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14 February 2024

The Tory party’s theatre of hate

The Conservatives are dissolving into bitter factions. Can anyone hold the party together as it nears defeat?

By Rachel Cunliffe

As Liz Truss recently put it: “It’s difficult being a Conservative at the moment.” From the outside, the behaviour of the party looks utterly bizarre. All but certain to lose the next election, and led by their third prime minister in two years, the Tories should be pulling together to minimise the damage. Instead, there is civil war.

On 6 February the battle moved to the vaulted halls of a Westminster church just half a mile from parliament. Truss, out in the wilderness since her administration crumbled in October 2022, was attempting to make a comeback through the launch of a new movement: Popular Conservatism (PopCon). The packed hall, with Tory party members jostling for seats at the front with assorted approving Conservative MPs – Priti Patel, Jake Berry, Andrea Jenkyns – suggested the troops were only too ready to be rallied.

Britain, Truss declared from the podium during her speech, is “full of secret Conservatives”. The audience cheered. But the story told by Truss and her fellow speakers was one in which conservatism is under attack. To hear the former ministers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lee Anderson so sharply decry the present state of affairs, you would be confused to learn that theirs had been the party of government for almost a decade and a half. They took aim at a host of policies – clean energy initiatives, alcohol and tobacco regulations, protections for minority groups – introduced by Conservative prime ministers.

This is what a long, drawn-out mutiny looks like: rebellious MPs, restive members, and an embattled, hapless Prime Minister who lacks a personal mandate from either the electorate or the party membership.

At the start of the year, the right-wing factions inside the parliamentary party, known as “the five families”, threatened to revolt over Rishi Sunak’s Rwanda bill to combat illegal immigration. They believed it was insufficiently hard-line – yet in the end, the revolt was far more muted than expected. Then, on 23 January, Simon Clarke, the levelling up secretary under Truss, published a column in the Telegraph claiming Sunak was “leading the Conservatives into an election where we will be massacred” and calling for him to be replaced as leader. It referenced a YouGov poll that suggested the party would be annihilated if Sunak remained.

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This followed a poll published the week before purporting to show the populist Reform party founded by Nigel Farage gifting Labour a landslide by taking disillusioned Tory voters. Both surveys were commissioned by the secretive “Conservative Britain Alliance”, a group of anonymous Tory donors fronted by Boris Johnson’s Brexit secretary David Frost. The aim of the polls was to shift the party in a more right-wing direction before the election by suggesting that a different leader – one who was properly Conservative on key metrics such as taxes, immigration, and law and order – could avert catastrophe.

Despite increasingly fractious grumbling from the right of the party and rumours of letters being sent to the back-bench 1922 Committee demanding Sunak’s resignation, none of Clarke’s colleagues joined his rebellion. Suella Braverman and Robert Jenrick, both of whom departed Sunak’s cabinet on bitter terms, stayed out of it. Even Truss distanced herself, with a source close to her saying she was “in no way supportive of what he is saying”. Clarke had been billed as a headline speaker at the PopCon launch, but his name soon disappeared from the conference’s promotional material.

Yet there is seemingly no end to the briefings, leaks and rumours about a plot to dislodge Sunak. One such plan is to build momentum for regime change through the February by-elections and May local elections, which are expected to yield dire results for the Tories. Allies of Sunak dismiss this threat as a handful of troublemakers “writing cheques they can’t cash”. “The Tories have broadly accepted that a half-baked attempt to remove Rishi at this stage would make things worse, not better,” one Conservative adviser told me. But not everyone agrees.

The Conservatives know they are going to lose the general election. Sunak’s No 10 is not a happy place. Deep in a “bunker mentality”, the spreadsheet Prime Minister trusts few besides his long-term friend and best man James Forsyth (formerly of the Spectator), the strategist and Lynton Crosby protégé Isaac Levido, and David Cameron. The hope is that a Cameron-esque “back to basics” campaign built around economic stability and a tough stance on law and order will return apathetic “don’t knows” to the Conservative fold.

But “back to basics” is a tough message to sell to an electorate after 14 years in power. The polls refuse to budge. If anything, the lead Labour gained during the disastrous Truss premiership is growing. “The cement is setting,” as one Tory adviser gloomily put it. Sunak is rumoured to have “checked out”, his sights set on a lucrative post-premiership job in Silicon Valley. The question is not if but when and how badly the Tories lose – and, crucially, what comes next.

