As tourists and locals cavorted on the beach and queued for ice cream at the approach to Bournemouth Pier last Saturday, Phil Aldous was sitting 100 metres away in a strip-lit conference hall where the blinds were pulled down to block out the sunshine.
The 55-year-old joiner from Portsmouth was among 300-odd Tory supporters attending the formal launch of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, a group founded by allies of Boris Johnson who want to hand power over decision-making in the Tory party to its approximately 172,000 members.
He was forthright about his reason for travelling to the event and attending the gala dinner in the evening: “The party has gone to the left.” Imploring Tory chiefs to restore what he sees as truly conservative principles, he called for cuts to the “bloated” state, the Whitehall “blob” and taxes.
Others present shared Aldous’s despair about the party’s direction, citing a litany of areas where they believe that Rishi Sunak’s administration is out of step not only with party members but the country at large, including on immigration, Brexit and cultural flashpoints.
The complaints come at a time of acute anxiety in some quarters of the Tory administration and parliamentary party following devastating results in the local elections on May 4. The Conservatives shed more than 1,060 councillors and lost control of almost 50 councils in England, a performance that surpassed their worst expectations. It was, former minister Conor Burns mused over a cup of coffee at the CDO event, a “bloody awful result”.
The timing of King Charles III’s coronation, in the immediate aftermath of the local polls, delayed a postmortem. In the past week, however, panic has begun to grip some of the party’s MPs and supporters, who fear the Conservatives are heading for defeat at the next general election, expected in 2024. It has prompted a febrile debate about the best strategy to remain in power, while also heralding a battle for the soul of the party if it is forced into opposition.
Two events in the past week have focused heavily on the party’s future direction: the CDO’s £10-a-ticket “Take Control” gathering in Bournemouth and a three-day National Conservatism Conference in London, where tickets started at £115. The conversation at these idiosyncratic events echoes one that has been taking place — sotto voce — among MPs and aides behind the scenes in Westminster too.
For his part, Rishi Sunak, having restored a sense of stability to government after the chaotic eras of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, is cleaving fast to his five “people’s priorities” pledges — halving inflation, growing the economy, reducing debt, cutting NHS waiting lists and “stopping the boats”. Downing Street officials insist there is still a “narrow path” to victory if the prime minister proves his competence by delivering on these vows, which is by no means a certainty.
Now, as MPs and Tory supporters alike contemplate the difficulty of holding together the unlikely 2019 electoral coalition of working-class voters in England’s north and Midlands alongside more affluent voters in the south, a new set of questions are muttered darkly. Is it realistically possible for the party to win a majority, given that it lags Labour by an average of 17 points in the polls at this stage in the electoral cycle? Or is a result that forces the Tories out of government all but inevitable? And if the party does face a spell in opposition, an opportunity for more profound renewal than in office, what should Conservatism pursue next as its core offer to the British public?
In Bournemouth, supporters gave downbeat assessments of the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. Asked whether the party can triumph at the general election, Lady Judy McAlpine, 79, an events organiser from Henley, opined: “No, not right now.” TV personality Edd China, 52, agreed the Tory party is “going to struggle”. Lord Stewart Jackson, former Tory MP and chief of staff to David Davis when he was Brexit secretary, ventured: “As it stands at the moment, no it won’t.”
The CDO conference, by dint of its central demands for serious party reform, was a magnet for disgruntled Conservative supporters. Born out of the embers of Boris Johnson’s ousting from Downing Street by MPs, it is derided by critics as a “Bring Back Boris” front group — which it denies, though many of its acolytes openly yearn for his return to the helm.
However, Tory MPs harbour little appetite to replace Sunak before the next election. Even the prime minister’s arch-critic Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary, told assembled CDO activists that yet another change of leader — after two in 2022 — would make the party look “ridiculous”, adding that “we’ll be toast” if it happens.
Although the CDO event cannot be claimed to be representative of all party members and supporters, the pessimism about the party’s current state and fortunes exhibited at the seaside should give Number 10 pause for thought. After all, the membership forms the bedrock of the party’s activist base, on which it relies heavily during election campaigns to canvass and deliver leaflets. Outside of campaign ground wars, members are considered essential for “local profile” and encouraging sympathetic voters to “feel part of a political family”, according to one Tory MP.
A broad spectrum of gripes was also aired about government policy at the conference. East Londoner Michael Northcroft-Brown, 67, a commercial landlord, declared himself “furious” about what he saw as Sunak’s betrayal of Brexit, calling on the government to press ahead with a bonfire of EU regulations.
Over a glass of red wine from the cash bar during the lunch break, Maxine Zimmermann, 57, a driving instructor from Bournemouth, warned “the government’s not listening to the whole of the country and the mood” on migration. She said even settled refugees and migrants later found to have arrived in Britain via a so-called “illegal” method should be “expelled”.
