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The fall of the Conservatives

If the Tories are to recover, they must resist the temptation to blame the electorate.

By New Statesman

The Conservative Party has traditionally prided itself on its pursuit of power. Through continual reinvention it has held office for 67 of the last 100 years. Boris Johnson’s emphatic victory in 2019 – when the party won its highest vote share since 1979 (43.6 per cent) – appeared to confirm this pattern.

Yet, gifted an opportunity to consolidate its dominance, the party self-destructed. The Conservatives are now deservedly destined for opposition.

Their defeat is proof of the volatility of modern politics. In a less tribal era, few voters have any overriding loyalty to one party. They will happily shift allegiance should the government disappoint. In the case of the Conservatives, they were given ample reason to do so.

Mr Johnson won the support of a new cross-class coalition of former Labour voters in many of the Red Wall constituencies in the Midlands and northern England. These were voters who wanted to see Brexit delivered and Jeremy Corbyn defeated. But their support was conditional. By failing to fulfil his “levelling up” promises and by breaking his own lockdown laws, Mr Johnson swiftly alienated many of these voters.

The Conservatives responded to his downfall by electing an even less suitable prime minister: Liz Truss. Her erratic, free-market dogmatism was beloved of Tory activists and esoteric right-wing think tanks, but it had little appeal in the country. By triggering market panic – and a spike in mortgage rates – Ms Truss destroyed the Tories’ reputation for sound money. Lifelong Tory supporters in the affluent “Blue Wall” moved to Ed Davey’s Liberal Democrats or Nigel Farage’s Reform.

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This has been a punishment election and the Conservatives were punished by different groups for different reasons: Remainers, Leavers, homeowners, renters, private-sector workers, public-sector workers, One Nation Tories, social liberals, fiscal conservatives, environmentalists and those who simply want a quiet life. A political party can afford to repel some of these voters, but it cannot afford to repel all of them.

The Conservatives have recovered from landslide election defeats before. After Labour’s victory under Clement Attlee in 1945, they returned to office six years later having pragmatically accepted the new social democratic consensus. Recovery took longer after their 1997 defeat, but David Cameron won power in 2010 by recasting his party as socially liberal and environmentally conscious.

The question is whether this time will be different. In an era of multi-party politics and shifting class allegiances, there is no guarantee that voters will return to the so-called natural party of government as they have before.

Yet if the Conservatives are to recover – and we wish them a long period in opposition – they should first resist the temptation to blame the electorate (or, indeed, the “deep state”). Successful parties own defeats as well as victories. The Tories must then reckon with their recent past (as the former cabinet minister David Gauke writes on page 21). Rishi Sunak resigned under Johnson and warned in advance that Ms Truss would be disastrous as prime minister. But, for fear of fracturing party unity, he was reluctant to distance himself from both of his predecessors. As a consequence, he failed to rebuild trust with the electorate and had a pitiful campaign.

Mr Sunak’s successor, it will be said, faces a choice. They can either focus on winning back the Tories’ traditional Blue Wall heartlands, or they can seek to recapture the Red Wall from Labour. In practice, they will need policies that appeal to both.

If there is a future for the Conservative Party, it may lie in the politics represented by former West Midlands mayor Andy Street: moderate, competent, pro-business, committed to infrastructure investment and to bridging the Brexit divide. Most voters are not ideologues; they care more about good government.

The trick of the Conservative Party has been its willingness to adapt. Depending on circumstance, the Tories have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, protectionist and liberal, isolationist and internationalist. To recover, it must rediscover this spirit of majestic pragmatism. Keir Starmer’s success is proof of what can be achieved in a single parliamentary term. But this time the Conservatives seem too divided to respond with good sense. Uncivil war may follow.

[See also: The Conservative catastrophe]

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