Conservative Party politics

The British Conservative Party (also known from the 17th century as the Tory party) has been electorally the most successful party in modern British political history. It regards itself as the natural party of government, has been a loyal and disciplined machine and has been the most effective in avoiding the splits seen in other parties. Yet today it struggles to get much more than 35% of the vote in elections, has a small and ageing membership, is prone to backbench rebellion in Parliamentary votes and is riven by factional strife over Europe. The division over Europe has done much to explain why the 2016 referendum over Brexit was called and why, despite a big opinion poll lead, they are finding it so hard to agree a common approach to resolving the issue.

The “Natural Party of Government”

Since the time of Disraeli (PM 1874-80), the Conservatives have formed or been part of most governments, such that they have tended to see themselves as the natural party of of government. The will to power is a particularly strong driver, such that ideological or policy issues can take second place. When a leader has appeared ineffective, the Tories are ruthlessly effective in removing them. At times this sense of an inherent right to govern can get in the way of appropriate tactics for a situation, such as when they connived in Ulster’s threatened violent resistance to Irish Home Rule before the First World War.

Winston Churchill

Traditionally the Tories have been the more nationalistic party, the party of loyalty to the monarchy, the armed forces, and the Church of England. Thus acting in the national interest has often been a driving force. It was the party of Winston Churchill. Party discipline and respect for the leader were key strengths, and Tories have a strong respect for “sound government” and effective management of the nation’s finances. Moreover the Tories have favoured free enterprise as against state intervention, with a more “hands-off” policy towards macro-economic policy and their approach to business. They have traditionally favoured local and voluntary action to that of the centralised state.

Until 1964, especially under Harold Macmillan (PM 1957-63), the Tories favoured a “One Nation” liberal conservative approach, accepting the welfare state, the NHS and the doctrine of full employment as created under the 1945-51 Labour government.

The Party was known as the “party of tendencies” rather than factions, with overlapping groups of interest advocating particular ideas rather clear cut intra-party factional conflict as seen in Labour under Gaitskell (opposition leader 1955-63), Foot (1980-83) and Kinnock (1983-92).

The legacy of Thatcher

Mrs Thatcher
Mrs Thatcher

Under the early leadership of Edward Heath and then of Margaret Thatcher (PM 1979-90), the Tory Party adopted more radical policies, departing from the “post-war consensus” in favour of monetarism (the control of the supply of money as the chief method of stabilizing the economy.) as advocated by the economist Milton Friedman and in government by Sir Keith Joseph, the roll-back in the role of the state and “socialism”, privatisation of state industries, an emphasis on the free market, curbs on trade union power, and policies to support entrepreneurialism and free enterprise. It was believed that free markets would reverse the UK’s economic decline and release the natural dynamism of the economy which would then trickle down to benefit poorer people. This policy approach became known as Thatcherism and now as “Neoliberalism”.

This Conservatism became seen as a radical and reforming Toryism, one that marked a radical departure from previous policy. It was however very controversial, and the period of the early 1980’s in particular saw a severe recession as high interest rates used to fight high inflation produced collapses in businesses and high unemployment. Britain’s industrial base contracted and conflict with the unions culminated in the miners strike of 1984-5 and the defeat of the unions.

Eventually Thatcher was overthrown by opposition of key ministers to her after the attempt at local tax reform produced a tax strike and the “Poll Tax” riots. Arguably the party has never recovered its unity from the rebellion that saw her overthrow. However, despite success at the election of 1992, the following years were marked by increasing splits over Europe and EU membership. PM John Major piloted through the Maastricht Treaty (1992) which led to the European Union being created and the launch of the single currency, the Euro. However he was plagued by eurosceptic opposition within the party from people like Iain Duncan-Smith and Bill Cash.

The Conservatives lost the 1997 election heavily and much of the years then spent in opposition were consumed in splits over the EU. Euroscepticism grew much stronger in the party, although this policy stance did not prove a vote winner.

Cameron’s leadership and euroscepticism

David Cameron replaced Duncan-Smith in 2005 and pledged to stop the Tory Party “banging on about Europe”. As Prime Minister from 2010, first as Coalition PM (2010-15) he sought to position the party as “Caring Conservatism”, advocating the “Big Society” that would replace state intervention with voluntary action to help the disadvantaged. However, faced with the need to respond to the impact of the Great Recession, the Chancellor George Osborne pursued an “austerity” agenda to reduce spending as well as taxes and bring down the very large budget deficit incurred in the defence of the banking system in the crash of 2008 and subsequent major recession. Thus in various ways economic conservativism was combined with social liberalism.

To a certain degree efforts were made to resume and complete the “Thatcher Revolution“, reducing dependency though welfare reform (eg. Iain Duncan-Smith’s work to reform disability benefit and move towards a single Universal benefit), and what many consider to be a marketisation of the NHS by Andrew Lansley through making local doctors’ practices to be the commissioner of services from a market of providers.

