Is the Conservative Party on its deathbed, lingering on until electoral demise? This prospect is no longer unthinkable. Political parties do disappear or dwindle into irrelevance. In France and Italy the once mighty Socialists, Communists, Gaullists and Christian Democrats have faded away.
Established parties are declining in Germany. Rebellious movements are rising in Holland and Sweden. Even in the United States, whose parties are comparable in age and history with ours, the system has stalled. The Conservative Party is one of the oldest and most successful political parties in history. But that cannot guarantee survival. There is a global political pandemic from which it is not immune, and indeed its characteristic features make it susceptible.
The disease is a general disillusionment with conventional politics caused by transferring power from accountable governments to a multitude of quangos, international organisations, law courts and central banks. We have seen this dramatically in the past week. Whatever one thinks of the Rwanda plan, it is not in the gift of the elected government. For years throughout the democratic world, fewer people have been joining political parties and fewer have bothered voting. Mainstream political parties once had a strong identity, drawing on mass membership and on civil society organisations such as churches and trade unions.
Now who and what they represent is unclear to themselves and everyone else. They lack intellectual and moral self-confidence. Lobby groups and activists have taken their place, along with dissident movements of Left and Right. Yet the Conservative Party had, and to some extent still has, advantages. Since the 1840s when it was created, it can claim to be what Benjamin Disraeli called “the national party, the truly democratic party of England”. It has long represented the smaller towns, the counties, the stable and contented bedrock of middle England. It crosses social classes and regional boundaries more than its rivals.
The structure of British politics is fundamentally Tory versus anti-Tory, with the latter representing the more peripheral, unstable and indeed disgruntled groups in society. The Liberal Gladstone saw this, and he was able to bring Irish Catholics, Scots and Nonconformists under his banner.
Since then, they have gone through many manifestations – Liberal, Labour, Lib-Dems, nationalists, Greens – and the Tories’ crucial advantage has been their opponents’ fragmentation. Their own unity has been rewarded by an electoral system which delivers power to the largest coherent political group, rather than relying on the paralysing compromises of proportional representation.
This may no longer be enough. After their triumph of 2019, the Tories have brought themselves to the edge of extinction. They have lost much of their middle-class vote and their working class vote too.
Personalities aside, there is a fundamental tension within Toryism that goes back well beyond Brexit, Johnson and Sunak. The Tory party is both a Country Party (as it was called in the 18th century) and a Court Party. The Country Party defends local and private interests against a high-spending and interfering State. The Court Party governs the State.
To manage to be both at once demands a careful balancing act, with Conservative governments restraining their own actions and financial appetites. The Country Party also wants a government that will defend its beliefs and liberties. Various forms of culture war have always been part of this. Nineteenth-century popular Toryism was a rejection of progressive Nonconformist puritanism, not least its crusade against alcohol and its perceived lack of patriotism. That was what finally brought down Gladstone, our greatest progressive politician.
The Tory balancing of Country and Court has collapsed. High taxes, mass immigration, projects like HS2 and hasty attempts to impose net zero flout Country Party feelings. So does indifference to nihilistic attacks on national history and culture, now visible in practically every school, museum and university in the land.
Brexit glaringly exposed the tension between the Country Party, which voted to Leave, and the Court Party, which wanted to stay. Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, found Theresa May “infinitely preferable” to a Brexiteer, as she “doesn’t like Brexit”, and “never wanted it”.
Remainers of the Court Party caused a constitutional crisis by trying to take control of government policy. Some 20 Conservative MPs, including former ministers, joined with Labour to pass the “Benn Act”, constraining their own government’s freedom of manoeuvre following Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory. This deep split has not been resolved. There is an alarming historical precedent: Sir Robert Peel’s abolition of agricultural protection – the Corn Laws – in the 1840s. Leaving aside the economic pros and cons (which are far from clear cut) this was a clash of cultures, temperaments, and even of morality.
Peel, the founder of modern Conservatism, was the epitome of a Court Party Tory, high minded, intelligent, without people skills. He believed that Britain as a growing industrial nation needed the cheapest food available. His opponents – including young Disraeli, accused of cheap populism – believed that agriculture and rural society were the foundation of the nation and its institutions, and that they were being sacrificed to greedy businessmen.
This became a quarrel about political honesty and keeping promises made to the electorate. Peel was accused of “deceiving our friends, betraying our constituents”. Peel thought he knew best, and many of his followers, including Gladstone, left to join the Liberals. It took the Tories a generation to recover, when Disraeli created a new image and purpose.
The Tories only became the main party of government once more in the 1920s, when the anti-Tory vote split between Liberals and Labour.
Leadership matters, but so do circumstances. The great Tory leaders have been maverick outsiders. The two dominating modern figures, Churchill and Thatcher, met mistrust and opposition within the Civil Service and the parliamentary party, which preferred centre-ground reassurers such as Baldwin, Chamberlain and Macmillan.
But the centre ground collapses in emergencies, and Churchill and Thatcher won the support of the country outside Parliament because they were seen as willing and able to act in a crisis. Their positions were precarious, at least at first. Churchill was dependent on the success of the Dunkirk evacuation. Thatcher on North Sea oil and victory in the Falklands. They were lucky, but also made their own luck by boldness and clarity of purpose. This meant that they could make the Court Party follow them despite its misgivings.
I am not sure there is much comfort for today’s Conservative Party in its remarkable history, and certainly no easy lessons. Its past successes, and arguably its justification as a political organisation, lie in the ability to reconcile Court elitism and Country populism. In 2019 it had a historic opportunity to do just that. It may never have such an opportunity again. What is fatal to a party is not failure, but a sense of betrayal.
If the Conservative Party is to survive and govern again, it has to find 21st-century ways of reconciling Court and Country, which means that “taking back control” and “levelling up” must be more than slogans.
But the present party is exhausted. It will need new leadership with more than a merely managerial vision. Otherwise we shall at best have a long period of Labour government, and at worst a directionless, fragmented and impotent political system.
Robert Tombs is a historian and fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge