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The Conservative catastrophe

The most successful political party in history has always reinvented itself after defeat. Can it do so again?

By Colin Kidd

Recent polling predicts electoral catastrophe for the Conservatives. A Survation poll taken in the first half of June anticipated the party winning only 72 seats out of 650 in the next House of Commons, while an equally dire YouGov survey taken at the end of the second week of June had the Conservatives with a paltry 18 per cent of the vote, a percentage point behind the right-wing populist insurgents of Reform UK. Significantly, Tory strategists lowered their sights after the first few disastrous weeks of the campaign. No longer are the Conservatives seriously competing to win: rather Rishi Sunak’s revised appeal to the public warns of the dangers of giving Labour a “blank cheque” in government. The defence secretary, Grant Shapps, has riffed on the same downbeat message, asking the electorate to support the Tories at the ballot box if only to ensure a Conservative opposition large enough in numbers to hold Labour properly to account. The alternative, Shapps fears, is an unconstrained and potentially feckless Labour “supermajority”.

But such uninspiring calls for prudence and caution could further depress Tory turnout. Why trail to the polls when the result is already known? If the leadership has already conceded defeat in advance, why not vote for Reform, which unashamedly arouses the id of the Conservatives’ base? Gleefully, Nigel Farage, the leader of Reform, predicts that the Tory “brand is done”, and boasts that Reform will supplant the Tories as the main party of the right. Are we witnessing the unheralded demise of the Conservative Party, a mere five years after it won an 80-seat majority? Or, with an electorate so seemingly fickle, is there scope for yet another productive phase of Tory renewal and rejuvenation?

After all, the party has faced several serious electoral upsets in its history, but also amazing resilience and a limpet-like attachment to government. The cliché that the Tories are the natural party of government derives from their unusual beginnings. Although there was a Tory party in the early 18th century that upheld the interests of the Church of England – and which still imparts an Anglican tinge to English Conservatism – the party’s continuous existence dates only from the late 18th or early 19th century. It’s hard to be specific, for the modern party began as a body of loyalists which formed the King’s government under George III, and only gradually disengaged itself from the monarchy to become an autonomous political party.

Nevertheless, it long retained an identity as a ruling elite committed not so much to a set of distinctive principles as bound by rank and station to uphold responsible governance. The democratisation of public life has dramatically changed the party’s personnel but not erased that governing ethos (or, arguably, a sense of entitlement to rule). On the other hand, it has at times become more decidedly ideological, giving rise to tensions between principled partisanship and the agile pragmatism of a governing class.

There is no single recipe for the Conservative Party’s longevity and electoral success. Sometimes electoral setbacks prompted it into creative policymaking and ingenious reinvention as a plausible competitor for office; at other periods, national and international crises have saved the party from its own ideological rigidity, plucking its leaders fortuitously from the opposition benches into coalitions of national unity. The First World War tamed a Tory party driven to distraction by its militant opposition to Irish Home Rule, as well as its obsession with imperial tariffs. Admission to a wartime coalition with the Liberals under Asquith in 1915 – continuing under Lloyd George – brought the party to its senses. The financial crisis of 1931 returned the Tories to office alongside the fiscally austere remnant of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government elected in 1929. Brought into the National Government in 1931, the Conservatives did not then leave office until the end of the Second World War coalition government in 1945.

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The Labour landslide of 1945 reduced the Tories to under 200 seats, but the party responded positively. A major overhaul of its economic and social policies occurred under Rab Butler’s chairmanship of the Conservative Research Department. There and in the Parliamentary Secretariat a generation of rising stars – including Iain Macleod, Enoch Powell and, not least, Reginald Maudling, who had first been drawn to Conservatism by the National Labour element within the governing coalition of the 1930s – helped devise a set of guiding principles showing the party had come to terms with the mixed economy and the welfare state.

