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Tue, 16 April 2024

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State of the Conservative Party

(Alamy)

4 min read

The Tories have always had a genius for knowing their voters, says Tim Bale, but playing to the gallery is limiting their appeal

According to Enoch Powell, “There is one thing you can be sure of with the Conservative Party, before anything else – they have a grand sense of where the votes are.”

Given the government’s evident determination to double down on policies which appeal to particular demographics – most obviously older, whiter, less well-educated and often less well-heeled voters – this is still the case. However, that strategy – divide in order to rule, if you like – proving sufficient to secure Rishi Sunak re-election next year looks increasingly unlikely.

After getting on for fifteen long and often chaotic years in office, and with virtually all the economic fundamentals currently pointing in the wrong direction, the mid-2020s looks odds-on to produce the fourth of those heavy, albeit only occasional, defeats the party has suffered since 1945.

Tory politicians haven’t necessarily given up the ghost – not yet at least

Odds-on, of course, isn’t the same as certainty. After all, Labour needs a huge swing simply to win the narrowest of narrow majorities at Westminster. Knowing this, and knowing that Keir Starmer is no Tony Blair, Tory politicians haven’t necessarily given up the ghost – not yet at least.

And there are still factors working in their favour. The most obvious fact (and one that explains why Sunak and Hunt are content to oversee an increase in pension rates that would be regarded as ‘inflation-busting’ in any other context) is that older voters are not only more likely to vote Conservative, but far more likely to vote per se.

There’s also the nailed-on support of ‘the party in the media’ – papers like the Mail, the Telegraph, the Sun, and the Express. While they don’t directly determine the way people vote, they nevertheless contribute heavily to a climate of opinion that helps the Tories and hinders their opponents, not least by setting the agenda for broadcast news. Admittedly, promises to ‘stop the boats’ and slow progress toward net-zero have their downsides, alienating some voters at the same time as appealing to others. But make no mistake, we’ll be hearing about them endlessly between now and polling day.

Nor should we forget the way both broadcast and print outlets tend to reinforce the idea that the nation’s economy is essentially like a household’s. This persuades many people that, when times are tough, the government should be even tougher – misleading, maybe, but still an undoubted boon for what is still an essentially Thatcherite party.

Thatcher’s belief that public spending should be kept as low as possible will continue to animate the Tories, win or lose – though expect an increasingly fraught fight (both before and after the election) between Sunak-style ‘fiscal conservatives’ and Trussite tax cutters.

Whether a similarly bitter battle will take place between self-styled ‘liberal conservatives’ and the party’s anti-woke warriors is another matter, however. Even if election defeat removes a fair few of the party’s ‘Fuck off back to Francers’, Rishi Sunak, his tech-bro technocratic vibe notwithstanding, has done little or nothing to halt the party’s shift toward the populist radical right. It’s a shift that may have been initially inspired by the need to counter Nigel Farage, but it has since taken on a momentum of its own, supercharged by celebrity Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and their media cheerleaders and parliamentary stooges.

The chances, then, of anyone winning a post-election leadership contest without doubling down on that Eurosceptic, climate-sceptic, national-populist approach, while also calling for a smaller state that will supposedly “do less better” (all the while offering comfort to the country’s elderly and, indeed, its NIMBYs), seem vanishingly small.

Powell may be best known for the infamously racist and ultimately career-ending ‘Rivers of Blood speech’, but he was, first and foremost, the Conservatives’ first neoliberal populist. This is very much his party now. 

 

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of 'The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation'

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