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UK Tories should use their time in opposition wisely

Some senior Conservatives are taking comfort from the fact that the Labour Party’s vote share barely rose in England and actually declined in Wales.
Last Updated : 06 July 2024, 10:25 IST

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By Martin Ivens

Bereavement is said to be typically followed by five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Many Tories are still markedly in the denial stage after the party’s worst electoral defeat in its long history. Anger is sure to follow a period of eerie calm following Thursday’s plebiscite.

Some senior Conservatives are taking comfort from the fact that the Labour Party’s vote share barely rose in England and actually declined in Wales — only outperforming the Scottish National Party north of the border. Tory voters deserted to the right-wing populist party, Reform, not Keir Starmer’s Labour, say these optimists.

Look carefully at the electoral map, however, and you will see that the centrist Liberal Democrats have acquired enormous swathes of leafy Tory territory in the affluent south too. The country united around one aim — to give the ruling party a good kicking. It isn’t clear that the Tories can recover from popular revulsion in the space of one parliamentary term — or who can or should lead them out of the political wilderness they now find themselves in.

Former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has humbly accepted the role of official scapegoat — as I’ve written before, this has been the most accident-prone campaign in living memory— but like Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Oriental Express, there were many hands behind the death of this Tory government. Soon the inquest will begin. How did a huge Tory majority in 2019 collapse so fatally?

The most successful electoral party in the West is suffering an identity crisis. The traditional fault lines — left versus right, pro-European Remainers versus Leavers, One Nation “compassionate Conservatives” versus flinty Thatcherite small-staters — no longer apply. In common with many parties of the center-right in Europe and the US, and many center-left ones too, the choice confronting the Tories is between serious versus not serious, traditional versus populist politics. The Tories could perish like the French Gaullists, squeezed by Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally, or undergo a populist seachange from within, like the US Republican party under Donald Trump. 

Paul Goodman, former MP and erstwhile editor of the activists’ influential website Conservative Home, identifies “a right-wing entertainment complex” as the chief threat to a serious Tory opposition to Labour. Just as the Republican party became obsessed with Fox News in America, so a highly influential wing of the Conservative party reflects the populist GB News television channel and some of the more outspoken columnists in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Tory politics mustn’t become “performative,” argues Goodman.

Some senior Tories, such as former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, would like to invite Reform’s barnstorming populist leader Nigel Farage on board, or effect a merger with his party. The strategy of “reunite the right” has its attractions; Boris Johnson’s campaign in 2019 hugely benefited when Farage’s candidates stood aside in Tory-held seats; Farage’s return to politics correspondingly brought Sunak low on Thursday. Farage, however, is soft on Vladimir Putin; too many of his party candidates were exposed as racists, and his program of £90 billion ($115 billion) of tax cuts accompanied by £60 billion in public spending increases can’t be taken seriously. Tory voters who defected to the Lib Dems, now bolstered by more than 70 MPs, would never return if the party took this populist path.

The rival “king over the water” is former prime minister Boris Johnson, currently not a member of Parliament but possibly available if a by-election occurs. Johnson’s supporters claim he’s an election winner like no other, who could see off the threat from Farage and cut Starmer down to size through mockery. That’s if the indolent lord of misrule even wants the job; Johnson broke off from his Sardinian holiday to give just one speech during the campaign. The opinion pollsters, however, point out that Tory fortunes first began their steep descent with Johnson’s Partygate rule-breaking at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tory officer class can’t bear him. 

The other big-name loser on election night was Liz Truss, the 49-day prime minister whose budget of tax cuts and spending increases lost the Tories their reputation for economic competence; Sunak, an orthodox fiscal conservative, could do nothing to retrieve it. Ejected by the voters from her allegedly “safe” seat after flirting with Farage and “Pop-Con” popular conservatism, Truss’ fate should serve as a warning of the dangers of unserious, headline-hunting politics.

The Tory party is even divided over how to choose the next leader. Some want to get on with the job immediately; others argue that the current system, which lets the membership foist a candidate on a skeptical parliamentary party, has been a disaster. Many Tory MPs would like to take the decision back into their own hands and change the rules to make it harder to challenge incumbents.

A long caretaker leadership under a heavyweight would allow the party to thrash out its platform and give time to test the credentials of leadership contenders. The party must be rebuilt from the bottom up; its dwindling, aging membership is out of touch with the country, and conservatism needs redefining for the modern era.

A third alternative is to let the October party conference function as the hustings and have the new woman or man in place by November. But it may look irresponsible not to present a serious opposition to Starmer in Parliament in the coming months.

Even before election day, Tory leadership campaigns were working in embryo, with domain names bought and potential donors discreetly sounded out. The voters, however, curtailed the ambitions of more than a few on Thursday. 

The bookmarkers’ favorite is Kemi Badenoch. The former business and equalities secretary has pugnacity, intellect and star quality, although her critics say she is too impatient with lesser mortals. Tom Tugendhat, the former security minister and a former soldier, has a natural air of leadership and is a Russia and China hawk respected for his steeliness; but he was a staunch Remainer in a party that has rejected Europe and all of its works. 

Other possible contenders include Boris-admirer Priti Patel, a right-wing former home secretary, and James Cleverly, a centrist who has run both the home office and foreign office. Another so-called “big beast” is Jeremy Hunt, the former chancellor who survived his expected electoral cull through tireless campaigning. Braverman is also a potential runner, as is Robert Jenrick, a former follower of Sunak who has smartly moved his politics to the right over migration. Since every Tory MP, like soldiers in Napoleon’s army, believes they have a field marshal’s baton in their knapsack, more challengers will emerge.

Whoever wins, it’s the direction of travel that matters. The Conservatives have to decide whether to remain a traditional party of power or a MAGA-lite platform for a populist. They need to use their time in opposition to choose wisely.

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Published 06 July 2024, 10:25 IST

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