Britain’s Tory Party may be on the road to ruin

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The contentious details of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 “Get Brexit done” electoral victory were left for another day | Pool photo by Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

How do you win a majority in the United Kingdom? Keep it simple and appeal to as many people as you can — something Brexiteers managed to do with real success.

The slogan “Take back control” had broad-based appeal. Did it mean regaining sovereignty over borders to reduce immigration? Did it mean regaining sovereignty from European bureaucrats to deregulate the economy? Did it mean regaining a sense of national identity? Well, that was up to you. The same goes for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 “Get Brexit done” electoral victory. In both cases, the contentious details were left for another day.  

The vague slogans have now run out of road, however, and they have given way to deep divisions. Some policy arguments during former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ recent but brief premiership are particularly revealing of these splits, notably her reported clash over immigration with Suella Braverman, who has now been reappointed as home secretary. Truss wanted to increase immigration to stimulate growth; Braverman wanted to reduce immigration in line with perceived voter demands. And regardless of the change in leadership, this is one of several divisions that will be difficult for the Tories to reconcile.

The danger for the Conservatives is greater than just a landslide general election defeat. Broad political consensus is something they appear to have lost, and recent trends for other center-right parties across Europe suggest they aren’t alone.

Following the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis, there was well-documented disruption to the traditional left-right political spectrum in European politics, cross-fractured by another divide based loosely on voters’ level of antipathy toward the impact of globalization — migration, low wages, outsourcing, supranational bodies. Several traditional center-right parties in Western Europe have been hobbled by these changes.   

In France, for example, the long-standing center-right party Les Républicains has lost around 60 percent of its parliamentary seats since 2012, squeezed by the emergence of President Emmanuel Macron’s economically liberal and pro-EU coalition, as well as the growth of opposition leader Marine Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-immigration National Rally.

Similarly, in Spain, the share of the vote won by the center-right People’s Party fell from 44.6 percent in 2011 to an average of 24.8 percent in the next four general elections, following the emergence of the hardline nationalist Vox Party and — albeit briefly — the economically liberal Citizens Party.  

In both countries, traditional center-right parties lost votes to new, economically liberal parties and anti-immigration nationalist parties — and at present, similar battles are being waged within the Conservative Party.

The full-blown libertarian, free market policies represented by the Truss premiership clashed with the vision held by others focused on lowering immigration and improving the country’s poorer regions. Meanwhile, One Nation Conservatives, which epitomize the traditional center-right, urging pragmatism and financial responsibility, are desperate for a ceasefire and a return to the comfort of the status quo.   

This raises the question: Is the Tory Party set to belatedly imitate its center-right counterparts in Europe?  

It remains extremely difficult to form new political parties in the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system. Recent efforts have failed: Change UK, made up of pro-EU centrists, folded after just 10 months in 2019, while Reform UK, a low-tax anti-immigration party, is currently polling at around just 3 percent. And there’s little incentive to vote for a party you know won’t win a seat.  

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Rishi Sunak’s leadership victory is less divisive than if Boris Johnson had returned to office | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

However, there are things that could change that.

There’s the possibility that Labour wins the next election, but only by enough of a margin to form a coalition or minority government. The Liberal Democrats could then demand electoral voting system reform as their price, incentivizing competition on the right, ahead of the next general election. However, such reforms could be equally destructive for the Labour Party, making it an unlikely compromise.  

Then, there’s the chance of the political antipathy between new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson permanently cementing divisions. Certainly, Sunak’s leadership victory is less divisive than if Johnson had returned to office — among MPs at least — but there remains a significant minority of lawmakers vehemently opposed to him. And there’s a chance that repeated rebellions by these lawmakers, as well as a potential consequent backlash against them, could trigger a breakaway. Yet, although a more likely outcome than the previous scenario, a sense of self-preservation will probably prevent most MPs from taking such action prior to the next general election.  

The last, and most likely, option is that a breakup is triggered by a catastrophic Conservative defeat in the next election. Results even close to current opinion polling could very well prompt breakaways trying to escape the tarnished Tory brand, and may strengthen rival factions, such as Reform UK.

Despite the massive Labour poll leads, party leader Keir Starmer himself still isn’t polling particularly well, so it does remain likely that Sunak will claw back some ground. But small gains won’t be enough this time. Tory MP’s are again playing Russian roulette with the party’s future, and the volatility and animosity within the Conservative ranks risk undermining progress at any moment by fratricide.

Politico