Maudling, who would later become chancellor of the Exchequer and would be a close second behind Edward Heath in the leadership election of 1965, had been educated in Hegelian philosophy at Oxford. Hegel’s dialectics underpinned Maudling’s moderate centrism: the quest for a workable synthesis that combined the contrasting ideals of liberty and equality. Butler unveiled the Conservatives’ Industrial Charter in 1947. The party pledged its commitment to high and stable levels of employment and abandoned its former preoccupation with protectionist tariffs. The formula worked. By 1951 it was back in government, and remained there till 1964.

Similarly, the ignominious failure of Edward Heath’s government of 1970-74 to confront a polycrisis – the Arab oil price hike, an energy crisis, rampant inflation and striking miners – encouraged another period of rejuvenation in opposition under a new leader, Margaret Thatcher. Her ally, Sir Keith Joseph, launched the party’s own think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies, and there was a revival of free market ideas under the inspiration of the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute, founded in 1977. The key architect of the new strategy for government was John Hoskyns, a former businessman from the computer sector, who devised a flowchart detailing the intricate sequence of policies – combining tight control of the money supply, fiscal restraint and reform of the trade unions – required to purge inflation from the economy. By 1979 the party was back in government, supported at the ballot box by many ordinary trade unionists exasperated at the excesses of their own movement.

Thatcher’s legacy remains a millstone for the Conservative Party of the 2020s. While many Conservatives – including Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – continue to regard Thatcherism as a policy for all seasons, others have long sought an alternative vision, one that would equip the party to reduce the inequalities in British society that are an inescapable part of Thatcher’s legacy. After the anticipated electoral rout there will be a post-mortem, but will it be a continuation of a longer discussion about the party’s future stretching back to the early years of this century? In 2002 Theresa May, a future leader and then Conservative chair, warned its members that outsiders regarded it as “the nasty party”. “Our base is too narrow,” she conceded, “and so, occasionally, are our sympathies.”

Since then the party has made a series of false starts in attempting to renew itself as a non-Thatcherite party. David Cameron tried to move the focus of the party onto the “Big Society” – an active civil society of voluntary associations and charitable endeavours – until in office that theme seemed to dwindle into a euphemism for the smaller state entailed by George Osborne’s fiscal austerity. As prime minister from 2016 May, with her chief policy adviser Nick Timothy, made a serious attempt to reorientate the party towards a more interventionist state: the Conservative manifesto of 2017 explicitly rejected an untrammelled free market, and appeared to signal a rejection of Thatcherism. But the election campaign was a disaster, and Timothy himself was forced to resign.

However, May’s eventual successor, Boris Johnson, also saw the need for a more activist state. Johnson promised to be a “Brexity Hezza” – in other words, committed, like previous dirigiste Tory Michael Heseltine, to large infrastructure projects and regional development – while his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, promoted a technocratic brand of state-led modernisation. Johnson’s policy of levelling up was a recognition that parts of England, in the north especially, had been left behind by a set of economic policies since 1979 that had prioritised financial services in the City of London at the expense of regional aid. However, since 2022 there has been a reversion under Truss and Sunak to imitations of Thatcherism, which has proven a turn-off for voters. Whatever remains of the party will need to decide whether it was the doctrine itself or merely its cackhanded implementation by Truss that caused a traumatic defeat.

The post-election inquest into its defeat and its options for reinvention depend on which MPs survive the electoral cull. Will it be a group of One Nation-inclined paternalists, who might see possibilities for working in tandem with the Liberal Democrats? Tory-Liberal fusion is an underacknowledged leitmotif of the past century and a half. The Liberal Unionist defectors of 1886, Lloyd George centrists, the Liberal Nationals of the 1930s, and Nick Clegg’s coalitionists of 2010-2015 have all either worked in harness with Conservatives or, more permanently, infused the party with Liberal flavours. Both parties – Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – will, of course, deny it, but the Conservative Party is, historically, as Liberal as it is Conservative. If a tiny Tory rump is to survive in the longer term, one option is yet another Conservative-Liberal rapprochement.

