General Election 2024

The Tory tribe in exile

To avoid the shrivelled status of a once-proud heritage organisation, the Conservatives must think entirely afresh

July 09, 2024
article header image
Image: PA Images / Alamy.

“I can’t believe it I’m uttering these words,” a newly former Conservative MP said to me on the morning of 5th July, “but what we need now is our very own Keir Starmer”.

This long-serving Tory was not suggesting that his battered party—left with only 121 seats, its worst ever electoral performance—should find a former barrister who was also the son of a toolmaker and select him immediately as Rishi Sunak’s successor.

What he meant was that Starmer had deftly exploited the increasing volatility of contemporary politics; inheriting a party in 2020 that had just suffered its worst defeat since 1935, assuming the Labour leadership in the midst of a pandemic and yet still managing to achieve office, with a majority of 174, in little more than four years.

There is no pendulum in 21st century politics. So the Tories cannot assume that the voters, presently disgusted with all things Conservative, will slowly return to the fold by some incremental but inevitable process. Instead, they should take advantage of the structural turbulence that Starmer turned so conspicuously to his advantage. They must embrace radical change, self-interrogation and iron discipline, and take as their starting-point—however absurd such a prospect may seem today—that the next election is winnable. They must be ready for anything (as, to his credit, Starmer was). 

At present, the Tory survivors resemble shell-shocked patients in a ward full of First World War poets. They shuffle and shake and wonder what tomorrow may bring. They barely know where to start. 

First up, there is the usual argument about process. In his resignation speech in Downing Street, Sunak said that he would step down “once the formal arrangements for selecting my successor are in place”. In practice, this may well mean that an interim leader is required while the election itself is carried out. Oliver Dowden? Jeremy Hunt? This question alone makes the Tories anxious. 

Next, there is the matter of timing. After the parliamentary rounds whittle the candidates down to two, the party’s members—of whom there were 172,000 in 2022—will select a victor. But should the selectorate first be given the chance to size up the contenders at the Tory conference in Birmingham between September 29 and October 2?  

This “beauty contest” model worked well in 2005, when David Cameron ultimately prevailed. But it would also mean that the new leader would probably not be in place when Rachel Reeves unveiled her first Budget.

As in all such races, most of the initial talk is of personality, message and ideological trajectory. As I wrote in the January/February issue of Prospect, Kemi Badenoch is positioning herself as the candidate of the so-called “soft Right”; less obviously in debt to Donald Trump’s MAGA movement than Suella Braverman (who last night gave a decidedly Trumpian speech in Washington)but still ready to leave the European Convention on Human Rights and strongly supportive of Sunak’s postponement of net-zero targets. 

Robert Jenrick, who resigned as immigration minister in December on the grounds that the Rwanda scheme “does not go far enough”, has long coveted the leadership and will present himself as the candidate best placed to win over the four million voters who supported Nigel Farage’s Reform Party. On Sunday, he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that the Conservatives’ failure to cut immigration was “at the heart” of its “devastating” defeat.

Among the potential “One Nation” contenders, Tom Tugendhat, the former security minister, acquitted himself well in the July 2022 leadership race (eventually won by Liz Truss) and is recognised across the political divide as a decent and patriotic politician. 

Victoria Atkins, the former Health Secretary, has a lower profile but was named by Dowden, the former deputy prime minister, in a recording leaked last week, as the only person other than Sunak “from my generation that I could see leading the Conservative Party”.

But the message that the electorate just sent to the Tories was not confined to doctrine or personal style. It was an uncompromising eviction notice, demanding that the whole party go a long way away with immediate effect and indefinitely. The ferocity of this verdict has reduced them not just to a rump political movement but to a tribe in exile and facing extinction. 

Opposition parties recover by asking themselves the right questions, and  doing so with the necessary candour and courage. In 1994, Labour understood that it needed to combine social justice and competence – and was rewarded, three years later, with Tony Blair’s first landslide victory. In 2005, the Tory Party finally grasped that it had to come to terms with the social liberalism of the late 20th Century and selected the 39-year-old Cameron as its modernising leader. 

More often than not, however, defeated parties dramatically underestimate the scale of the task, assuming that better spin, or a simple ideological course correction, or greater professionalism alone will transform their fortunes. Usually, the nature of the problem is much deeper-rooted.

In this case, the elephant trap for the Tories is to fixate exclusively upon the rise of Farage and his four parliamentary colleagues. There are those, like Braverman and Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg (no longer an MP) who believe that, in the words of the latter, “we cannot win unless we reunite the Conservative family”.

In contrast, Badenoch and many others utterly reject the idea of a merger or realignment with Farage’s movement. “This is all a big show for him,” she told The Times before the election. “Nigel Farage doesn’t care if there’s a Labour government. This is I’m a Celebrity for Nigel Farage”.

Fair enough, but the Tory Party will not revive itself simply by befriending or rejecting the perma-grin populist. Indeed, its unenviable task is to draw attention away from his relentless performance and renew its own reputation as a trustworthy political organisation with actual solutions to contemporary problems.

This will involve questions that the vast majority of Conservatives have barely considered. In its essentials, the Tory ideological kit-bag—tax cuts, the smaller state, markets before government, the primacy of the individual— has remained more or less unchanged since the late 1970s. But the time has come for the party to accept that the 21st century is now well underway.

Curiously, the only Conservative leader in recent times to have recognised the need for such a change was Theresa May who, in the 2017 election campaign, declared that the party required a new philosophy of the state. 

“We believe in the good that government can do,” the Conservative manifesto proclaimed. “To do that, we will need a state that is strong and strategic, nimble and responsive to the needs of people. While it is never true that government has all the answers, government can and should be a force for good—and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people.”

May, of course, squandered her party’s Commons majority in that snap election and this germ of wisdom about its future statecraft was lost in the mayhem that ensued. But it is the essential idea towards which the Tories must somehow travel and build upon if they are to be relevant once more.

Any party that hopes to be taken seriously as a governing force in the 2020s has to accept what is staring it in the face: climate emergency; increased longevity; the technological revolution and its myriad social consequences; the savage inequalities that globalisation has yielded; population mobility on an unprecedented scale; and the greater insecurity of a multipolar world. 

All these challenges require an active, strategic state; which is to say that, in 2024, the philosophy of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman is of limited use. 

If the idea of a Conservative Party engaging with such issues sounds remote, that is because it is. I doubt that the forthcoming leadership debate will be as imaginative or audacious as it should and could be. In all probability, it will resemble a shrill Westminster reality show. But if the Tories are to avoid the shrivelled status of a once-proud heritage organisation, they must think entirely afresh. After defeat, the hardest task for any party is also the only one that counts: which is to open its eyes.