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Artillery Row

The end of the party

Can the Tories be reformed?

To become a Tory leadership candidate, you have to all but intellectually neuter yourself and never let another controversial remark pass your lips. The one current exception to this dismal rule is Kemi Badenoch, the Tory MP for Saffron Walden, who was eliminated from the running for premiership.

A former systems analyst at The Royal Bank of Scotland, Badenoch has devoted herself to the study of what is perhaps the most perplexing and yet crucial issue that faces the Conservative party today:  why can Conservatives win elections but yet seem to accomplish anything terribly conservative with their victories? 

For Badenoch, modern-day Conservatism is pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of policy. Writing for The Times, Badenoch opined that “[people] are exhausted by platitudes and empty rhetoric.” “What’s missing”, she wrote, “is an intellectual grasp of what is required to run the country.” While Labour is cementing its image as the party of productivity and investment, the Tories, though unintentionally, spend much of its efforts in making the party as unattractive as possible.

The immediate damage brought about by these actions is evident in the wider political economy. Trapped by a dysfunctional housing market and unstable employment, young people today are spending more than double on essentials such as rent and bills than most people in their 50s. As a result, Britain’s millennials are facing a future of low pay, high rent, and much insecurity in the jobs market. At the same time, Tory ministers have lost the ability to control immigration and secure Britain’s border.

That the Tory party is almost bankrupt of ideas is not surprising. Four election wins in a row and twelve years in office is enough to convince any group of politicians that they are born to rule. Political success has made these MPs brutally effective at bureaucratic bloodletting, but also disincentivises debunking each other’s delusions. For example, Tom Tugendhat, the MP for Tonbridge and Malling, ended his lacklustre and rather underwhelming leadership bid by quoting a fictional wizard from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, stating: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided”.  

The absence of a coherent Conservative ideology undoubtedly has multiple causes. However, at least five stand out as critical. This list is not exhaustive, by any means, but it does provide an insight into how the mechanisms that select for, and socialise, MPs have changed to reduce the calibre of right-wing politician:

 Tory-Labour duopoly. First, it is difficult not to conclude that the duopoly of Conservative and Labour in the Houses of Parliament is a serious impediment to both traditional conservative MPs and more radical movements such as Reform UK. For one thing, the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system incentivises social liberals to join the Tories rather than, say, a smaller but more ideologically compatible party like the Liberal Democrats. At the same time, FPTP penalises centre-right insurgent parties by raising a formidable structural barrier to the acquisition of MPs. 

Party structure and organisation. Another important factor is the hierarchical and centralised character of the Conservative party directorate, which gives their leaders the prerogative to impose a measure of party discipline on candidate selection. This capability has served the leadership well in purging traditional Tory candidates and then implementing the terms of their broader “modernisation” agenda. 

Problems of collective action. The exhaustion of right-wing politics has also derived from the dearth of traditional conservative organisations within and outside the Tory Party. There are of course exceptions: the European Research Group (ERG) is an interesting case study because it explodes the fallacy that radical Conservatives can only be found on the fringes of politics. The ERG, however, is the exception that proves the rule. A lack of cohesion among anti-consensus forces is especially conspicuous outside Parliament, where constituency activists opposed to the ideology of their leaders are ineffective in mobilising their opposition. 

Donorism. Another key factor in holding back a popular right-wing government is the influence of Tory party donors. In the UK, political parties rely on these donors to fund election campaigns, buy advertising, and encourage their supporters to turn out. As you might expect from captains of industry, Conservative party patrons are much more likely to oppose government restrictions on tax relief, trade, and immigration. This developing picture has aptly been described as “donorism”. So even after achieving electoral success, the right-wing agenda suffocates under the weight of the interest groups which oppose it. 

Clientelism. The rot in British Toryism is not just found among politicians. For reasons that have not yet been fully explained, centre-right think tanks have become arms of the state, pursuing politically acceptable policy recommendations in return for MP endorsements. Such an orientation fails to address the more fundamental question of what kind of society we need — and why the status quo cannot provide it. It is in this context that I am sympathetic to demands for ending taxpayer-funded lobbying and holding to account the web of fake charities that quietly dominate every aspect of Britain’s parliamentary democracy. As Elmer Eric Schattschneider wisely observed more than half a century ago: “Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out.”

Anyone who doubts this intellectual vacuum should listen to the debates between Tory leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Ms. Truss, the MP for South West Norfolk, has already embarked on a remarkable political pilgrimage. She has no personal roots at all in the Conservative movement and no interest in conservatism as a creed. Yet she is now the favourite to succeed Boris Johnson as the next Conservative PM. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak drifts along with a mirthless, rudderless campaign, swaying this way and that. Although Sunak is widely liked, his legislative record at the Treasury is undistinguished and largely damaging.

Given the seriousness of the situation I believe it imperative for the party to ask itself the most fundamental question of all: what is the point of the Tories? It is a question which has taken a long time to be asked, and it will take even longer to be answered. 

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