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24 January 2024

Who would dominate the Tory party in opposition?

A rump Conservative Party would be just as factionally divided as it is today.

By Ben Walker

What will become of the Conservatives in opposition? Who will be left and who will MPs group around? Based on current polling, the party will lose almost half of its MPs, falling from 349 at present to around 180. Factor in anti-Tory tactical voting by Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green voters and the number could fall as low as 150.

Who will be left standing? And what will it mean for the future direction of British Conservatism?

How defeat will impact the Tory party is unknown. The divisions over Europe that plagued John Major in advance of the 1997 election flowed into the leadership contest that followed. Tory MPs found it more comforting to plump for the inexperienced but Eurosceptic William Hague over the Europhile grandee Ken Clarke. And of those projected to keep their seats, Kemi Badenoch, James Cleverly, Priti Patel, Tom Tugendhat and Robert Jenrick may all prove ideologically pivotal figures.

But what of the wider Tory parliamentary party? I’ve approached this question from a data perspective, based on factors such as who MPs backed in leadership elections, how they voted on defining issues and which open letters they signed. Factions are hard to define precisely, especially when full membership lists aren’t always available, but here are a few observations. 

The New Conservatives, co-founded by Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, claim 25 members. The ones publicly known were mostly elected in 2019, largely in seats gained from Labour. The overwhelming majority backed Liz Truss, Badenoch or Suella Braverman for leader. But the likelihood is that all bar five will lose their seats at the next election. Thirteen have majorities of 20 points or less. Yet despite this potential electoral defeat, their ideas will endure.

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At the summer 2022 Tory leadership election, Liz Truss supporters represented 45 per cent of the parliamentary party, while Rishi Sunak supporters represented 39 per cent (the remainder are unknown). If you halve the party, and exclude those not standing again, 42 per cent of the remaining rump backed Truss, while 41 per cent backed Sunak. In other words, while the new parliamentary party is moderately more favourable to Sunak (his supporters gain two points, while Truss’s lose three), the fundamental division endures.

What of Boris Johnson’s remaining acolytes? Based on data from October 2022, I can identify at least 58 Tory MPs who supported the former prime minister’s return. Should the Tories lose 52 per cent of their seats at the next election, the “Bring back Boris” brigade would fall by 53 per cent from 58 MPs to 27. In other words, their representation would be unchanged. 

Turning to hard-line Brexiteers, of the 157 Tory MPs who backed a no-deal Brexit in 2019 (through John Baron MP’s “Motion B”), a 52 per cent reduction in Tory MPs would only reduce the no-dealers by 41 per cent.

And what of the culture wars? Twenty-six Tory MPs put their name to Andrew Bridgen’s Schools (Gender and Parental Rights) Bill, which sought to ban the social transitioning of children at school. Their representation would fall by 54 per cent under the same scenario.

As will have become clear, these are proportionate falls. Though the Tory party’s size would dramatically change, its composition would not. 

Of course, these findings only tell us what current Conservative MPs think, not future ones. We don’t know what those selected for safe seats are thinking, or how fluid past votes and endorsements are. But from these findings we can conclude this: there will be little change in the Tories’ factional divides. In the absence of a unifying leadership candidate, a rump Conservative Party would be just as split as it is today. 

But here’s a final consideration to make. Assuming the Tories lose half their seats, between one in ten and one in five of those who remain will be new MPs. They won’t be shaped by old Westminster struggles or, necessarily, the obsessions of SW1. They might be more shaped by the election campaign the Conservative Party chooses to fight or public opinion in their constituencies.

After emphatic election defeats, both the Tories and Labour have often sought refuge in ideological standard-bearers: Hague in 2001, Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. A post-defeat Tory party might follow this pattern but – not only because of new MPs – its ultimate destination is far from certain.

[See also: The Conservative art of war]

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