Tories on life support after humiliating UK poll defeat

History has shown the Conservatives eventually bouncing back after poll defeats. But after Labour's landslide victory, it might be Nigel Farage who ultimately determines whether the plug gets pulled.

The immediate danger to the Tories comes from the Reform UK under Nigel Farage, which is clearly positioning itself for a say in the future direction of British conservatism.
Al Majalla
The immediate danger to the Tories comes from the Reform UK under Nigel Farage, which is clearly positioning itself for a say in the future direction of British conservatism.

Tories on life support after humiliating UK poll defeat

Reports abound in both the traditional media and its electronic equivalents that the British Conservative Party, aged 190, has passed away or is on the verge of doing so. Last seen fighting the United Kingdom general election of 4 July 2024, the party was believed to be suffering from a potentially fatal malaise, leading to widespread speculation as to its state of health and, indeed, chances of survival. Should the Conservative Party’s death be confirmed in subsequent months and possibly years, in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Reform UK.

There is no questioning the party’s long and impressive life, with it frequently being hailed as the oldest and most successful political party in the Western world. Across its 190 years of existence, it held power in what is today the United Kingdom for close to 108 of those years, either solely or as part of coalition governments. The party’s achievements only grew as it aged: over the 79 years since the end of World War Two, the Conservatives have held lone or a share of power 62 per cent of the time.

Party origins

The Conservative Party emerged into the world in 1834 in the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Bill, which expanded the vote and reformed electoral rules. It was fathered by an even older entity, the Tory Party, which began as a loose belief system dating from the 17th century before becoming a formal party in the early 19th century. This ancestor supplied the modern Conservatives with their Tory nickname to this day.

The first Conservative Prime Minister was Sir Robert Peel, who served in that role from 1834-1835 and then again from 1841-1846. One of the most famous in British history, Peel’s accomplishments included the creation of the first organized police force and the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws—the latter a move toward greater free trade but one that divided the party and kept it from power for a majority of the next three decades.

It was the arrival of Benjamin Disraeli as leader in the late 1860s that helped firmly establish the Conservative brand, making it the party of the middle classes, of the more conservative members of sections of the working class, and especially of middle England.

People gather around the statue of former Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli outside St George's Hall during an anti-vax rally protest on November 14, 2020.

An emphasis on the British Empire proved particularly popular and an effective method of crossing prevailing class boundaries. Arguably, however, that focus also set a trap for the party in the era after the empire, when nostalgia for past glory led to an inflated sense of the significance of the UK in the world.

By the end of the 19th century, the Conservative Party found itself buffeted by the issue of Ireland. Long under what amounted to British colonial control, a growing nationalist movement had challenged the relationship for years. This time the Conservatives benefited electorally from its main opponent, the Liberal Party, dividing over Home Rule for Ireland that the Liberal leadership supported, and the Conservatives opposed.

In the second year of World War I, the Conservatives joined a coalition that kept them in power until 1924. Brief absences from government aside, the party dominated the British political landscape until 1945 and the end of World War II. That included leadership lows and highs in the lead-up to the war and during the fighting.

One setback came in the form of Neville Chamberlain, a Birmingham-area Member of Parliament who became party leader in 1937. He would forever become associated with the policy of appeasement when in September 1938, he cut a deal with Adolf Hitler, the Nazi leader, that cleared the path for Germany to take over all of Czechoslovakia in 1939. With the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Britain entered the war, and by 1940, a unity government was formed on the condition that Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister.

His replacement was the most famous British prime minister in history and a man fundamentally associated with the Conservative brand, even though he had at one time been a member of the Liberal Party. He was, of course, Winston Churchill and would become inseparable from the fighting spirit that would see Britain through the war on the winning side of the Allied coalition. Less well remembered is that the voters decisively despatched Churchill and the Conservatives from power in July 1945, not long after the conclusion of the hostilities in Europe.

