For The Next Tory Leader, Uniting The Party Might Be Impossible
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak (Alamy)
As the Conservative party prepares to elect its third leader and Prime Minister of 2022, senior Tory figures are asking whether their party is now broken beyond repair.
In a surreal scene on Thursday, Liz Truss announced that she would resign as Prime Minister after days in No 10, having taken over from Boris Johnson in early September.
Her exit from Downing Street was seen as inevitable after a truly calamitous few weeks in charge, with her succumbing to pressure from furious Conservative MPs. She delivered her farewell statement after just 44 days, beginning with self-inflicted economic turmoil and culminating in farcical scenes during a House of Commons fracking vote on Wednesday night, which left Westminster astonished.
Charles Walker, the long-serving Tory MP for Broxbourne, went viral that evening after telling the BBC that the affair had been a "pitiful reflection on the Conservative Parliamentary party at every level", "utterly appalling", and "a shambles and a disgrace".
Some dismissed Walker's comments as those of a demob-happy MP (he is standing down at the next election) – but the reality is that there is widespread belief in Westminster that the Conservative party as it stands may now be ungovernable, and can only be retrieved after a time out of power, during which it can locate a common purpose.
Speaking to PoliticsHome on this week's episode of The Rundown, just a couple of hours before Truss announced her resignation, former government adviser Jack Sellers said the state of the Conservative party was "completely embarrassing".
Sellers, who worked in 10 Downing Street and as special adviser to ex-Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, contrasted the party of "Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher" to the state it had got itself into, as opinion polls suggest that it risks being wiped out at the next general election.
"When I worked in No 10, I was working on the Union — which is in the title of the party: the Conservative and Unionist Party," he told the podcast on Thursday.
"At the moment, the reality that a lot of my colleagues have got to wake up to is that are we really going to be a Unionist party if we've only got MPs in England? That's what the polling is showing at the moment. In Wales and Scotland, we would get completely obliterated."
Another former senior Tory aide told PoliticsHome that winning the next general election was "almost impossible" for the party and that this latest leadership contest – the second in the space of a few months – was more about damage limitation.
“The Conservative Party is at a critical stage of make or break, damaged by poor leadership decisions, turbulence and political infighting," they said.
"The next leader must be committed to repairing that damage, unifying the party and crucially, restoring trust and credibility among the electorate. Securing a fifth term is almost impossible, so MPs and members must think carefully about who will give the party its best fighting chance.”
The state of the party at national level is being felt at local level, with one Conservative Association chair telling PoliticsHome that the turmoil was deterring candidates coming forward for selection, with "very poor" quality candidates making the final cut.
"Our top two going forward this year would have not made the top 10 in previous years," they said.
One party activist and former councillor said they were "completely miserable" and warned the party faced a "massacre" in May's local elections.
"You can feel the mood when we are out speaking to our own voters.
"People are mostly polite but it's obvious they have no faith in us because of what is happening in London. We have a really good team locally who have a fantastic record of delivering for our residents but the entire party is contaminated by this sense of complete incompetence."
Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson look like the frontrunners to replace Truss at the time of writing, with the latter hoping to stage a dramatic comeback after being ousted over scandal earlier this year.
Penny Mordaunt, who finished third behind Truss and Sunak in this summer's Conservative party leadership contest, appears to be the only other realistic candidate to take over after Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced on Friday that he would not be putting his name forward.
It is indicative of another area of concern among senior Tories – a lack of credible senior figures who have experience of the Great Offices of State. One senior source said there was a genuine sense of panic after Kwasi Kwarteng was forced to quit, as it was unclear who could step in to the role of Chancellor and offer the required experience and knowhow to calm the situation and extricate the government from the economic bind it had created for itself.
"We were very lucky to have [Jeremy] Hunt," they said. Another senior Tory said the impact of Boris Johnson's "Brexit purge" was catching up with the party, citing the loss of David Gauke and Amber Rudd among others.
The winner, who will be chosen some time next week, will have a long list of huge challenges when they assume power – not least unifiying a bitterly divided Tory party after a rancorous period.
Much of the discussion in the corridors of Westminster has focused on the Tories finding a "unity candidate" who can bring the competing wings of the Conservative party together.
Speaking to PoliticsHome on this week's The Rundown, however, Dr Catherine Haddon from the Institute for Government think tank said she was "not convinced" that a unity candidate exists in the context of this bitterly divided parliamentary Conservative party.
"The issue is the party remains the same," she said.
"Too many people have got beef with somebody else and have red lines on various policy issues that makes it hard to see them rally behind someone."
On Sunak, who won the most votes from Conservative MPs at the last leadership contest, she said: "There are people within the party who are vehemently opposed to him. Even if he is a vote winner with the public and polls well, you still have that problem of ending up in the same situation as now where you have large parts of the party battling you."
There are warnings that Johnson's return would prompt some of his biggest critics on the back benches to give up the Conservative whip, putting the party in an even more chaotic position. Roger Gale, the Tory MP for North Thanet, has already issued that threat.
Mass ministerial resignations forced Jonhnson to resign in disgrace earlier this year after months of scandal, and swathes of Conservatives MPs are horrified by the prospect of a comeback.
One Conservative MP this week told PoliticsHome that they also would consider quitting the party if Johnson followed in the footsteps of his hero Churchill and came back for a second stint in Downing Street.
Another Tory predicted that around a dozen backbenchers would quit the party in the event of a Johnson return, but said the number who break away "could easily grow".
Sellers, who worked on the Sunak leadership campaign, said Johnson's supporters were showing no signs of "contrition" or honest "conversations" about why he had to srep down this summer.
"Nadine Dorries is saying 'you ousted the most popular Prime Minister we've ever had'," he said.
"Because of the chaos since Boris Johnson resigned, nobody is really looking at the historical factor that we had an 80-seat majority that because of basic and repeated mistakes and complacency, the government fell apart," he said.
"An 80-seat majority in two-and-a-half years fell apart — that is scandalous."
With additional reporting from John Johnston and Eleanor Langford.
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