But what if the Tories who pull through on 4 July are on the populist right? Will there then be an amalgamation with Nigel Farage’s Reform party, something which Suella Braverman has welcomed, in order to “unite the right”? Or even a reverse takeover by Reform installing Farage as leader of a new right-wing party? Some prominent Conservatives are already flirting with the national conservatism associated with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Lord Frost, Johnson’s former cabinet minister for EU Relations, recently spoke at the Danube Institute, and in an interview with a Hungarian conservative declared himself a “qualified admirer” of the Hungarian approach to “state authority and the nation”.

It’s more likely that the surviving body of Tory MPs will feature an unhappy miscellany of liberals and populists. The party has been riven by serious factional strife during the past decade. Whereas some previous affiliations within the party, such as the One Nation Group and the Bow Group, were broad-based and open to genuine policy debate, factionalism now reflects the wider cultural trend towards enraged polarisation. There’s a narrow line in any party between healthy pluralism and angry incompatibility. If the latter, then fragmentation becomes a possibility, with some Tories peeling off for a future with the Lib Dems and others with Reform. As well as a handful of defections over the years to Farage’s populist parties, Ukip and Reform, there’s also a precedent from the 2017 parliament when Anna Soubry and a few other Remainers joined the short-lived centrist party Change UK. As well as the ideological composition of the parliamentary party, the outcome depends enormously on the scale of Tory losses and who wins the upcoming leadership contest.

But it would be a mistake to ignore those who have lost their Commons seats. Might an ambitious outsider scent an opportunity to return at some future by-election to reshape and revitalise a shrunken party? If she loses in Portsmouth North, a defeated Penny Mordaunt perhaps? Nor should we forget those Tories safely insulated from an angry electorate in the House of Lords. Ruth Davidson, now Baroness Davidson, the progressive, charismatic former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has a proven track record of revamping a dispirited party that seemed to have no viable future. Her devilment and pithy unpredictability give her the capacity to connect with the public at large; she would make an excellent party chair. Think tanks played a crucial part in the party’s renewal during the late 1970s: how far will bodies like Policy Exchange, whose director Dean Godson sits in the Lords, determine the future Conservative trajectory?

If the party is sensible it might want to listen to the most daring Tory thinkers of the past generation: not only David Willetts, pioneer of the civic conservatism that lay behind the Big Society, but also figures who have less traction in the London-based media. Nobody has done more than David Melding, the retired Welsh Conservative Senedd Member, to rethink how an unravelling UK of multiple, asymmetrically devolved nations might be glued together more cohesively as a federal Britain. Or is the party now so in thrall to English nationalism that it no longer cares?

In Scotland, Murdo Fraser, who was Davidson’s defeated rival for the leadership of the Scottish Conservatives in 2011, at that time called for Scotland’s Tories to split from the Conservatives in England and rebrand themselves under a new label as a distinctively Scottish party of the moderate centre right. This topic has returned to the agenda in Scotland since the enforced resignation of Douglas Ross, the  self-serving leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who had grabbed the party’s nomination for the seat of a fellow MP in ill health. But Fraser’s idea for repackaging the Scottish Tories has a more general application. What about rebranding in England too?

For the Conservative Party seems unable to escape Thatcher’s shadow; and yet further dollops of Thatcherism are not the answer for today’s problems. Drivers slalom between the ubiquitous potholes in our roads. Those in ill health are faced with excruciatingly long NHS waiting lists. Willing workers struggle to find properly remunerated, full-time employment. And younger generations are priced out of home ownership. When you also notice the vivid disconnect between our shabby town centres and the prosperous suburbs and villages of their hinterlands, a measure of wealth redistribution stands out as our society’s most pressing need. Astute Tories will recognise that there is nothing intrinsically un-Conservative about redistributive taxation when it serves the end of social stability. 

Colin Kidd is a professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews

[See also: Inside the shadow Tory leadership election]

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