Return to power

By then, however, the Conservatives had become nearly the natural governing party of England, by far the most populous nation of the UK. Thus, a return to power was inevitable, and it came in 1950 with a second go for Churchill, followed by Anthony Eden and then Harold Macmillan. Despite the 1956 Suez Crisis, a British foreign policy disaster amid the breakup of the Empire, the Conservative brand remained resilient and in control until 1964.

Obstacles in the 1960s and 1970s were put behind the Conservative Party in 1979 with a majority government led by Margaret Thatcher. Eighteen years of Conservative rule would follow, and the country underwent profound economic and structural change through Thatcherism, changes that largely persisted despite Labour holding power from 1997 to 2010.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves as she arrives to take office on 4 May 1979 at No. 10 Downing Street in London with her husband Denis (2nd L).

Flexibility aided the Conservative Party’s longevity. It proved adept at adjusting or embracing policies popular with voters while simultaneously espousing conservative social and economic values. The latter would, in the 20th century, see the party supporting neo-liberal economic policies in the era of Thatcher.

The party leadership also proved open to those from groups historically discriminated against in the United Kingdom. Disraeli was born Jewish (although he became an Anglican at age 12) and the first from that background to lead the party. Thatcher became the first female party leader in 1975 and four years later prime minister. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak, the son of South Asian immigrants to the UK, became the first person of colour and first Hindu to be a party leader and prime minister in 2022.

Inevitably, after another lengthy period in office, the Conservative brand has reached a low point and has recently struggled in potentially fatal ways. It is no coincidence that some in the British media over the last few weeks had expressed interest in the 1993 Canadian federal election.

That vote resulted in the near annihilation of the right-of-centre Progressive Conservative Party, an institution modelled after the British Conservatives. It barely clung to life with two Members of Parliament after the 1993 vote. Speeding its demise was a right-wing alternative called the Reform Party, although Canada also had unique regional factors that did not apply to the UK.

A note of caution as to whether the current Conservative malady is terminal. Speculation as to its demise in the past has occurred even from within Conservative ranks. In 2002, a future Conservative leader, Theresa May, warned at a party convention, "There's a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow, and occasionally, so are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

Less remembered is that the party—at the time of May’s critique—had been tacking to the right with two leaders, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, before shifting back to the centre. In 2005, it chose 39-year-old David Cameron as leader and as part of a successful makeover, returning to power in a Coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

Conservative Party Leader David Cameron (C) waves to supporters at a campaign event on May 3, 2010 in Feltham, West London. Britain's party leaders pushed into the final days of campaigning, the closest general election in decades.

Beginnings of Brexit

Past glories haunted the party upon its 2010 return to power. Chief among them was an issue that had bedevilled the Conservative Party for decades but also spoke to the imagined history of the party and the country: the place of the United Kingdom in Europe. A significant segment of the Conservative Party had long desired major reform of the European Union or the UK’s exit from the organisation.

The EU issue had torn apart the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major, and Cameron opted to tackle it head-on through a referendum in 2016. The vote, fuelled by the 2014 defeat of a referendum in favour of Scottish independence, was as much about resolving the divisions within the Conservative Party as it was about the wider country.

It was no coincidence that some of the leading figures in the successful Leave side were Conservatives, including Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Johnson would eventually ride the Brexit issue into the leadership of the party and then a major victory in the 2019 general election.

The benefits of Brexit remain to be seen, and a perceived failure to “take back control” over the UK’s borders has weakened the Conservative Party and left it teetering on a precipice of no return. The immediate danger to its existence comes from the Reform UK under Nigel Farage, which is clearly positioning itself for a say in the future direction of British conservatism.

The Conservative future is where the 1993 Canadian parallel is perhaps most appropriate. After the wipeout, the Progressive Conservative Party limped on for several more elections that it lost, at least in part because of a splitting of the right-of-centre vote. Inevitably, the pressure grew for a merger, but the result was a takeover of the old Canadian Conservative brand by the populist Reform Party.

It is not difficult to envision a similar scenario in the UK over the next ten years. Given its long life and previous escapes from peril, the Conservative Party may not be dead, but if it ends up on life support after 4 July, it may well be Nigel Farage who determines whether the plug gets pulled.

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