Fri, 19 April 2024

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By Bishop of Leeds
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Tribal disunity could leave the Tory party out of power for a generation

5 min read

Our prime ministers fall into two broad camps.

Firstly, those we can’t quite remember – who simply hold the fort until the reins of power are handed over to a premier in the second camp – the big beasts who step up and shunt a great nation forward, into an exciting new chapter in our history.   

Perhaps inspired by this a curious quality of the leadership contest has been an obligation for candidates to demonstrate their allegiance to just one of those giants and share their inner "Maggie".

There’s no denying she made her mark. I joined the party because of her. It’s understandable how her fresh, no-nonsense style of leadership and radical policy pursuance – reviving not just the fortunes of the Party but of the nation – might appeal today.   

Thatcher-worship in this contest may be more than nostalgia but where was the deeper debate about what our party stands for today, what we believe in and where we want to go as a country?   

Conservativism is not Thatcherism. Conservativism is successful because it adapts. It cannot be just Thatcherism fixed in stone, forever.

Given the scale of challenges (both domestic and foreign) that awaits our new premier I am sorry we did not spend some time exploring the statecraft skills exhibited by other formidable Tory leaders who have occupied No 10.   

Surely any premier should also seek to emulate the leadership of Churchill, given the storm clouds once again gathering in Europe; the One Nation conservatism of Disraeli in appealing beyond our party base; and perhaps consider the wisdom of Baldwin in guiding our country out of the Great Depression – given our present economic difficulties.

But the narrow prism in which this contest has been  conducted prevented an honest debate about the true state of the nation and the daunting decisions which must be taken if we have any hope of implementing the change required in order to win the next general election.  

Instead, the consequent scale of public blue on blue attacks aimed to win favour with our party base exposed factional fault lines in our party that will not endear us to the electorate.   

Responsibility to the nation should always sit above party factions.  

Of course, factions have long characterised all political parties. At best, they provide the necessary internal competition that ensures policy is road tested and the party’s appeal remains broad. At worst, tribal loyalty can lead to civil war.  

Big beasts are not beholden to factions. They unite them and the country notices. Our party history offers a trend in how big beasts succeeded. Past crises were usually economic by definition and the leaders who solved them were always centrists by necessity.  

When they led from the centre, our Party either stayed in power or only lost it for a restoratively brief period. When they didn’t, when faction trumped survival, populist leaders found themselves in office but not in control. 

We can avoid this now. The broad church of nationalists, centrists and radicals have rubbed along inside the Tory tent ever since Sir Robert Peel famously split the modern Conservative Party that he founded over the Corn Laws. 

Successful leaders have shown it takes both skill and determination to guide the Tory Party in bad times, never mind the good. They shape the Party’s ideology into the strategy and priorities adopted when addressing the nation’s challenges and leverage its strength.

Disraeli’s Tories mixed the nationalism of Empire and the radicalism of social change to create a new centre ground. His catchphrase  – “elevate the condition of the people” –  ensured the party governed throughout the Victorian (golden) age until the party split over free trade, went populist and lost power. 

Little wonder the populist leader who pursued that – Andrew Bonar Law – is now long forgotten.

After the First World War, Stanley Baldwin re-forged the party and froze the free trade/protectionist battle. He gave women voters full suffrage and won power through his “Safety First” slogan. Baldwin’s centrism kept the Tories in power for nigh on a quarter century until Attlee’s 1945 landslide. 

Churchill could have gone full Bonar Law on a ticket of "defend the Empire, destroy socialism". Instead he went Baldwin. The great war hero created a new centrism by accepting Labour’s reforms and championing Britain’s role as a global power. 

Thatcher created a new centrism based on patriotism and freedom which lasted till today. Her Cabinet of all the talents included wets and dries to the end.

These leaders did not just solve crises – they turned them to the nation’s advantage. And as I illustrate this is usually achieved from the centre ground.

If ever there was a requirement for another visionary big beast, able to harness the best possible talent in order to pursue game-changing reform it is now.

The nation is understandably impatient for solutions to mounting problems that for a summer have been put on hold. And, as we struggle to contain growing authoritarianism, there’s a void of leadership on the international stage that Britain should be filling. But little will be achieved without competent governance. 

To our advantage, Conservatives retain a large majority and Labour is no government in waiting. But it’s been a turbulent few years for the Party, we are sliding in the polls and the nation demands leadership.

Our party faces an inflection point. What we do – and are seen to do – over the next few weeks will determine our fate and Britain’s prospects for recovery. 

If we allow tribal disunity to define the next two years we could be easily be in opposition for a generation.

Far wiser to rally around a revitalised Tory centrism led by a party unifier that secures the nation’s approval. 

The accolade of big beast is not handed out to every PM who steps into No 10. It must be earned. The nation is waiting. The ball is in our court. Let’s learn the lessons from our party’s history, unify, restore trust and lead this great nation through these difficult times.

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