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The coming Tory crack-up

The MPs are at odds with the members

Artillery Row

Narrowly avoiding selecting the Corbyn of the 2022 Conservative leadership election, Tory MPs have jettisoned Penny Mordaunt in favour of a run-off between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

In a leadership contest that has been notable for its derision of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson — with all of the final five candidates stating that they would not include him in their cabinets — the selection of the two most senior ministers from his cabinet has prevented a truly clean break from the Johnson era.

Based on surveying and polling of Tory party members, we are now facing the likely prospect of Liz Truss versus Keir Starmer — two walking adverts for the speech therapy industry. While that nasal nightmare looms over our country’s political future, an even more catastrophic realisation should be dawning on the Conservative Party hierarchy: most of its members do not want the two candidates that MPs have proposed.

The frontrunner of that particular polling race for most of the election was Kemi Badenoch, who led the ConservativeHome survey of members by a double-digit margin once all of the campaigns had an opportunity to establish themselves. YouGov snap polls also found Badenoch beating all of the other candidates in a run-off vote.

Peter Hitchens has long fantasised for the end of the Conservative Party

But of the 339 Tory MP votes up for grabs, Badenoch only secured 59 in the fourth and her final round of voting, creating a vast gap between support from Tory party members and MPs.

This gap is especially stark considering the insurgent and politically unique nature of Badenoch’s proposition to the party and the country. Setting herself against Sunak’s safe pair of hands and the libertarian-leaning Liz Truss, the Badenoch campaign was filled with powerfully conservative statements and proposals on the economy, crime and culture.

Many of the candidates neglected to discuss anything besides core topics on the economy and taxation. Penny Mordaunt appeared to avoid discussing any issues whatsoever, preferring to stick to a tight script of vacuous, fluffy statements on competence and good governance. She also announced that she wanted to bring back the “UK theme”. No, I haven’t got a clue either. 

Mordaunt then seemed to forget what she stood for on questions surrounding the Gender Recognition Act — contrasting her sharply with the direct, concise and detailed conservatism of Badenoch. 

Tory MPs will lament losing that confidence and clarity when autumn swings around. A storm is coming for them. It is not entirely of their own making. The Ofgem energy price cap rise, which will push thousands more households into fuel poverty and exacerbate the cost-of-living crisis, is largely being caused by geopolitical events beyond the control of CCHQ. While Truss will be well-placed to act to reverse the economic stagnation and growthless misery that has infected the country, the rising tide of rage will likely be too great to save even the most radical cost-cutting, tax-slashing libertarian.

When these Tory members reflect on the state of the country and economy, and digest the widespread chaos of backlog Britain and the wealth-inhibiting misery it inspires, they will look to their newly appointed political leadership for direction and solutions. But when they do, they will almost certainly find someone who does not think and feel as they do. 

Peter Hitchens has long fantasised for the end of the Conservative Party, noting on more than one occasion that he could fashion a greater political party out of a banana. With the incoming onslaught of grave economic struggle tied in with a membership that is increasingly detached from its leadership, he might yet get something resembling his wish. 

Because the gap between what the Tory membership want and what MPs are proposing has not been this wide in living memory. On a scale similar to the detached nature of the Labour membership versus its representation during the post-Blair years, many Tories are realising that their MPs do not just differ on some issues but are fundamentally opposed to their worldview.

Henry Hill, deputy editor of ConservativeHome — the voice of grassroots Tories — warned me against making any “dramatic conclusions” from the current polling evidence and the disparity it outlines.

Issuing some caveats to the divide between members’ wishes and MPs’ votes, he said: “Tory members aren’t often scientifically polled (our panel is regular but unscientific), so we’ve not much of a base to compare things to. Second, this contest has come on quite suddenly and involved a lot of low-profile candidates, so some volatility in the responses is unsurprising.”

However, Hill does read some significance into the gap: “The biggest point of divergence at the moment seems to be that the membership were keener on a clean break than MPs. Mordaunt and Badenoch topped our first leader survey, and Badenoch opened up a comfortable lead in the second one. By contrast, Sunak has led amongst MPs throughout.”

Reflecting on the brief period of Mordaunt mania, Hill added: “The fact that Mordaunt did so well might suggest that there is less of an ideological dimension to this than one might suppose, although given the blank-slate nature of Mordaunt’s campaign it might simply be the membership projecting what they want to see onto a relatively unknown candidate.”

Conservative Party members are crying out for action

This seems true to me. Drawn to Mordaunt’s image and presence, there was a brief period of policy projection that then dissipated when they learned more about Penny’s ambiguous preferences. 

What is demonstrably clear, however, is that members want change. That they seemed to overwhelmingly prefer the change offered by Badenoch suggests that she was delivering something that the current crop of ministers and candidates are failing to tap into. What she recognised, I suspect, was the dearth of social conservatism and cultural Toryism at the top of the party’s leadership.

While most Tory members are pragmatic and reasonably centre-right on economic issues, they are significantly more right-wing on social and cultural issues. When a close ally of David Cameron derided members as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”, they accidentally summed up a so-called “modernising” process that saw the party reject the mentality of its members and shift to the centre on social issues — enhancing its broader electability and appealing to the rising liberalism of the British public. One of Cameron’s most notable moments from his premiership is the legalisation of gay marriage.

Kept in the closet for too long, legions of Tory members are now making it clear that they are disappointed by the lack of cultural backbone among their leadership. Mocked by many as the “culture war” candidate, Badenoch lapped up support from a vast chunk of the membership, who recognised in her a Tory who shared their awareness of social and cultural issues. 

Critics dismissed Badenoch’s lack of cabinet experience, but among the final five candidates, she was the only minister to have actually appreciated what successful and effective right-wing governance would take. Recognising the power of political action over cultural issues, such as major trends in gender and race, Badenoch resisted public sector policies that would have encouraged our lurch leftwards.

The next prime minister is unlikely to recognise the urgency of the agenda that Badenoch pursued. It is clearly an area where Conservative Party members are crying out for action, but only one candidate had the intellectual independence and temerity to speak on it. When the economy bites even harder in the autumn, and energy and geopolitical crises continue to mount, the Tories might regret not selecting a leader who can enthuse the party with some quick wins on the culture war battlefields.

Often dismissed by people who think they are too clever and too sensible to get “drawn into” disputes on social issues, these things matter enormously. The failure to adequately tackle the trans lobby is putting generations of girls at grave risk of mutilation and misery; the retreat from defending British history and our national story has left people feeling incapable of pride in their heritage; and the crazed influx of racialised doctrines in the public sector and universities risks creating a fractured, divided society. Tory members know this. The leadership does not seem to share their awareness. When hard times start biting harder, those “swivel-eyed loons” might start looking elsewhere for political inspiration.

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