For some time now, the Conservative Party has seemed intent on self-destruction: four Tory prime ministers in seven years. The latest, Rishi Sunak, has not yet been in office for six months. Pollsters and psephologists from John Curtice to Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher to Savanta’s Chris Hopkins to Tory polling guru Lord Hayward speculate that the Tories could lose 1,000 council seats or more at next month’s local elections, out of around 8,000 up for grabs.
YouGov’s latest survey has Labour on 44% to the Tories’ 27%; with Lib Dems on 9%; Greens, 7%; and Reform UK – the nationalist, Brexit party – at 6%. Other pollsters report similar vote shares. Plug YouGov’s numbers into election prediction website electoralcalculus.com, and Labour wins 432 seats, to the Tories’ 139 – an overall majority of 214. The Lib Dems would take 19 and the Greens, a single seat.
Such a result would represent a larger landslide than Labour’s iconic 1945 and 1997 wins as well as the Tories’ 1983 victory. Only two landslides would be greater since the universal franchise in 1928: the National Government’s in 1931 and 1935. Through victory and defeat, the post-war Tory general election vote share has averaged 41% – 14 points higher than YouGov’s current rating. The post-war Tory seat average is 300-161 more than that predicted by the electoralcalculus.com model.
Yet despite today’s destructive streak and abysmal polling, the Tories are the West’s oldest and most successful political party. The party has held power for nearly two-thirds of the years since 1945, with a history stretching back three-and-a-half centuries. The term “Tory” was coined during the 1670s Exclusion Crisis, when Tories opposed Whig attempts to exclude Charles II’s Catholic brother from the English, Scottish and Irish thrones.
The party was pragmatic about its name long before New Labour. They were “Conservatives” rather than Tory at the foundation of the party with Robert Peel’s 1834 Tamworth Manifesto; they were “Municipal Reformers” and “Moderates” in London in the interwar years; and “Unionists” in Scotland in the 1950s – all for electoral advantage.
U-turns have defined and been a necessary part of the party’s durability. Tories have been free traders and protectionists; for and against state intervention and market forces; pro- and anti-trade union power; opponents and supporters of devolution; and initiators of as well as obstacles to democratic reform. As such, Brexit can hardly be sure of a permanent shelf-life.
As the political scientist and historian Professor Vernon Bogdanor has argued, the key to Tory political success is adaptability. This was the essence of the party’s conversion from Empire to Europe. In the post-war era, the Conservatives came to see Europe as a substitute for declining imperial power.
This change was made powerfully obvious following Britain’s 1956 disastrous invasion of Suez, when Eisenhower threatened to sell sterling, and sink the British economy.
Harold Macmillan’s 1960 “winds of change” speech, delivered in Cape Town, argued that African demands for independence could no longer be ignored – it was officially recognised as a turning point in British foreign policy.
Two unsuccessful applications for European Economic Community membership followed – Macmillan’s in 1961 and another by Harold Wilson in 1967. Both were vetoed by French President General de Gaulle, likely worsening Britain’s post-war economic decline.
At the beginning of the 1950s, British GDP per head was higher than that of France and West Germany, but by 1960 it was lower than both. In 1977, when Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives in opposition, it was less than three-quarters that of France, which had enjoyed the so-called post-war “Thirty Glorious Years”; and around two-thirds of West Germany. The UK had become the sick man of Europe.
Finding a solution to worsening economic woes, including double-digit inflation, rising unemployment, and likely recession, is key to Tory fortunes, in both government and in opposition. This may push the Tories toward Europe after the blind alleys of Boris Johnson’s nationalist populism and the 45-day market fundamentalism of Liz Truss. In this sense, Rishi Sunak’s attempts to build post-Brexit bridges with Germany and France might best be seen as the beginning of a Tory reset.
While the Conservatives – and the leadership of Labour and the Liberal Democrats – remain loath to criticise the 52% who backed Leave seven years ago, pro-Europe Tories do have a base upon which to build. Some 42% of Conservative voters backed Remain in 2016, according to Statistia, a sizeable minority – albeit lower than Labour’s 63% and the Lib Dem’s 70% Remain share.
Since then, there has been a shift of opinion in favour of EU membership. The latest Omnisis poll has 46% for Rejoin and 35% for Stay Out. Excluding those not declaring a preference, this produces a 57/43 split for Rejoin. The most recent Deltapoll survey has 48% Rejoin to 38%; Stay Out: a 56/44 divide. And the most up-to-date Redfield and Wilton research records 56% Rejoin and 36% Stay Out: a 61/39 gap excluding don’t knows.
Of course, no party, least of all the Tories, will propose another referendum any time soon. Wise pro-Europeans would want to see consistent polling above at least 60% and perhaps two-thirds for a sustained period.
But even if the likely next Labour Government can’t reverse Brexit and we’re looking at another three changes of government before that can be realistically contemplated, there is hope in the polls.
Some 81% of voters aged 18-24 back membership, eight points up on 2016; 73% of 25-34 year-olds also do so, up seven points on 2016; and 45-54 year-olds support rejoining by 58%, a 14 point increase from the minority 44% who did so in 2016. Only those aged 55 and over have barely changed: 44% of 55-64 year-olds and 41% of those aged 65+, both up only one point on the referendum.
The Tories’ latest flirtation with nationalism may cost them dearly as these voters age, forcing a rethink, especially if the movement of opinion in favour of membership continues.
Famed for its longevity, electoral, economic and European isolation may push the party away from its current position, especially with the political freedom that opposition provides and the hard lessons that electoral defeat teaches.
By 2050, little more than a quarter of a century away, those aged 34 and younger will have been too young to vote in 2016 and Britain’s relative economic and international position may be weaker than today. As such, Brexit may be more likely to be destroyed than the Tories. If history is any guide, they may well have a hand in that.
Barnaby Towns is a former special adviser for the Major Government