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  1. Election 2024
4 June 2024

The Conservative Party may not survive this election

A deepening identity crisis has left the Tories unable to appeal to either centrists or populists.

By David Gauke

When Rishi Sunak called the general election, the Tories had a record polling deficit. Despite various policy initiatives and relaunches, it was a deficit that had remained more or less static for many months. Some inside Downing Street believed it would only start to narrow once the public focused on the choice in front of them during an election campaign. Two weeks into that campaign, there is no sign of it narrowing. If anything, Labour’s lead has grown.

The Tory strategy has been straightforward. They have lost support to both their left and their right, but the view was that Reform UK’s support would be the easiest to squeeze. Appeal to older, socially authoritarian voters with talk of national service, tax breaks for pensioners and scrapping university degrees. Reform supporters would then switch back to the Tories, closing the gap with Labour. This would then change the dynamic of the race and put some pressure on Keir Starmer. After that, who knows?

Except this has not happened, at least not yet. Reform’s polling remained steady even before Nigel Farage announced he was going to stand. It is now likely to strengthen – at least temporarily – at the expense of the Conservatives. Meanwhile, Labour appears to be undamaged by the botched handling of Diane Abbott’s candidacy, which distracted it for a week. Its average poll lead – 22 points – remains formidable.

Conservative candidates are not universally in complete despair, but “complete despair” is a relative concept. Expectations are so low that a return of above 150 Tory seats will be met with cheerful relief by some.

Most candidates maintain that there is no enthusiasm for Keir Starmer and there are plenty of concerns about a Labour landslide. In the Blue Wall – where the Liberal Democrats are the main threat and are clearly going to make advances – the Tories are starting to argue that they are the only ones who will hold a Starmer government to account. The Lib Dems, it is argued, are too close to Labour to provide a functioning opposition. Closer to polling day, the case will be made more vociferously by Tory candidates that this election is not just about who forms the government but also the wider composition of parliament.

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Even for those who think that the Conservative Party is too dysfunctional and incoherent to continue in office, it is an argument that has some merit. The country clearly wants to get rid of the Tory government, but it may not want Labour to be left unchecked. It is not, however, an argument that Rishi Sunak can easily make without accepting defeat.

Nor is it clear what type of opposition the remnants of the Conservative Party would offer. The party’s election messages have been targeted at older, right-wing voters but the messengers are usually mainstream pragmatists such as Jeremy Hunt, Mel Stride, Victoria Atkins and Damian Hinds who are good communicators but more likely to appeal to those in the centre ground. (The media outing by the more right-wing Kemi Badenoch on trans issues was not a success.) Sunak, meanwhile, appears to be impressing neither centrists nor populists.

All of this exposes the Conservative Party’s fundamental problem of identity. For most of its history, it has been two parties in one. It could be both a pragmatic party of the centre right, defending the interests of businesses and most of the middle classes, and a populist party winning the support of the patriotic/nationalist working classes. In 2019, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership meant that most of the voters of the former party stuck with the Tories, while Brexit (and Corbyn) swelled the ranks of the populist vote.

Post-2019, however, it has not been possible to maintain this dual identity. Difficult economic circumstances, by no means all down to the government, meant the Tories lost the benefit of the doubt. Populist voters felt betrayed when populist promises offered by populist politicians failed to be delivered. Centrist Conservative voters grew weary of the bluster and dishonesty of Boris Johnson. Both sides looked on in dismay at the collapse of the party’s reputation for economic competence under Liz Truss.

Now the party does not convincingly appeal to either side. “Waitrose woman” does not want to see her teenaged children dragooned into national service; “Workington man” has the option of a Farage-led populist party to reflect his cultural values, or he can return to voting Labour to better reflect what he perceives as his economic interests.

To win under the first-past-the-post electoral system requires a party with a broad coalition of support, but Johnson’s 2019 coalition was too unstable and contradictory to survive the pressures of office. A crushing defeat will further fracture it, perhaps irrevocably.

This is where the significance of Farage’s decision to stand for parliament will really matter. If, as is likely, he is elected as MP for Clacton, the Conservatives will have to decide their approach to him. Open their doors to Farage and he and his supporters will take over what is left of the Tory party, driving out the last remaining centrists. Resist and many of the right-wing MPs will likely defect to Reform. The general election on 4 July may just be the first part of a two-stage implosion of the Conservative Party in the course of 2024.

Of course, many will delight at this prospect. The Conservative Party has been a runaway train for some years. A few of us have a sense of relief to have jumped free before it hits the buffers. But if the Tory party of old is finally going to be replaced by the Farage Party, the country as a whole will be diminished.

[See also: Can the SNP avoid electoral disaster?]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024