We’ve been accustomed to it as a political constant, and usually a pretty powerful one, bolstered by its friends in the City, business and the media. It seems immutable, even when it’s undergone the odd period of comparative weakness (as under William Hague, say).
As is sometimes said, and without exaggeration, it is the oldest and most successful party in the history of democratic politics. It has governed Britain for the great majority of the last century and more. The first Labour government was formed in 1924, and since then the Tories have been in power – either on their own, or leading coalitions, for two-thirds of the time.
Their leaders have defined eras – Baldwin, Macmillan, Thatcher. It has talent for adaptation and survival – the flip side of its habitual cynicism. It is never to be underestimated.
And yet... it has a terrible whiff of decay about it right now. The next two or three years will bring existential threats – crushing defeat followed by disarray, and then a schism. Having won a famous victory a little over three years ago, it could be out of contention for decades. It’s crazy, but it’s true, because the party is moving away from the mood and instincts of the British people; and there are forces at work that will make that alienation more permanent.
First, the defeat. It is inevitable. It will be dramatic. Forget the airy talk about hung parliaments and coalitions. The Sunak administration now is reminiscent of the last months of those of Major, Callaghan, Brown and May.
The government seems not to be in control of events – indeed, not even in control of the Commons. There’s indiscipline and sleaze, a narrative of failure. Local elections and by-elections lost on record swings. The voters have stopped listening to the Tories and, after 13 years in charge, have long since made their minds up that it’s time for a change.
Lee Anderson, the buffoonish Tory deputy chair and token working-class figure (though still judged not good enough for an actual ministerial job), in a rare moment of perspicacity says that they won in 2019 on Boris, Brexit and Corbyn. Now all three factors have disappeared or turned negative.
Boris, despite his cultish following, turned out to be a liability. Brexit has been a flop, and no longer inspires people as it used to. And Corbyn has been kicked out of his party, a development that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
The voters are no longer frightened by Labour, still less the Liberal Democrats, and they certainly aren’t happy about trading prosperity for sovereignty. Brexit was missold, and that’s rightly resented.
What is happening to the Conservative Party’s newer voters, the ex-Labour ones from the red wall and elsewhere, they picked up in 2019? The folks enticed by Johnson’s bombast and talk of levelling up and building back better? They feel disappointed, if not gaslit. The party’s older, more traditional voters feel let down too, either by the drift to extremism, a certain carelessness about planning and sewage, or else the high taxes they have to endure.
No one remembers the details about Partygate, Paterson, Pincher, Zahawi or Raab, but the impression is of a government drifting from crisis to crisis, ever more divided, and the feeling that “nothing works” in the country is becoming pervasive.
The culture wars that are supposed to galvanise the Tory vote serve merely to make a jaded people feel even more exhausted. Johnson won in 2019 partly because the nation wanted an end to the Brexit wars; we are not that keen on fighting new ones about trans rights, race and rapists.
So, the Tories are actually loathed. That means the great coalition of voters assembled by Johnson – cleverly enough – in 2019 will now split four ways, and it almost doesn’t matter which, so steep is the decline.
Don’t forget John Major scored 31 per cent of the vote in 1997, the lowest in modern times. It could easily slump below that in 2024. Given the electorate’s new propensity to vote tactically in an anti-Tory direction, the Tory representation in the Commons could be as low as it has ever been.
Where will the ex-Tories go? Some – the rentiers and those who were first aroused to connect with the Johnson project by the Brexit referendum in 2016 – will stay home. Many will switch direct to Labour. Some will turn to the Liberal Democrats. It all depends on how they want to hurt the Tories.
Whatever the polls show, the effect of widespread tactical voting will be to turbocharge them into oblivion. It will make Blair’s landslide in 1997 look like a rehearsal. It will in fact be the worst showing for the Tories since the dawn of modern politics in 1832. Let that sink in, as they say.
Such is their unsurpassed taste for factionalism and plotting, it almost doesn’t matter who gets to be Tory leader and leader of the opposition next time around. The party will be demoralised and unleadable. With so few MPs surviving, there might not be much of a choice of front benches or leader. But we do know that in the final round, it will be up to members, and we know what the members are like: unforgiving.