Cameron continued to be plagued by eurosceptic pressure to call a referendum on leaving the EU, along with calls to pull out of the European Court of Human Rights. The 2010 election had seen the arrival of about 100 right wing MP’s keen on pursuing what was seen as the Thatcherite agenda. Rebellions against government legislation became increasingly common. The Conservatives were facing increasing pressure on the right from UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party) and were concerned that they might lose seats to them, especially in coastal towns and the East Coast side of England. There was also opposition to Cameron’s continued adherence to the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats and thus to measures favoured by the latter. Relationships and thus party discipline became increasingly strained and the party became more characterised by factionalism.

Cameron eventually conceded a referendum (Bloomberg speech, 2013) but only after a general election (in 2015, resulting in a small Conservative majority government) and a period of attempted “re-negotiation” of the UK’s terms of membership. The referendum of 2016 saw the party split between Brexiters (“Brexiteers”) and the pro-EU liberal wing of the party which included most ministers. The referendum resulted in a Brexit victory both in the referendum and within the Tory Party.

Theresa May and intra-party conflict

Conservatives have over the years prided themselves on being united and yet increasingly have become divided, particularly over Europe. While the new PM Theresa May placed leading Brexiters in senior Cabinet roles (Davis, Johnson and Fox), she also gave roles to Remain campaigners and Liberal Tories. Her Chancellor for example was the Remainer Philip Hammond. It is important that the PM ensures representation of the various strands of the party within the government. However this government has looked very divided.

Mrs May’s policy pitch at the start of her Premiership was in the One Nation tradition: “we are the true workers’ party now”. Apart from Brexit, she stressed the need to develop policies to help those “just about managing”, what were called the hard-pressed middle under Osborne and Cameron. It was they who were thought to have voted Brexit in large numbers. Hence mention was made of infrastructure work, workers on company boards, more affordable housing, cancelling benefit cuts, etc. This may or may not be subsumed in the focus on Brexit and the limited scope given to the Chancellor for “give-aways”.

While May’s style is to keep her cards close to her chest and to delay policy announcements until agreement is reached, and until she is ready to negotiate with the EU with regard to Brexit, her leading Brexit ministers are being quite open about their dissent and have used public situations to put pressure on her. Given that there is a fundamental split over how to proceed, between a “hard” and a “soft” Brexit, and that this conflict was not resolved in the “In-Out” referendum question and has not been put to a general election test, the conflict is now present at the heart of government and is arguably producing policy paralysis.

In the wings the habit of “populist” Brexit leaders to shout loud and often in favour of a complete departure from the EU (“hard” Brexit), along with a general weakness in the Opposition, business demands to stay in the single market and customs union (“soft” Brexit), and financial market upheavals, has created a general sense of a government in crisis and uncertain how to proceed.

Governing Party or a split?

Usually for a Conservative party and leader, the governing principle is less ideology than power. Thus keeping the party together in order to win elections is crucial: “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Lincoln, 1858). Major in the 1990’s and Cameron from 2010 tried to keep the party together and thus was pushed against their judgement in a eurosceptic direction.

Today’s Conservative Party is at its roots strongly eurosceptic. May’s first party conference in 2016 saw massive support for her policy of “Brexit means Brexit”, and yet the necessities of government are forcing different choices than those favoured by the rank and file. 50 to 60 Conservative MP’s favour a soft Brexit, which is difficult for her since her majority is only 12. There is a natural majority in favour of Remain and while the vast majority are probably likely to respect the referendum result, a majority of MP’s probably do not favour the “hard” option.

Pressure of events may produce the split long feared by leaders, and yet other options still remain, given that the current crisis still holds many as yet unseen challenges.

The European Research Group (ERG)

One particularly forceful Brexit group that has applied a lot of pressure on Mrs May is the ERG. in its origins it is a long-standing Eurosceptic group that derives from the old Monday Club of the 1960’s and that particularly developed in influence in the conflicts over the Maastricht treay under John Major’s premiership. It’s current leader is Jacob Rees-Mogg and it has been very effective in blocking Mat’s attempts at compromise with the EU and in pushing for a hard Brexit.

David McKay gives a very useful characterisation of the ERG. He argues that it has three main characteristics, that of

  1. Anti-statism: Hostility for supranational bodies like the EU, which it sees as unaccountable and self-serving, and devolved assemblies
  2. Chauvinism: A concern to maintain the independent power and prestige of the UK, in competition with its European neighbours; a tendency to see other countries as inferior
  3. Anti-intellectualism: A profound distrust of experts, such as the dismissal of Treasury forecasts of the impact of Brexit, and a preference for clear-sighted simpler and bolder solutions. Thus a hard, no-deal Brexit holds no terrors for them.

He concludes that “Their hostility to government, chauvinism and anti-intellectualism constitute a world view that believes that firm leadership operating in a strictly majoritarian institutional context is the best combination to ensure the delivery of their desiderata:  free enterprise, individual freedom and open international trade unfettered by statist cartels such as the EU.”

McKay also points out that the ERG are also in a way a long-standing part of Conservative thinking.