Are the British Tories dying?
On the decline of the Conservatives and a plan to replace them
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Are the British Tories dying? Seriously? Are we witnessing the death of one of the most successful parties in the history of democracy?
It might seem far-fetched but just look at the polls. The British Tories have now slumped to just 20% of the national vote. This is Theresa May in the spring of 2019 territory, when the party was very nearly blown apart by rampant public anger over its handling of Brexit and Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party. The Tories now trail Labour, which is not united, and Keir Starmer, who is not charismatic, by a staggering 27-points. They only command the loyalty of one in three people who voted for them in 2019. And they are now being battered on three sides at the same time—by a growing number of defections to the insurgent Reform party, by a smaller number of defections to Labour, and by a much larger number to apathy, with many 2019 Tories now saying they’ll not vote at all. What’s the point, they say?
Here’s just one scenario to consider. What might happen in the months ahead if the Tory vote continues to slide, if Nigel Farage returns to the Reform party, and if Reform actually pushes ahead of the Tories in the national polls — much like the Brexit Party came very close to doing in 2019? And what happens if, much like Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless in 2014, a few disgruntled 2019 Conservative MPs from the Red Wall also decide to defect to Reform, calculating they’ll have a better chance of holding their seats under a different party banner and with Nigel Farage than going down in flames with Rishi Sunak and the Tories? The key point is that none of this is inconceivable. Only eight points separate the two parties today. And were that to happen then, put simply, everything would be off the table.
Contrary to those who say this is “just the polls”, the reality is the Tories are also being destroyed by historic swings at actual by-elections on the ground —which tells us these poll numbers are real. Rishi Sunak, who we were told would put “the adults back in charge”, has never brought his party a single by-election victory that did not involve his predecessor, Boris Johnson. Sunak has presided over the continued weakening, not strengthening, of the Tory brand while his own ratings have slumped to historic lows. Only minorities of Conservative voters approve of how Sunak is managing the job of being prime minister and trust him to deliver on the issues they care most strongly about —the small boats, immigration, the economy. I run a focus group with voters every fortnight and I’ve yet to meet a single one who is genuinely enthusiastic about Sunak —who knows what he believes, who knows what he wants to do to the country, who is remotely excited by his ‘vision’.
The Conservative parliamentary party, meanwhile, as we saw this week with the Rwanda bill, is bitterly divided between Establishment Tories and National Conservatives who are not just split on the issue of illegal migration, but a much wider range of issues —how they view the state, the economy, legal immigration, crime, the family, woke ideology, and national identity. This ideological civil war is only just beginning, not ending, and is drawing strength from the failure of the Tories to answer a simple but critical question. What is their unifying ideology?
The answer, as Rishi Sunak powerfully demonstrated in his conference speech last year when amid a critical moment for the party and the country he and his team decided to talk about banning smoking, reforming A-levels, and scrapping an expensive train line, is there is no unifying thread. There is no intellectual coherency. There is no greater vision the Tories can rally behind. They just do not seem to be a serious political party with a clear intellectual compass. They don’t know who they are. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know who voted for them in the past. They don’t know who should be voting for them tomorrow. And they certainly don’t know how to win these voters over. In short, and unlike the past, the Tories don’t really know how to survive.
The realignment they ushered in after Brexit, which has been supporting the party from below, is now dead. In only four years, the hapless Tories have gone from giving the world a masterclass in how to push through a powerful, new electoral realignment to, instead, giving the world a masterclass in how to lose one. Professor Andrew Gamble once pointed out the real power of the Tories, the real reason they’ve been so successful for so long, they real reason they’ve endured when everybody said they will die, is because they always understood the need to renew —to renew their ideology, to renew their philosophy, to renew their voters.
This is why, four years ago, after renewing themselves once again in the aftermath of Brexit, they were a shining example to centre-right parties around the globe of how to repair, renew and rebuild their electorate around a new, ‘geographically efficient’ following of workers, non-graduates, pensioners, small towners, coastal communities, and cultural conservatives. This is why they demolished Labour in 2019. It wasn’t just because of Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson. It was because of their willingness to lean in to the new core issues of restoring Britain’s status as a self-governing, independent nation which controls its own laws and destiny, and promising to slash and control immigration. Once these new issues were transferred onto the map of a first-past-the-post, majoritarian system, they were the majority view in upwards of 60% or 80% of all constituencies. This is what made national conservatism so devastating. Liberal urban conservatism can never do this.
