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Sat, 13 April 2024

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Reports of the death of moderate Conservatism are premature

Rishi Sunak (Credit: Uwe Deffner / Alamy Stock Photo)

4 min read

It’s a popular hot-take to say that a Conservative defeat at the next election will inevitably cause the party to lurch to the right. The theory goes that a 1997-style wipeout would remove all the moderate voices brought into the fold since David Cameron’s modernisation project began in 2005, leaving a right-wing rump to rebuild. But that’s not what the evidence shows.

We now have new data to show what a post-defeat Conservative Party might look like – should Rishi Sunak not succeed in reviving his party’s fortunes. Survation and Royal Holloway University surveyed 1,486 local councillors, asking them to rate their local MPs on who is more left or right-wing on economic issues, letting us rank them on the political spectrum.

It shows that Conservative MPs with safer seats – who, in theory, may have been elected long ago – are not more likely to be right-wing than MPs in marginal seats. In fact, there is no correlation at all between the size of an MP’s majority and their estimated position on left-right economic issues. 

It also reveals that the 2019 “Get Brexit done” intake of Conservative MPs is quite an ideologically diverse group, at least on economics.

The analysis proves that the typical red wall MP shares the same stance on economics as long-serving Conservatives in the party’s traditional heartlands.

So, regardless of whether Rishi Sunak secures a small majority – losing some of the newest MPs – Parliament is hung, or the Conservatives suffer a 1997-style defeat, the party’s position on economic issues wouldn’t fundamentally change. However large the swing is against the government, whether it ends up with 300 or 200 seats, a lurch to the right is not guaranteed.

There are, however, three big questions which might shape what the party thinks at the next election. First, this analysis is purely about economics, not cultural issues. We do not have comparable estimates of MPs’ positions on immigration or crime. So this is only half the picture.

Secondly, there’s a big question mark over the views of tomorrow’s MPs. The list of Conservatives standing down ahead of the next election is leaving a swathe of safe seats vacant. Will the candidates selected to replace them in these seats sit further to the right than the current incumbents?

Finally, party leaders have enormous influence over the direction and perception of their MPs. A leader can give the party libertarian vibes, even if the average MP post-2024 is no more right-wing on economics than the current crop of Conservatives. Liz Truss is a perfect example of how this played out in the past.

The views of Conservative MPs did not shift radically in September 2022; all that changed was the mix of people at the top. The cabinet that Truss assembled was markedly more economically right-wing than the rest of the Conservative Party. Her ministers clustered towards the libertarian end of the spectrum. A staggering eight in 10 cabinet ministers were to the right of the average Tory MP. 

Compare this to Sunak’s Cabinet after he stepped into No 10, where half are to the right and half are to the left, encompassing a much broader and representative range of opinions.
There are lessons to be learnt here. Having a cabinet dominated by libertarians in safe seats ended up producing a wildly unpopular policy offering at the ill-fated ‘mini-budget’. It saw Labour triple its poll lead over the Conservatives almost overnight. 

This wouldn’t have surprised anyone looking at public attitudes. Only one in 20 voters are libertarians, meaning that they are economically right-wing and socially liberal.

The Truss government’s capture by a niche ideological faction within the party managed to be simultaneously out of touch with the voting public and with its own backbenchers. 

A year in, Rishi Sunak is still correcting this cabinet shift with his most recent appointments, including David Cameron as Foreign Secretary and installing a new Home Secretary, James Cleverly, signalling a modernising shift. 

Those concerned about the potential absence of moderates in the Conservative Party post-election need not be so worried. But a lot hinges on the leadership. If it is captured by a niche faction, the Conservative Party could rapidly become out of step with public opinion. And with that follows the inevitable electoral damage.

James Blagden, Head of politics and polling at Onward

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