The anticipated defeat has provoked two vicious battles. The first is for the leadership. On the One Nation, moderate wing of the party, Penny Mordaunt has launched a charm offensive among MPs, and the Home Secretary James Cleverly is also in the running. But Kemi Badenoch, the “anti-woke” crusader and darling of the right, is the favourite. The Business and Trade Secretary is positioning herself as a “sensible” right-winger who can unite the party, and tops both the bookies’ and party members’ lists in the race to succeed Sunak.

The second battle is more interesting: the struggle over the narrative for why the party lost – lost the election, lost hundreds of thousands of Tory voters, and lost its way.


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Sunak began his leadership promising to be a “safe pair of hands” who could rescue a party shattered by his predecessors. The view in private among centrist Tories is that Boris Johnson “squandered” his 2019 majority and damaged the party’s reputation for probity, and that Truss, whose premiership lasted a comically brief 49 days, destroyed its economic credibility.

When I spoke to Truss allies last September, a year after she became prime minister, they said that the problem was not her ideas but the communication of them: it had not been explained to the electorate how pursuing free-market policies such as cutting tax would power growth and reduce pressure on household budgets and public finances. Work is being done within the party (through the Conservative Growth Group of MPs, one of the “five families”) and beyond (in the Conservative Growth Commission, a research group of economists Truss set up after leaving office) to find ways of selling the free-market doctrine to the country.

It has been a remarkable bounce-back for the former PM, who emerged, newly confident, as one of the stars of the 2023 Conservative Party conference in Manchester last October, drawing a crowd that queued for more than an hour to see her. Four months later, at the PopCon launch, she spoke, without notes, in the manner of an evangelical preacher: “We’ve been swimming against the tide… Conservatives really need to be thinking about how we change the system itself and how we create the political weather.” In April, she will publish a book, Ten Ways to Save the West; the cover describes Truss as “the only Conservative in the room”.

For Truss and her supporters the question is: why have 14 years of Tory government failed to produce a slate of Conservative achievements? Why are taxes so high, rates of business investment so low, regulations so complex, and growth so elusive? Their answer is that for two decades governments have had their hands tied by a shadowy network of undemocratic, unaccountable institutions: supra-national organisations, treaties, the judiciary, the civil service, charities and NGOs. High immigration, net zero policies, health regulations and progressive social attitudes are both the cause of Britain’s biggest problems (a faltering economy, poverty, lack of housing, and crumbling public services) and the fault of this “quangocracy” – against which democratic leaders are all but powerless. Truss, they argue, could not succeed as prime minister when she was indeed “the only Conservative in the room”.

This epithet “sums up what supporters loved about Liz, what enraged others, and what ultimately spelled her downfall as prime minister”, a former member of the Truss team said. “Namely, a take-no-prisoners approach to pushing ideas. Such a theme does not just serve as a defence of her premiership, casting it as 49 days of swimming against a leftist tidal wave. It also tees up what will likely be her main lesson for those vying to be the next Tory leader: never forget the courage of your convictions as a Conservative.”

Does Truss hope to lead the party again? One ally told me she had not ruled it out. Others said that she will instead play “fairy godmother for the free-marketeers”, ensuring her ideas live on. She has lost old allies (her old friend and ill-fated chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, no longer speaks to her and has announced he is standing down at the next election) but is gaining new ones. Younger Conservatives considered potential “influencers” have been invited to private lunches with Truss (“Fizz with Liz”). The most dramatic speech at the PopCons launch was by Mhairi Fraser, the Tory candidate for the Surrey seat of Epsom and Ewell, who is poised to take on the free-market mantel if she is elected.

Illustration by Jack Hughes

Elsewhere in the party, other groups agree that Sunak is bringing defeat on himself with his “betrayal” of conservatism. The Conservative Britain Alliance is attempting to oust Sunak before the election rather than after it. It does not think the party can win, but believes a fresh leader would help it lose less badly.

Who might that leader be? Suella Braverman has been angling for the role of right-wing standard-bearer since Sunak’s ill-fated reappointment of her as home secretary. She began her shadow campaign with a bold speech at the National Conservatism Conference in May 2023; but since her sacking in November, she has been marginalised. According to a survey on ConservativeHome, Tory members now prefer Badenoch. Braverman’s tactic, as one Tory insider puts it, is “to make headway by outflanking [Badenoch] on the right”. But even MPs who share Braverman’s hard-line stance on immigration find her divisive and “a liability”.

