The Conservative Party exists to win. This is as close as British politics gets to a fundamental law of physics. If you understand this law properly, you can explain pretty much anything.
It is this law which explains why the Conservatives are so electorally successful. The desire to win trumps any ideology, and so the party will consistently adapt to survive. The Tory Party we see today looks nothing like that of David Cameron, or even that of Theresa May. This is why Boris Johnson was able to convincingly present himself as the change candidate at the last election, despite the Tories having been in power for almost a decade by that point. While Labour tears itself apart debating the soul of the party, the Conservatives just keep winning.
This law is also the reason why Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister. He is personally unpopular with his MPs. He has been beset by scandal for months. His professed ideology does not align at all with that of most of his party. And yet he survives: a fact that is largely inexplicable without recourse to this fundamental law.
Even in his diminished state, Johnson remains the Conservative Party’s best chance of winning. There is currently no alternative candidate who is more potentially electorally successful. With his response to recent controversies around his US green card and his wife’s tax affairs Rishi Sunak, Johnson’s closest rival, has shown himself ill-equipped to deal with the scrutiny associated with running to be Prime Minister. Liz Truss, with her free market instincts, espouses a type of politics immensely popular with Tory MPs but uniquely unpopular with the public.
And so Boris Johnson continues. He is protected in the short term as well by the Conservative Party’s instinct towards victory in the local elections. Dissent has largely died down in recent weeks because Tory MPs are encouraging each other not to be too active in their condemnation of their leader, in an attempt to control the expected damage to the party’s standing on 5 May.
The Tories are expecting a grim showing. Expectation management efforts have begun, with officials briefing the media that they anticipate losing upwards of a thousand council seats. Internally, the numbers look slightly less catastrophic, with senior party figures expecting losses of 700-750 seats.
Many Tory MPs seem convinced that such losses are inevitable not because of a flaw with their leader, but because they are starting from a high base. The council seats up for election this year were last contested at the high point of Theresa May’s popularity. Johnson’s team have successfully disseminated the message that the only way is down: a product of natural electoral cycles, rather than the PM himself.
Whether this line can hold if catastrophic losses do occur is a different question. Since Johnson does not have the ideological support of his MPs, all he has is his popularity. If he looks to have lost that irrevocably he is in trouble. And his MPs are volatile at the moment. “Simply because of the unpredictability of colleagues, he’s in more danger than at any time since January,” was the verdict of one MP, who noted that the party’s mood can swing wildly in the space of a day. “Last Tuesday the mood seemed calm and that the party was pretty much ready to move on. Until Wednesday evening and then something — I have no idea what — changed.”
Others are more sanguine. “He’s fine because there’s nobody else,” one senior backbencher told me. “We haven’t been kicked in the local election yet. The polls aren’t terrible and Starmer is useless.” Hold the champagne in Downing Street though. The MP’s final verdict? “Could still be gone by Christmas.”
The drive towards popularity above all else is what keeps the Conservatives winning, but this may also be their downfall. The Labour Party’s tragedy is that its members believe too many things, and so they fight among themselves and do not win. The tragedy of the Conservatives is that they do not believe enough, and so when they win they do not know what to do with the power that they have. This makes many of the party’s MPs personally miserable. They have their own individual ideologies, but they suppress them in pursuit of collective victory and so find themselves in power and doing things that they don’t actually believe in.
Backbenchers speak of cabinet ministers who are forced to defend the government line on TV not with envy but with sympathy. “Poor guy, I wouldn’t wish that job on my worst enemy,” one backbencher said to me of Oliver Dowden. the party chairman, after his TV appearances on Sunday. The Conservative Party is in a perpetual state of midlife crisis: it has everything it ever wanted, and yet finds itself still miserable. This presents a risk to Johnson. Miserable MPs tend to be more likely to revolt, as are MPs who have no interest in seeking promotion.
There is also another risk to this irresistible urge towards popularity. A friend to all is a friend to none. There is some panic in Tory circles that, in its quest to be loved by its new voters in the Red Wall, the party has lost its traditional voters in the south. The electoral maths of this would be fine if the two balanced each other out, but increasingly the fear is that the local elections will show the Conservatives have not made up enough headway in places like Stoke and Sunderland to counterbalance the risk of losses in places like Barnet and Wandsworth.
A friend of Johnson’s once told me that you can understand him completely if you understand this: everything he does, he does because he wants to be loved. This makes him the perfect leader for a party that exists to win. But what if that drive has taken Johnson and his party too far? What if it is the urge to win that stops them from winning? What happens if the Conservative Party’s greatest asset proves to be its downfall? I expect Johnson does not want to find out.