Ministers should take a more hardline approach on “culture war” issues, such as the “sexualisation of the education system”, said 31-year-old Matthew MacKinnon, owner of a communications business. “That doesn’t seem to be popular among certain cliques in London or at the top of the party, but among the base and among voters that’s something I think people are very worried and frustrated about,” he said.
Attacks on the central party were broadcast from senior figures at the podium too. Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns, a trained soprano who opened the CDO event with a rendition of “God Save the King”, told those assembled: “I look around colleagues myself and think, you belong in the Lib Dems, actually.”
While former home secretary Priti Patel, a darling of the rightwing grassroots, agreed the parliamentary party has become “quite detached” from the views of voters, she suggested the local election results provided party chiefs with a chance to take stock. “This is a moment to recalibrate,” she told the FT.
Two days after the gathering in Bournemouth, a group of “Nat Cons” convened in London to consider the future of Conservatism from another angle. The National Conservatism Conference, organised by American public affairs institute the Edmund Burke Foundation, hosted speakers from a wider rightwing tradition than the UK Conservative party, though the cabinet ministers Suella Braverman and Michael Gove, and other Tory parliamentarians, numbered among them. The event drew an eclectic crowd, including a significant proportion of attendees from the US, where the movement originated, as well as Israel and central Europe.
Little known in the UK, the movement takes a more rightwing stance than most centre-right western parties on social and cultural issues, while urging a protectionist economic approach. The original American movement focuses heavily on religion, a characteristic not easily transposed to the UK, where politics and religion are firmly treated as separate domains. The name of the movement has also sparked unease on account of the nationalism of the Third Reich. An attempt at the conference by rightwing writer Douglas Murray to reclaim the label, insisting it should not be avoided simply because the Germans “mucked up” in the past, elicited a fierce backlash from critics who said his language minimised the horrors of the Holocaust.
In the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, Braverman was the star turn. The home secretary railed against “political correctness” and identity politics, and declared that net legal migration must fall — a veiled threat to Sunak amid cabinet wranglings on the matter. Rees-Mogg also used the podium to attack the government for scaling back plans to scrap EU laws, a move he derided as “pathetically under-ambitious”.
Further interventions came from two rising stars, both evangelical Christians, on the Tory backbenches. Miriam Cates issued a rallying call to boost the birth rate in Britain, a nod to a key theme of populist leaders in Europe such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni. Fellow MP Danny Kruger hit out at the “Marxism, narcissism and paganism” that he said have radicalised young people under the banner of “progressive liberalism”. He also claimed “normative” families, in which a mother and father remain together for the sake of the children, are the sole basis “for a safe and functioning society”.
While some in the party believe there is political mileage in shifting rightward on social and cultural issues, others stridently disagree. One Tory official dismissed social conservatism as a dead-end, insisting it “doesn’t have any truck in the UK. We are a very liberal country.” Gove, the levelling up secretary, who attended as an emissary from the party’s liberal wing but defended the event as “a sign of a party and a broader movement that is healthy” and engaging in debate, argued that people vote on economics and public services, not cultural issues.
Britons have become increasingly liberal in their views over the past four decades. While both Kruger and Cates argued for the importance of married couples remaining together, a study published by King’s College London in March found that 64 per cent of British people consider divorce justifiable (up from 18 per cent in 1981). Public views on homosexuality, abortion, casual sex and assisted dying record similar trends towards more liberal stances.
Although ill defined, the “culture war” is broadly seen as encompassing disputed views and theories on race, trans issues and gender, heritage, diversity and free speech. A study last year by centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange, based on polling by YouGov, found “the British public leans approximately 2 to 1 against the ‘cultural leftist’ position, or ‘woke’, position across 20 culture wars issues”. It concluded that politicians or parties “on the wrong side of [culture war issues] are likely to suffer an electoral penalty while those who stand with the majority stand to benefit”.
The salience of cultural issues with voters is more questionable, however. While the Policy Exchange study found that specific topics, such as those surrounding critical race theory in regard to heritage and history, “strongly mobilise the right and centre while fragmenting the left”, polling suggests that cultural issues are not at the forefront of most voters’ minds.
A survey by the Office for National Statistics in February found that when people were asked about the important issues facing the UK today, the cost of living came top (91 per cent), followed by the NHS (85 per cent), the economy (74 per cent) and climate change and the environment (58 per cent). Cultural issues were not included in the 13 prompted categories, but may have been in the minds of the 4 per cent who ticked the box “other”.
Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, suggested that prosecuting the “culture wars” could offer the Tories a short-term boost, helping them mobilise some activists and pull back some 2019 Labour-to-Tory switchers who have since drifted. However, he warned that if they travel in this direction long-term it could leave them “stranded a long way from the electorate”, which is becoming more socially liberal and multicultural with every passing year.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of money being funnelled into initiatives like NatCon UK that foreground contentious cultural issues. Prominent City hedgefunder and Leave donor Sir Paul Marshall has invested millions in GB News, the rightwing broadcaster launched in 2021 that focuses closely on “culture war” subjects. Research last year by King’s College London and Ipsos UK found growing public awareness of culture war terms — such as “cancel culture” and “identity politics” — was linked to a significant increase in media attention in the past five years, so it is foreseeable that the salience of this area could continue to rise.