It is Badenoch, therefore, who the plotters would like to install in Sunak’s place. Her response to the speculation has been to reiterate her support for the Prime Minister, telling rebels to “stop messing around”. But she is keeping her options open. While she has avoided clashing with Sunak on Rwanda, Badenoch burnished her “anti-woke” credentials on other policy areas, namely gender identity. Described to me as “not the sort of person to go into the Commons tea rooms and charm people”, she is begrudgingly beginning an outreach campaign. Key allies include Lee Rowley, Julia Lopez and Rachel Maclean, and she is unexpectedly close to the security minister Tom Tugendhat. Despite falling out with Michael Gove (allegedly over an affair he had with a friend of Badenoch’s), she retains a degree of his support.

It is in Badenoch’s interests for Sunak to lead the Tories into the election: strike too soon and the PM can claim he could have averted electoral disaster had his MPs not turned on him. A Tory insider described her as pursuing a “fleet in being” game plan, a naval strategy that involves exerting influence by maintaining the option of attack without making a move.

In January it was revealed Badenoch is part of a WhatsApp group entitled “Evil Plotters”, which also includes Gove. The name – perhaps meant ironically – is taken from Nadine Dorries’s The Plot, which warned of an unelected cabal exerting sinister control over the Tory party. The super-villain of the book is Dougie Smith, a former adviser to Cameron, Theresa May and Johnson. He is reported to be advising the plotters in their scheme to replace Sunak.

Truss and her fellow PopCons can afford to wait. But if there is to be a post-election battle over the soul of the Conservative Party, not everyone will be around to take part. For those MPs most at risk of losing their seats, the fight needs to be fought now.

To understand the Tories’ erratic behaviour, one party strategist explained, you need to go back to the basics: geography. How MPs behave “depends on if you see Reform or the Lib Dems as the predators in your seat”.

The latest projections suggest the Tories could lose 100-150 MPs at the election. Sunak has to choose between aiming to keep the traditional heartlands in the south and south-west that are under pressure from the Liberal Democrats, and the 40 or so formerly Labour Red Wall seats won by Johnson in 2019, in which Reform has significant support.

The idea that the party founded by Nigel Farage, which is polling nationally at around 10 per cent, could amass disgruntled Tory voters and allow Labour to edge ahead is a dark prospect for MPs in areas that had large Brexit support. Seven and a half years after the EU referendum, Farage retains the power to provoke “a sheer nervous breakdown” among Tory MPs, according to one Conservative adviser. His presence at the party conference in October 2023 sparked warm words by anxious Conservatives about how he’d be welcomed into the party, and he appeared at the PopCon launch, too, working for GB News.

“They’re looking for a messiah,” the Reform leader Richard Tice told me. “They can’t find it within their own ranks, so they’re coming out with the begging bowl. It’s like Oliver Twist.” Farage’s involvement in Reform’s election campaign is unknown. He is working out how to “maximise his ability to troll the Tories”, a Conservative aide told me, without risking an eighth unsuccessful run at becoming an MP. But the threat of a Reform surge has at least 40 Tory MPs in at-risk seats agitating for a right-wing pivot on immigration to mitigate disaster. “They’re in complete panic mode. They thought they were safe but they’re realising now they’re facing imminent redundancy,” Tice said.

The battle for the Red Wall, one Tory insider told me, is already lost. A YouGov poll, published on 30 January, found that only 29 per cent of people who were Labour-Tory switchers in 2019 planned to back the Conservatives at the next election. Reducing immigration remains a priority for 2019 Conservative voters in Red Wall seats, but they no longer believe the government can achieve it. The focus, the insider said, had to be on fending off the Lib Dems to minimise losses in the traditional southern heartlands. But that is of little consolation to those facing the loss of their jobs, in part, because of the rise of Richard Tice’s Reform.

Rishi Sunak owes his survival in Downing Street to a kind of stalemate. “Toppling a leader is like pushing over a fridge,” one Conservative adviser told me. “You need people rocking it either side to give it momentum.” That momentum is yet to build to a critical point for Sunak. A series of local and by-election defeats in which all factions blame one another could yet alter the balance, especially if Reform does well. If the factions of the Tory right united, they might be able to topple Sunak. But first they’ll have to stop fighting among themselves.

[See also: Who runs Labour?]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland

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