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The dangers of a post-defeat Tory party

The by-election results suggest a Conservative wipe-out at the General Election. But defeat on that scale could push the party towards extremism

Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) speaks next to newly elected Labour MP Alistair Strathern as they celebrate in Bedford after winning the Mid-Bedfordshire parliamentary by-election. Photo: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

The Labour Party has won two colossal by-election victories. In Tamworth, the seat of Chris Pincher, the disgraced Tory MP and friend of Boris Johnson, Labour overturned a Conservative majority of 19,000. In Mid-Bedfordshire, the seat of Nadine Dorries, another of Johnson’s political allies, who resigned when Johnson failed to give her a peerage, Labour overturned a Tory majority of 24,000.

These were the kinds of results that go beyond superlatives. The Labour Party isn’t really meant to win seats like these. John Curtice, the political pollster, told Today on Radio 4 that the swings from Tory to Labour were so huge, they suggested the Labour party was now heading for a majority even greater than Blair’s in 1997.

These were colossal victories – but they were perhaps not entirely surprising. Rishi Sunak has proved a weak, uninspiring leader. He is in No.10 without having won a general election, meaning he has no popular mandate. He took office during an economic downturn and did so at the back end of 13 years of Conservative government, by which time the political cycle was already beginning to turn against him. And then there was the poisonous hand he was dealt by his predecessors – it would have taken a political superhuman to translate the joint legacies of Johnson and Truss into electoral success. So, it is fair to say that Sunak is facing some stiff political headwinds.

Yes, these are by-elections, and yes, the polls always tend to narrow as the General Election approaches. If the economy moderates and particularly if inflation eases into next spring, then Sunak might just be able to frame himself as the bringer of economic harmony. That will help. 

But none of this will be enough. Not now. Sunak is clearly a goner, and it looks very likely that he will take the Conservative party down to a devastating defeat at the next election. Tory HQ will have been sent into a spin by these results. The election strategists will be in a particularly glum mood this morning. 

But even people who instinctively dislike the Conservative party and who resent the populist husk that the current government has become, should be alarmed at the prospect of a complete Tory wipe-out at the next general election. It brings up the uncomfortable question of what a post-defeat Conservative party might become, and the answer to that is: nothing good.

If these by-election results were repeated at a general election and the Tory party was reduced to a rump of less than 100 MPs, the moderate voice would have been entirely removed from the party. Johnson expelled most of the centrists from the Tory ranks when he was in office, and a thumping electoral defeat would remove all of the remaining moderates. 

The reduced, post-defeat Tories would become an even more concentrated version of the culture war-obsessed, populist party that we currently see. It would be out of power, and with such a small presence in the Commons, it would be politically impotent. But it is precisely that sense of dispossession that causes the build-up of grievance and bitterness. The Tea Party only emerged in the United States once the Republican Party was out of office and Barack Obama was in the White House. It took defeat to drive the US right to the extremes. The defeated Conservatives would experience the same centrifugal force.

Also like the Republican party, the Tories would fall under the influence of a small group of activist donors. Dubious money has been making an increasing impression on the Conservative party in recent years, especially on Boris Johnson. Powerful right wing donors stumped up for a bizarre alternative conference season that took place earlier this year – the Conservative Democratic Organisation, held its “Take Control Conference and Gala Dinner” in Bournemouth, for example, all paid for by Lord Peter Cruddas. This was followed by the National Conservatism conference, another alternative right wing event, funded by US evangelicals, and which drew in a large number of Tory MPs. These two events, which focussed obsessively on immigration and culture war talking points, gave a clear indication of what a post-defeat Tory party would look like.

This morning, the many, many people who reject or actively dislike the Conservative government will be happy with these by-election defeats, and with the election results they imply. But a word of caution. The old Conservative party of Heath, Thatcher and Major is long gone. What we have now is something very different. The Tory party changed under Johnson, becoming little more than a populist vehicle for his personal ambitions. But it is now in the process of transforming again, this time into a party with distinctly nationalist overtones. A General Election defeat of the magnitude suggested by these by-election results could turn it into something that is not only extreme, but sinister. And that wouldn’t just be a problem for the Tory party – that would be a problem for us all.

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