Some Tory members at the event felt that national conservatism would not supply all the answers but could offer inspiration at the margins. Tom Jones, 29, a Tory councillor from Scotton in North Yorkshire, attended seeking ideas to “cherry pick”, arguing that “the Conservative party is ready for a reset”. North Londoner Blake, 40, who declined to give his surname, turned up to see “what comes next” for the party, after recently ending his membership because “I don’t believe the Conservatives are conservative any more”, particularly in their offer to young people struggling with the cost of living and housing.
There were also attendees who were supportive of the party’s current positioning and policies, including party member Jennifer Powers, 48, an energy policy consultant from south-west London, who said Sunak was “doing a good job”.
Nonetheless, the spectacle of senior Conservatives engaging in public soul searching and thinly disguised recriminations this week has been seized on by Labour. Leader Sir Keir Starmer mocked the Conservatives for “holding a series of Mad Hatter’s tea parties”, while his deputy Angela Rayner branded NatCon UK “a carnival of conspiracy theory and self-pity”.
As thoughts turn to the future direction of the party, the debate about the person best placed to spearhead it has also inevitably begun. Braverman placed herself at the heart of the conversation at NatConUK with a 4,000-word keynote address in which she set out both her personal family history and political credo. Other names tipped by senior Tory figures as potential leadership candidates in the event of losing the election include business secretary Kemi Badenoch, Commons leader Penny Mordaunt, foreign secretary James Cleverly, education secretary Gillian Keegan and security minister Tom Tugendhat. The expectation is that every wing of the party — the “red meat” rightwingers, the libertarian free marketeers, the liberal moderates and the broad middle — would field candidates in a wide-open race.
As well as casting ahead, influential figures in the party are looking back and examining what the Conservatives have achieved with their time in power to date. Former Tory MP Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website beloved of the grassroots, is scathing. “This is the thirteenth year of Conservative-led government. What do we all have to show for it? There are some achievements — universal credit, the Gove education reforms, rapid decarbonisation — but they are fragmentary,” he wrote on the website this week.
In a sign that hunger in the party for new ideas is widespread, on Monday ConservativeHome launched a new project on reducing the demand for government, a challenge it views as integral to the regeneration of British Conservatism. Meanwhile, in February, the centre-right think-tank Onward launched a commission on the future of Conservatism.
While the way ahead looks tough for the party, there is relief that no major electoral threat appears to loom from the right. The Reform UK party, the successor to the Nigel Farage-led Brexit party, stood in only a smattering of areas and won just six seats in the council elections this month. However, its vote share held up at an average of around 6 per cent in the wards in which it fielded candidates, prompting senior Reform figures to argue that it could block Tories winning tight marginal seats.
The stakes are high for the Conservatives at the next election. Labour is examining plans to expand the franchise to 16- and 17-year-olds, as well as some EU migrants — moves seen as likely to boost their vote share. Speculation is rife that an even more significant overhaul of Britain’s voting system could arise in the event of a hung parliament, if Labour agreed to introduce proportional representation in order to secure the support of the Liberal Democrats. Conventional wisdom holds that the Conservatives would struggle to win power under a PR system.
For the past decade, UK politics has travelled at breakneck speed; it is an era in which political fortunes change fast. Cast-iron predictions about the future feel futile in the wake of 2017, when Theresa May triumphed in local elections only to squander her majority in a disastrous snap election a month later; or 2019, when the party bounced back from grave losses at the local polls to sweep to an 80-seat majority under Johnson seven months later in a landslide general election victory.
Predicting where the dividing lines will fall in the nascent battle for the future of the party, if the Tories are booted from government, is far from easy. In that scenario it would be the Labour, or Labour-led, government setting the national agenda, forcing the Conservatives to react to the programme of government as much as forge a vision of their own.
It is truism of British politics that divided parties do not win elections. The galling paradox facing Sunak’s administration at present is that growing fears of defeat are prompting ill-tempered public outbursts from senior party figures. Yet those same displays of strife reinforce the likelihood of electoral rout. Cooler heads in the party warn that its downfall will come from within, if discipline is not restored.
Worse even than public splits are open admissions by Tory figures that, though the party is in government, it has run out of road. On Monday, Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie, a co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice think-tank, told the BBC his party was “absolutely exhausted” and agreed with the proposition that it could do with 10 years in opposition to rediscover itself.
The staging of two fringe conferences in the past week in the aftermath of the Conservatives’ local poll losses can be shrugged off by the party leadership, but the focus of these events — the challenge of how to adapt and revitalise in office, or out — cannot. While a pall of gloom about its electoral prospects has fallen on one quarter of the party, the core task for the Conservatives now is to avoid a crucial debate about renewal spiralling into internecine warfare — or else they are likely to prove the fatalists in their ranks right.
Lucy Fisher is the FT’s Whitehall editor
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