3 April 2024

How likely is a PopCon takeover?


One glance at the opinion polls will tell you ‘Popular Conservatism’ is something of an oxymoron. That is especially true when such a movement is promoted by Liz Truss: the shortest-serving and perhaps least self-reflective Prime Minister in our history. Notwithstanding her own culpability for the Tories’ dire position, the ex-PM remains active, unrepentant, and on manoeuvres. 

Alongside chumming up to Steve Bannon and penning her pending book Ten Years to Save the West, Truss has also helped launch the new ‘PopCon’ campaign group. Fronted by Mark Littlewood, the former think tank director she reportedly tried to make a Lord, the group is apparently plotting to make sure a sympathetic pro-free-market and anti-woke MP wins a post-election leadership race. 

According to The Times, Littlewood has devised a ‘70/70,000’ strategy for winning enough support. 70 means the 70 MPs that he feels a PopCon candidate would need to reach the final two presented to Conservative members. 70,000 is his estimation of the number of member voters they would require to win outright, based on rumoured membership figures jealously guarded by CCHQ.

This isn’t surprising. I wrote months ago that some of her disciples were organising ahead of a future leadership race through such vehicles as the backbench Conservative Growth Group. That the PopCons are aiming for at least half of the parliamentary party shows they have learnt at least one thing from Truss’s travails. That fewer than a third of her colleagues supported her in the first 2022 leadership contest hobbled Truss from the start. 

Is this proposition realistic? There is no doubt that the PopCon message appeals to many Tory members. Indeed, despite not being what one would call a Trussite, I am sympathetic to it myself. When Littlewood suggests that ‘the institutional infrastructure of the United Kingdom now heavily mitigates against achieving a swathe of conservative ends’, I vigorously nod my head in agreement. 

So too do I to suggestions that we need ‘a great restoration of the constitutional procedures and protocols that pre-date the Blair era’ or that ‘on almost any metric…the Conservatives will have left the country in a less conservative state than they found it’. Evelyn Waugh’s dictum holds true: the Tories have failed to put the clock back one second. Our political architecture remains New Labour’s. 

Conservative members can sense this. The reason Truss triumphed over Rishi Sunak in the summer leadership election of 2022 was that she struck them as the candidate most sympathetic to this argument, and most likely to do something about it. If Sunak crumbles before his Sisyphean challenge and the Tories are ejected from office, the momentum behind this critique will only get stronger. 

On that basis, it is not an unreasonable assumption to suggest a PopCon-adjacent candidate would win over the Tory party membership if they made it to the final two. But where the ‘70/70,000’ strategy falls down is in reaching that stage. Not for the first time, one suspects Truss and her allies are neither wholly on top of the numbers, or entirely cognisant of the political realities in which they are acting. 

Take the 70 figure. It suggests the PopCons expect a parliamentary party of 140: down 225 from Boris Johnson’s tally in 2019, worse than the party’s defeat in 1997, and by far the most abysmal result for the Conservatives since universal suffrage. But if the polls are right, that is, if anything, too optimistic for the Tories. Double figures are more likely. The prospect of a total wipeout cannot be discarded. 

Even if the Conservatives do survive as a viable electoral force, the prospect of the PopCon’s anointed candidate winning over at least half the parliamentary party looks distinctly unlikely. Truss’s ‘preferred candidate’ is said to be Priti Patel, the former Home Secretary, since the ex-PM has begrudgingly ruled herself out. Nonetheless, she is wining and dining Tory candidates, hoping to sway their future votes. 

Unfortunately for the PopCons, one suspects a Patel leadership campaign would be a non-starter. Her previous attempt to even get onto the ballot failed to get off the launch pad. Since then, she has associated herself with the Conservative Democratic Organisation, the Jacobite group with links to Conservative Post, a website currently calling for Tory members to de-select ten ‘dripping wet’ MPs. 

Whether or not these MPs survive their coming brush with the electorate, those left are unlikely to look kindly upon a candidate associated with attempts to purge their colleagues. But that isn’t the biggest problem for Patel. Academic research suggests that, the worse the Tories do, the more unfriendly the Tory parliamentary party becomes to the Trussites. 

In a Labour landslide, only 39% of remaining MPs might have backed Truss in her 2022 leadership bid, whilst 48% would have backed Sunak. The chances of a PopCon candidate commanding more than half of MPs would be even lower. Even if Sunak is not flavour of the month, the credibility of Truss and co will not have been improved. In Logan Roy’s phrasing, they are not serious people. 

Many will understandably point out that they had their seven weeks in power and used it to lead the most disastrous government in our history. With a single fiscal event, they squandered any remaining economic credibility that the Conservatives still possessed.

If a candidate is marked out as Truss’s chosen one, their stock with Tory MPs is only likely to fall. Much more likely to succeed is a candidate who can adopt her critique of the last fifteen years without bringing her in tow. The PopCons would be taken more seriously if they dropped her. Learning to spell might also help. In the meantime, Truss taints everything – and everyone – associated with her. 

For us on the Right condemned to have to look past the electoral abyss towards what comes next, the travails of the PopCons are an unfortunate distraction. For all the strength of some of their arguments, their attempts to influence the future of the Tories will only end as miserably as their first go. For our collective sanity, they should swap idle plotting for taking a long hard look in the mirror. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.