24 October 2022

The Tories should be grateful for their rightwing challengers


To Conservative MPs looking at the current polls and wondering how bad things could possibly get, the 1993 Canadian general election must haunt their dreams. Just five years after winning a second term and a workable majority, the Progressive Conservatives received perhaps the most crushing blow ever dealt to a party of government in a Western democracy.

Lest you think I’m exaggerating: they entered the contest with 156 MPs and emerged on election night with just two. 

First Past the Post is a double-edged sword. So long as one of the major parties can keep its support above a baseline level, it makes it very difficult – although by no means impossible – for challengers to break through. But once things drop below a critical point, it starts inflicting wildly disproportionate punishment.

Had Theresa May not completely fouled up her campaign in 2017, this doom might have befallen Labour. The models for what would have happened had the Tories won by 50 points to 25 (a narrower margin than some pollsters find Labour enjoying today) suggested cartoon results, with the Conservatives comfortably north of 400 seats.

Now the boot is on the other foot, and if the polls don’t shift then the Conservatives could be facing an election which would make 1997, which in retrospect put them out of power for only 13 years, look positively gentle in comparison.

However, there is a key ingredient of the Canadian apocalypse yet missing from the current picture, bleak as it is for the Tories. The PCs got massacred because their abysmal overall polling was exacerbated by two regionally-concentrated challenger parties which managed to walk away with big sections of the old Tory vote: the Reform Party in Western Canada and the separatist Bloc Québécois in Quebec (don’t ask).

Yet here, as the Government flounders on the economy and immigration, the man most likely to lead or at least provide the animating spirit of a rightwing alternative is talking about Proportional Representation.

This is not really a criticism of Nigel Farage, whose support for PR has been longstanding. Indeed, he tried very hard to get involved in the Yes2AV campaign back in 2011, and it says something about the coalition normally lined up behind voting reform that they refused to let him.

But it is nonetheless a stroke of luck for the Conservatives that he and Richard Tice, the leader of Reform UK, seem to have chosen as their platform a combination of Thatcherite economic policy and Liberal Democrat-style constitutional reform demands.

Of course, one can make a case for both of these things – and CapX readers in particular would doubtless be very well-disposed towards any politicians trying to make a case for free-market reforms in the current environment. 

But whatever the merits of the Reform UK programme in principle, in terms of practical politics it does not put the party in the space where they could stand a chance of really carving into the Tory vote at the next election.

What would such a programme look like? Well, in the now-immortal words of the great sage, Jeremy Driver: ‘Hang the paedos, fund the NHS’. Translated into practical politics, that means zeroing in on the economically left yet socially right prospectus of the Conservatives’ 2019 Manifesto – promises which the Tories themselves will now find it all but impossible to fulfil.

As I pointed out in a recent piece, the first task of whoever becomes prime minister next week is going to be either getting their MPs to vote through a version of Jeremy Hunt’s Medium-Term Fiscal Statement or enduring another punishment beating from the markets before doing the same thing. Having squandered the first three years of this Parliament, even allowing for the pandemic, there is scant chance of them being able to deliver much by way of new spending commitments in the last two.

The Liberal Democrats have amply demonstrated time and again that the privilege of being a small party is that you can often say pretty much whatever you like. A populist challenger would be under no great pressure to spell out in detail how it would fund new programmes whilst protecting the thicket of old-age entitlements and preferences strangling the economy, but they wouldn’t have to.

Happily for the Government – and perhaps the nation – the rightwing ecosystem has not yet produced such a party. Instead, its leadership is comprised of disgruntled, economically right-wing defectors from the Conservatives whose main focus these days is changing the rules to make it easier for them to win seats in Parliament, a cause about which voters quite sensibly care very little.

That doesn’t mean Reform UK couldn’t cost the Tories close-fought seats at the next election. But it isn’t obvious that it will have the power enjoyed by the Brexit Party, a blank slate onto which Leave voters could project almost anything. If the polls don’t improve much and we still have a Conservative Party in ten years’ time, we might have Farage and Tice to thank.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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