuned by Moore at a Garrick Club dinner in November 2021 – decided to bring the weight of the parliamentary party in support of Owen Paterson, the MP and former minister who had been caught blatantly lobbying on behalf of commercial interests. Johnson’s abuse of leadership on behalf of an ugly, meritless cause troubled many a Tory conscience. Partygate and then Johnson’s defence of Chris Pincher, allegedly a groper of young men, compounded the lessons of the Paterson affair: Johnson fell in early July 2022 because he had lost the moral – rather than specifically political – confidence of his ministers.

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There followed, of course, a further round of civil strife within the party, between those ministers whose resignations brought about Johnson’s demise and those loyal Johnsonites who favoured the return of their betrayed leader; and then between tax-cutting Trussites and orthodox Thatcherite supporters of Rishi Sunak. Not that Sunak, the eventual occupant of Downing Street after the turmoil of 2022, is secure in his position. A century ago the Tory politician Arthur Balfour slyly observed that “it is not a principle of the Conservative Party to stab its leaders in the back, but I must confess that it often appears to be a practice”. Wheatcroft fears it has become an “addiction”.

The splintering of a “broad church” into an undisciplined miscellany of squabbling sects provides a central theme of Wheatcroft’s analysis. Identification with internal factions and groupings – the European Research Group, National Conservatives, the New Conservatives of the Red Wall, the culture warriors of the Common Sense Group, the unapologetically Trussite Popular Conservatives – seems stronger than any basic loyalty to the party itself. The rot set in with the defiant band of Eurosceptic rebels in John Major’s government around 1993. Scepticism of grand utopian projects was once closely allied to Conservative diffidence about dogma; but in the case of Euroscepticism a once-sensible distrust of windy European ideals itself degenerated into a blinkered fanaticism.   

Wheatcroft is particularly alert to the way enduring labels obscure underlying realities. Don’t be misled by the name, for the Conservative Party has rarely functioned as a simple, straightforward embodiment of Tory principles and prejudices. Over the past century or so it has worked in alliance with, and then absorbed, various kinds of disaffected Liberal: most significantly, the Liberal Unionists over Irish Home Rule in the late-19th and early-20th century, and then the National Liberals of the 1930s who were fully incorporated only in 1968. At elections Conservative candidates not only ran under the Conservative banner, but sometimes as National Liberals, even on occasions as “Liberal and Conservative”. Among Thatcher’s cabinet ministers both Michael Heseltine and John Nott had originally stood as National Liberal candidates. The financial crisis of 1931 had also seen Ramsay MacDonald’s National Labour cut adrift from Labour, operating alongside the Conservatives until National Labour was wound up in 1945.

A crucial consequence of these arrangements with allied non-Tory groupings was that the Conservatives needed to be moderate, accommodating and sensitive to the political needs of fellow travellers from different political traditions. As Wheatcroft observes, a broad-based Conservative Party proved attractive at elections both to swithering middle-class Liberals and to a significant portion of the working class. Echoes of this contrapuntal relationship between Liberal and Conservative principles could still be detected as late as the turn away from the market under Theresa May and her chief adviser Nick Timothy: what resembled traditional One Nation Toryism was more precisely derived, certainly in Timothy’s case, from the progressive municipal Liberalism of Joseph Chamberlain, the most ingenious of the Liberal Unionist defectors to what became the Conservative and Unionist Party.    

By sharp contrast with this welcoming indulgence of its Liberal Unionist, National Liberal and even National Labour partners, the 21st-century party and its cheerleaders in the Tory press have become inflexible and more ideologically rigid, treating Tory moderates such as John Major and Chris Patten as dangerous quasi-Marxist leftists and dishonouring the memory of former leaders like Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. This twisted intra-party intolerance reached its highest pitch in September 2019 when Johnson removed the party whip from a range of otherwise loyal senior politicians because they would not endorse his policy of a no-deal Brexit. The 21 rebels included Kenneth Clarke, Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Justine Greening, Rory Stewart and – symbolic of the party’s disconnection from its former traditions – Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson.

The party of a pragmatically unideological ruling elite, Wheatcroft argues, has become in recent decades shrill and fanatical, as well as rowdy and undisciplined. In some measure, this is a by-product of the party’s belated democratisation. Clearly, a patrician snobbery prevailed as late as 1963, when Macmillan decided to step down as prime minister after suffering prostate problems. At this point, he and the party’s compliant grandees passed over for the succession every single Tory MP in the House of Commons. Instead, the new prime minister and Conservative leader was the 14th Earl of Home, who had to disclaim his peerage and find a constituency. Realising this reversion to aristocratic leadership was not a good look, the party contrived from 1965 to fashion a more classless image with a sequence of leaders from relatively modest backgrounds: Heath, Thatcher, Major. But did meritocracy come at a cost?

As Wheatcroft reminds us, the obverse of snobbery was the paternalistic obligation of public service, civil and military – albeit, as often as not, in a classy Guards regiment. An elegiac Wheatcroft laments the passing of a caste of Tory notables whose moderation and good sense were in some degree forged in the horrors of conflict. The “sub-Churchillian rhetoric” of the “sabre-rattlers” on today’s Europhobic right is always, he notes, “in inverse ratio to their experience of gunfire”. Among the military worthies so admired by Wheatcroft was Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles, MP for Winchester, who in 1972 famously calmed a querulous Tory back-bench meeting on accession to the European Economic Community with the briefest of speeches: “Pro bono publico, no bloody panico!”

Apart from a brief spasm of craziness just before the First World War, when the Conservatives flirted with open rebellion against Irish Home Rule, this upper-class party somehow flourished in the unpropitious circumstances of 20th-century democracy by eschewing “blind reaction and extreme nationalism”. For the most part the Conservative Party was unpindownable: “shape-shifting” and cynically capable of borrowing or tacitly accepting its opponents’ policies when necessary. As such, it was utterly distinctive, bearing no resemblance to diehard landlord parties of the right in other countries. But the rise of a more ideological conservatism is blurring such distinctions. The recent flirtation of some prominent Tories with American neoconservatives, Trumpites and Hungarian-style National Conservatives does not bode well for the party as a whole or for British democracy – if indeed the party survives as an electoral force.

Colin Kidd is a professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews

Bloody Panico!: or, Whatever Happened to the Tory Party?
Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Verso, 176pp, £14.99

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[See also: Mehdi Hasan: “We don’t value Palestinian life”]

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This article appears in the 15 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Stink