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  1. The Weekend Essay
6 July 2024

Where next for the Tories?

The Conservative Party's first step will be confronting reality.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It ended as it began: with Rishi Sunak standing outside 10 Downing Street in the rain.

The tone, however, could not have been more different. When he announced the election six weeks ago, Sunak gave the impression of a man utterly dislocated from reality: as oblivious to his party’s plummet in the public’s estimation as he was to the music blaring from a protesters’ speakers, or the downpour soaking his designer suit.

Announcing his resignation on Friday morning after one of the most gruelling nights in the Conservative Party’s history, the former prime minister at last appeared to grasp what has happened in UK politics over the past few years. “To the country, I would like to say, first and foremost, I am sorry,” he began. And he genuinely seemed to mean it.

This defeat cannot be laid entirely at Sunak’s feet. He ran a dire campaign, which exposed at every point his misunderstanding of the electorate, arrogance, poor judgement, and lack of political instincts. Another leader could and perhaps would have lost less badly. But not by much. And as what is left of the parliamentary party contemplates where they go from here, they would do well to recognise that.

The scale of the devastation engulfing what has for a century been considered the natural party of government is hard to fully articulate. With 121 MPs, this is the Tories’ worst ever result – far past the “psychological Rubicon” of Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, below even the absolute nadir of 1906.

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This is not just a crisis of numbers, but of ideology – and, indeed, geography. From Brighton to the Scottish borders, the coast of East Anglia to the Irish Sea, you can now cross the length and breadth of England and Wales without once stepping into Tory land. In Scotland, the party only survives thanks to the simultaneous disintegration of the SNP. The seats of four of the past five Conservative prime ministers are now in the hands of Labour or the Liberal Democrats. Forget the Red Wall and the Blue Wall; put bluntly, there is no longer any such thing as a safe Tory seat.

That collapse is not simply the result of one ill-equipped leader, however much it might comfort Sunak’s fiercest critics in the party to pretend otherwise. In their own way, each of the prime ministers of the recently ended Conservative era played their part. David Cameron for gambling with a referendum he never thought he would lose. Theresa May for her rigidity and mismanagement of the Brexit process. Boris Johnson for his fecklessness, hubris, dishonesty and boundless self-interest. Liz Truss for turning the UK economy into a lab for her ideological experiments.

All, like Sunak, prioritised either managing the internal divisions within their party or pursuing their own dogmatic agenda over the long-term interests of the country. All, like Sunak, kicked tough decisions – on public services, investment, housebuilding, immigration, health and social care, and what to do when the era of low interest rates ceased to paper over the structural forces hamstringing the UK economy – down the road, as though they were somebody else’s problem to deal with. Now, with the first Labour government in 14 years, they are.

No rebuilding process can begin without that fact being acknowledged. The Boris Johnson landslide four and a half years ago masked the fact that the party’s centre was already starting to rot, bright flowers distracting from the decomposition under way.

If the party allows itself to succumb to a round of buck-passing – with Sunak’s supporters blaming Truss and Johnson, Truss and Johnson’s blaming Sunak, and everyone blaming Cameron – it will succeed only in fracturing further. Worse, if the Tories allow themselves the comfort of admonishing their former voters, for abandoning them for Labour or the Lib Dems or for being lured to Reform and splitting the right-wing vote, they will never recover. As returning Conservative MP Neil O’Brien put it on Friday morning when the party’s worst fears had been confirmed, “In a democracy the customer is always right.” Labour had to learn that lesson to recover from its 2019 disaster. Now it’s the Conservatives’ turn.

This is not a question of whether the party needs to be more or less right wing. The sheer range of Conservative losses, and the range of parties it lost to, shows that voters do not trust it to be either. Robert Colvile, Conservative commentator and co-author of the 2019 manifesto, has done the maths: add all the seats where the Reform vote was larger than the amount the Tories lost by to their tally and the party would still have lost this election. Finding a way to unite the right may be necessary for the party to find its way back to electability, but it isn’t sufficient. In many ways, the Liberal Democrats’ achievements are more of a long-term threat than Labour or Reform. As Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein pointed out, “The Conservative Party has won elections in the past when it hasn’t won Bassetlaw and Hartlepool, and it has never won elections when it hasn’t won Cambridgeshire and Surrey Heath. The Conservative Party has to decide what it wants its coalition to be.”

First, though, it needs to return to the fundamentals. Analysis by the FT shows that on the questions of whether the party is competent, fit to govern, understands the problems facing Britain, and keeps its promises, public trust has nose-dived. By the end – after Cameron and May had laid the groundwork for the debacle of Johnson and Truss, which Sunak failed to confront – it did not matter what direction the Conservatives tried to move in. Voters had lost faith in the party’s ability to think beyond its own self-interest. It is not hard to see why. It is not enough for the Conservatives to decide what they want to tell people they stand for; voters have to believe that they can actually achieve it.

Will that point to sink in quickly enough to feature in the contest to take over the leadership? In the initial aftermath, the contenders will be too consumed with the early stages of grief – denial of the scale of the challenge, anger at Labour and each other, bargaining with Reform voters – to be honest with themselves. Sunak has said he will stay on as leader while the terms of the contest are agreed. It is unclear how long that will be – the most constructive thing he could do for his wounded party now would be to remain and allow a period of quiet reflection before the knife fight begins. The Rishi Sunak who fought the arrogantly inept election campaign of the last six weeks looked the type to jet off to California at the earliest opportunity; the Rishi Sunak who gave a sombre resignation speech where he at last took responsibility for his mistakes and praised the incoming Labour Prime Minister, wishing him luck and saying “his successes will be all our successes”, might delay his travel plans and stay long enough for at least some preliminary introspection.

Still, it is hard to see anyone currently in the mix to take on the role of party leader being able to distance themselves enough from the disaster to propel the Tories back towards government any time soon. Credibility takes time to win back, and a degree of humility that is most likely out of reach of anyone associated with the past 14 years. They would do better to focus their efforts at the bottom than the top, at the grassroots level rather than in the corridors of Westminster, on revitalising the poisoned ecosystem that has decayed to such an extent that, right now, nothing healthy is able to grow.

How do the Conservatives start to rebuild? Slowly, gradually, from the bottom up. And by learning the lesson Sunak only seemed to grasp on his way out of office – and confronting reality.

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