This is why the realignment around cultural (not just) economic freedom was so potent. It was not about “culture wars”. It was not about going “hard right”. It was about speaking up for a majority of people in the country who were —and still are— utterly fed up with the toxic combination of mass immigration, the erosion of national sovereignty, a visibly broken model of multiculturalism, weak borders, a political economy that is still built around importing cheap workers to keep big business happy, and the ongoing expansion of woke ideology and political correctness. The Tories never had the courage, or were too obsessed with their own social status to look past the social norms and taboos in SW1 to speak directly to the British people about these issues, to build and sustain this realignment.
Had they done so, they could have moved from wrapping their realignment around the Brexit divide to wrapping it around the next big divide today: immigration. The divide between the vast majority of immigration sceptics in the country and the small minority of immigration enthusiasts. As we saw this week, the former represent large and overwhelming majorities in almost 90% of all seats. Yet the Tories seem intent on talking instead to the 12% who want more migration.
Led by Boris Johnson —who was always more of a BoBo —a Bourgeois Bohemian —than a conservative— liberal Tories and business donors, who are addicted to cheap migrant labour, the party went in the very opposite direction. They liberalised immigration, they further downgraded a broken political economy, and they reaffirmed the broken consensus their own voters had already rejected in 2016, then again in 2017, and then again in 2019. They failed to renew. They didn’t know how to renew. They showed the country they are not capable of renewing.
And so now it’s all gone. Instead of providing a masterclass on renewal, today the Tories have become a shining example of what not to do —of how to lose influence and alienate the very people who turned out to support them. In turn, his year, at elections across the West, they’ll suffer the humiliation of having to watch almost every other conservative movement across the globe, from Donald Trump’s realigned Republicans, to national conservatives in Europe, enjoy new success while they are reduced to a very heavy defeat, wondering what on earth happened.
The British Tories are now the odd ones out, drifting into terminal decline. Why? Because all these other movements understand what the Tories do not—that all realignments are about supply and demand. You can’t mobilise public demand for a different politics, like Boris Johnson did in 2019, and then just walk away and lazily fall back into your comfort zone. You have to keep supplying the realignment with clear, coherent, credible, and compelling messages. You have to genuinely renew. You have to make it crystal clear to voters you are a very different beast to what came before. You have to rail against the status-quo and genuinely recast political reality, like Thatcher and Blair did. Today’s Tories just never bothered to do this. They filled the Cabinet with lightweights and meandered around the landscape.
And nor will things change after their looming defeat. If you look at who will be left on the Tory benches after a heavy defeat it will be Oxbridge-educated, southern Tories of a more liberal bent. There will be no Red Wallers. There will be almost no northerners. There will be few if any national conservatives. And so, in turn, the party will blame the likes of Brexit, the Red Wall, Lee Anderson, Suella Braverman, and more, and push the party back to the Cameroon centre, making it even more indistinguishable from Labour and the prevailing elite consensus.
They will say the answer to reinvention now lies in winning back the university towns, the big cities, in appealing to the ‘liberalisation’ of Britain, only to discover those voters will not entertain voting Tory for years to come. And they will continue to ignore ongoing realignments elsewhere in the world, like the growing numbers of minority voters drifting right, not left, in America, and the continuing ability of conservatives in Europe to rally non-graduates, workers, and young people.
Which brings me to another question. If the Tories are dying, if we really are witnessing the strange death of the Conservative Party, then what might emerge to replace them? There are many discussions happening right now in and around Westminster about this very question. I cannot say more than that at this stage. They include major donors, serious campaigners, frontline politicians, MPs, and more. Do you want to know what might emerge from the rubble of a Tory defeat? Do you want to know what might follow the Brexit realignment? Do you want to know what key people are telling me about the next steps? Then keep reading.