Penny Mordaunt once said that a trans woman is a woman, so she’s ruled out. Kemi Badenoch has botched the exercise in shredding “EU laws”, and been “defeated by the ‘blob’” (aka reality, but we’ll leave that debate there). She’s out. Johnson and Truss surely can’t make a comeback.
So let us prepare ourselves for the spectacle of Suella Braverman as leader of the opposition. If she offers the membership the sole say in the choice of leader and a bigger say on policy, she’ll walk it. Braverman was the star speaker at last week’s depressing National Conservatism Conference (a sort of festival of cakeism), and those proceedings give us some idea of what a Braverman leadership would mean – a lurch so far to the Trumpian right and so violent that it could hardly avoid splitting the party in two.
The agenda would be to renegotiate Brexit, but make it even harder, even purer and even worse than the present deal – a terrifying prospect. The Braverman party will be demanding “more Brexit”, not less, and denouncing all the works of the last Tory government (a project Braverman is already enthusiastically engaged in, even though she is still serving in it).
As if banging on about Europe wasn’t enough, we know what else she’ll be obsessed by. Migration. The European Court of Human Rights. Abortion. Divorce. Race. Trans rights. The BBC. Hanging. Multiculturalism. Risible, unfunny Johnson tribute act attacks on some mythical tofu-eating elite. Plus wanting a completely fantastical rehash of the disastrous Truss-Kwarteng economic experiment of huge unfunded tax cuts. Or else turning the NHS and the welfare state into a pauper’s “safety net”. Protectionism. More limits on protest and the right to strike. Suellaland is a hostile environment for the rest of us.
As for the party she loves, she’d not think twice about a purge of the remaining moderates in the party, ie the few left standing after the Johnson-Cummings purges and the likely electoral bloodbath in 2024. Braverman, alongside the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg as her new shadow chancellor, would surely and subtly start using the name “National Conservatives”, just as Blair quietly rebranded his party as “New Labour”. It would be a signal that the party was embracing aggressive authoritarian, intolerant, populist nationalism.
She’ll be useless in parliament and on the telly because she is now. If you thought Truss was bad, wait till you see Braverman! Meanwhile, to borrow a phrase, Labour and Starmer will be “getting on with the job”. Without any effort whatsoever, the Labour front bench – Rayner, Reeves, Streeting, Ashworth – will look responsible and conscientious next to the Tory front bench. Jeremy Hunt will get expelled. For being Jeremy Hunt.
Even if the Tory party somehow manages to stick together, the prospects are poor. Perhaps Suella will be so bad that, like Iain Duncan Smith in 2005, she’ll be ousted and reason will return. Yet the party’s troubles are even worse than they were then. Its capacity for self-destruction over Europe even greater now that Brexit is a reality. If the members “own” the party, she’ll be as immune from parliamentary attack as Corbyn was in 2016-17.
When, a decade ago, David Cameron caved in to Bill Cash and Ukip and promised a referendum, he may have comforted himself with the notion that the vote on EU membership would lance the boil and end the Tory civil war once and for all. Ironically, Brexit has simply made matters worse because, for the now-dominant Eurosceptic wing, we’ve not yet got Brexit done properly. As such, the issue is sadly as live and virulent as ever in such circles.
It seems quite likely that, either voluntarily or by being expelled for ideological weakness, many senior figures both inside parliament and outside, as well as some of the membership, will decide that the game is up and defect to the other parties.
If the membership ever gets their hands on policy or the exclusive right to elect the leader, as the Conservative Democratic Organisation demand (they’re the Tory counterpart to Labour’s Momentum), then all hope of saving the party from within disappears. It’s conceivable that a misguided Unite the Right movement will bring Reform UK, Reclaim and various other flavours of fruitcake into the new National Conservative grouping, with Farage somewhere in the mix.
As for the rest of what used to be the Conservatives, they will be able to coalesce around a Cameron-style agenda: socially and economically liberal, environmentally responsible, fiscally conservative, pragmatic and inclusive, broadly accepting of the current Brexit settlement, uninterested in fighting the culture wars, and with no wish to be “National Conservatives”. They too need a new party. Their old one will soon have left them.
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