As the country is wrenched from the era of Brexit boosterism into a new economic Ice Age, the Tory party has fled to its bunker. There, the Government is conscientiously rolling out Operation Damage Control. The broad aim is to dull voter anger towards the Conservatives with sensible appeals to pragmatism and sound money. At the same time, Rishi Sunak’s inner circle evidently hopes to hold together a morose and divided party through cunning Brexit doublespeak and cautious internal manoeuvring. The Government perceives itself to be in a painstaking and noble fight to turn a total rout at the hands of the Labor Party in 2024 into a respectable defeat.
But the situation could be even worse than they think. The Conservative Party is battling not just against a wipeout, but also the prospect of its permanent destruction. For the first time since the turn of the 20th century, there is a genuine danger that the British Right could fragment, as the Tories collapse and an insurgent movement leaves it in the dust.
Let’s be clear: there isn’t currently another party waiting in the wings to pull off such a feat. Nor are the Tories strangers to prophecies of their final demise. Time and again, machine Conservatism has demonstrated its iron discipline and ruthless survival instincts when it really counts. Most recently, after coming to the brink of implosion under Theresa May, it successfully closed ranks to see off the Brexit Party and secure a deal with the EU under Boris Johnson.
Throughout history, Toryism has shown an astonishing aptitude for weathering supposedly existential crises and reinventing itself with the times: in the wake of the extensions of the franchise from the late 19th century, the party of Empire and Church threw itself into anti-socialist One Nation Conservatism. After the First World War, while the free trading party of Asquith and Lloyd George withered, the Tories grasped the emancipating appeal of a property-owning democracy.
Yet today the Conservatives find themselves in dangerous and uncharted territory. Because it is not only voters asking themselves what is the point of the Tory party after over a decade in power, but the entire center-Right ecosystem that supports it – volunteers, donors, think tanks, many of whom are legacies of the Thatcher era , not to mention the dozens of Red Wall MPs who may decide that they have nothing to lose from a mass defection.
Indeed, it is hardly a ridiculous idea that, in the wake of a heavy defeat in 2024, many will conclude that the center-Right could bounce back to power more rapidly through the vehicle of a new party. That’s partly due to the power of the protest vote in this age of “system failure”. The meteoric rise of the far-Right Sweden Democrats shows how a collapsing asylum system can cause earthquakes in a country that once prided itself on its pro-migrant “exceptionalism”. The success of Italy’s new prime minister Giorgia Meloni, meanwhile, is testament to how the national mortification of economic decline can propel a fringe right-wing party into power. Her Brothers of Italy is also an intriguing case study in the disruptive power of the bandwagon effect, when center-Right politicians and business leaders start to defect from sinking established parties.
But it’s also down to the extraordinary failure of the Tories in government. When comparisons are made with other countries, the response is generally that the UK is different because of its electoral system. That is what prevented Ukip from breaking through, except in elections to the EU parliament. New parties on the Left have had similarly poor results.
When the situation gets too bad, however, first past the post magnifies the collapse of an existing party. And there is a danger that Conservatism is now toxic, not just in Europhile London but also among first-time Tory voters in the Red Wall who feel that they were duped into backing a fake populist party. It is significant that the public increasingly refers to the fact that the Tories have been in power for 12 years. Johnson’s bid, after Brexit, to create the sense of a break with the technocratic Cameron/Osborne era has failed. As it reverts to the pieties of austerity and center-ground sensibility, it looks like the same old establishment club.
The most intriguing thing is that the Tories are perfectly aware of what they need to do to survive. The Government has seen the data that prove its growing reliance on Red Wall votes in the wake of demographic and class shifts in its former strongholds. Tory MPs know full well that there is little point to a Conservative Party that will not stand up to anti-growth Nimbyism, stop the Channel boats, and come up with a compelling plan to reform the NHS. All but the most stubborn Conservative Remainers are acutely aware that, if Brexit does die with a whimper, perhaps through a Swiss-style renegotiation“Toryism” risks becoming a byword for national humiliation and ruling-class failure.
And yet the party cannot bring itself to life. This is not down to mere exhaustion after more than a decade in power. Its survival instincts have become curiously overpowered by a sort of revulsion towards the new political era. In particular, the party seems to lack the fight for the calculated defiance that this age demands. It is no more willing to challenge ECHR judges than it was the pro-lockdown scientists who effectively took over the Government during the pandemic.
The Tories are struggling to engage in deep and courageous thinking on anything. They have no compelling thoughts on how to prevent individual freedom, personal responsibility and economic dynamism from being flattened by the steamrolling logic of an ever-expanding state. They have no idea how to fight back against the growing elite impulse for neat and utopian top-down solutions, divorced from the messy business of democratic scrutiny and cost-benefit trade-offs. The Tory centrist itch to surrender to the gravitational pull of social democratic stagnation is nihilism dressed up as pragmatism. Meanwhile, the party’s Right has retreated into Thatcherite cosplay as it finds itself adrift in a chaotic new world.
The risk is that instead of tackling the challenges facing the country and conservatism head on – not least the doom loop of high-tax austerinomics – the Tory front bench will spend the next two years babbling on about sound money and the fact that Keir Starmer once supported Jeremy Corbyn. If they choose such a path, the most troubled Tory government in a generation may well end up being the last one.