1 July 2024

The coming fight for the soul of the Conservative Party


I have not seen an opinion poll to suggest anything other than a Labour victory on 4 July. Although only postal votes have been cast so far, it seems that the Conservatives are about to find themselves out of power for the first time in 14 years. Which raises the question: what political ideology might emerge like the mythical phoenix from the flames of a Tory defeat?

A key factor will be the scale of any defeat. Some polls are suggesting a historic wipeout, with political commentators pointing to the Canadian election of 1993 in which Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party lost almost all their seats. Following this heavy loss to the Liberal Party, and then two subsequent defeats, Canada’s Conservatives ended up merging with a party not too dissimilar to Reform. Could this really be the road ahead for the UK’s oldest and most successful political party?

The answer will depend a great deal on who will be able to defend their seats. Which MPs make up the parliamentary party will be crucial to understanding the political ideas that come to the fore. If Labour win, the ensuing Conservative leadership contest is set to be a fight for the soul of the party.

Following defeats in 1974 and 2005, the Conservative Party realised they had to modernise, make a new offer and build a coalition of support that would win them a majority. Yet this can’t happen overnight. It took three election defeats before David Cameron and George Osborne were able to bring their brand of ideas – vote blue, go green, compassionate conservatism, and surer economic management – to both party and country.

In the 1970s Mrs Thatcher and Keith Joseph took the Party on a new path, away from the political and economic consensus which had brought about three-day working weeks, strikes and the winter of discontent of the seventies. They grasped the chance of a fresh start which offered opportunity, liberty and private ownership. A drastically reduced role of the state, and impetus on the individual and free markets. This breath of fresh air brought about a period of unprecedented electoral success.

This time around, repairing our constitutional order could be a significant focus. The erosion of parliament’s supremacy to court rulings has been picking up steam as an issue, with increases in legal challenges to government decisions over protests, deportations, climate change policy and Brexit itself. The balance of power between the executive, legislators and the judiciary could potentially shift further under Keir Starmer’s premiership. This would likely see push-back from a Conservative Party in opposition and perhaps calls to redefine parts of the constitution, and no doubt encourage those who want to leave the ECHR. Clashes over culture and values will continue; the ideas of liberty and freedom of thought could become a bigger focus.

Any sustained increase in regulation and taxation for private enterprise while aligning the UK closer to the EU would lead to a counter-movement from both public opinion and provide a potential opening for the Conservative Party.

In the UK’s first-past-the-post system, to be successful, a party must ultimately build a coalition of voters across the country. Boris Johnson did this in red-wall seats and among those longing to see Brexit done (now at risk to voting for Labour and Reform). David Cameron did this by appealing to a wider centre and across age ranges (now at risk to voting for the Lib Dems). Margaret Thatcher did this by making the Conservatives appealing to working class voters. Tony Blair did this by offering a new version of his party, throwing off the socialist shackles of the past and becoming popular across the political spectrum.

Whatever happens on 4 July, the consequences of the result will be profound for the Conservative Party. Should they lose power, the different factions that have been so divided in recent years will need to come together again. If the Conservatives are to make a phoenix-like return from the ashes, they will need ideas that are universally uniting and inspiring to Free Marketeers, One Nationers and traditional Conservatives alike, and moreover, appeal and cut through to the wider electorate. By no means an easy task.

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David Lydiat is a public affairs professional, former Parliamentary senior researcher and campaign manager.

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