Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
Since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party has changed its leader and/or held a leadership election eight times (not including the current contest). On all but one of these occasions, the right of the party has blown its opportunity to take back control.
It is in the process of blowing its latest opportunity too — but before we come to the present, let’s look at what went wrong in the past.
The first failure was the most basic. When Thatcher withdrew from the 1990 leadership election, there was no true heir to take her place. Anyone who thought it might be John Major was soon disabused of that notion.
Five years later, it was Major who triggered the next contest. “Put up or shut up” was his challenge to his right-wing critics, but only John Redwood rose to the occasion. Michael Portillo missed his chance, perhaps calculating that the aftermath of the coming general election might present a greater opportunity.
But, of course, the landslide defeat of 1997 was so extensive that Portillo lost his seat and thus he missed another leadership contest. In his place, Redwood, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard split the right-wing vote three ways. William Hague (who’d taken Redwood’s Cabinet position in 1995) came through the middle.
By 2001, Portillo was back in Parliament. However, he was no longer the keeper of the Thatcherite flame. He’d been “on a journey” and was now the moderniser-in-chief. The senior right-wingers who should have challenged him clambered aboard his bandwagon. It fell to Iain Duncan Smith to stand in its way — not because he was the ideal candidate, but for want of courage among those better qualified.
Amazingly, the Portillo and Clarke campaigns then contrived to lose to IDS, and the ‘quiet man’ became party leader. Unfortunately his colleagues, including many on the right of the party, refused to give him a moment’s peace. His leadership was undermined from the very start, leading to his removal in 2003.
What should have followed was another leadership contest, but what we got was a coronation. Even David Davis was persuaded to stand aside for Michael Howard.
Why did right-wing Tories agree to this coup? Perhaps they thought that Howard was one of their own. But he gave the modernisers control of party machine, while grooming David Cameron and George Osborne as future leaders.
In 2005, a third election victory for Tony Blair gave the right a chance to recapture the Conservative Party. But, once again, the right-wing vote was divided — this time between Davis and Liam Fox. And, once again, there was a communication problem: Cameron’s speech at party conference stole the show, overshadowing a less-than-compelling performance from Davis.
And so the Cameroons completed their capture of the party. It would take more than a decade and the shock of Brexit to loosen their grip.
Still, having won the referendum, there was surely no way that the right could lose the 2016 leadership election. And yet they did! Boris Johnson’s campaign blew-up on the launch pad — swiftly followed by every other campaign except Theresa May’s. With a minimum of effort on her part, a Remainer had become Prime Minister.
That, of course, proved to be a poor preparation for the next three years of thankless toil. And so when May resigned in 2019, there was no real alternative to Mr Brexit himself. This was one leadership election that was impossible for the right to lose — and, for once, they didn’t.
Finally back in power, they got Brexit done. But then everything went to pieces. The best chance in thirty years to enact a programme of bold reform has been wasted. One might argue that Boris, for all his Brexitiness, was never a true right-winger. But whether one swallows that excuse or not, the right is back at square one fighting for control of the party. And so far, they’re on the backfoot.
In terms of MP endorsements, Rishi Sunak is out in front, followed by Penny Mordaunt. Predictably, the right of the parliamentary party is badly divided — in fact, more so than ever. At the start of the contest, it was split six ways between Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Nadhim Zahawi, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel. (Or seven ways if you count Esther McVey’s appearance as Jeremy Hunt’s running mate.)
This absence of discipline has had deleterious consequences. For instance, Javid’s campaign was carelessly lost in the scrum. As the Cabinet member who had the integrity to call time on Johnson’s misrule, the Saj deserved a hearing, but didn’t really get it.
Meanwhile Truss — facing many more rivals on the right than Sunak has in the centre — has struggled to gain momentum. Indeed, she still isn’t clear of Badenoch, which suggests the right of the party has yet to be convinced that Truss is electable.
The doubts are justified. It’s not that the Foreign Secretary can’t make the final two. With air leaking from Mordaunt’s balloon, it’s plausible that Truss could come first or second in the final MPs’ ballot. Furthermore, the latest ConservativeHome survey results show her beating both Sunak and Mordaunt in the membership vote (though not by unassailable margins).
The real problem with Truss is what the public makes of her. Though she’s a solid performer at the dispatch box and in formal interviews, she’s all at sea when it comes to other modes of political communication. Her weaknesses were exposed in the weekend debates, but they’ve always been there. The Thatcheresque fancy dress and awkward conference speeches show that she can’t do political theatre; and as for publicly coming across on a human level, let’s not go there.
If Badenoch is at the top of the relatability scale, then Truss is at the bottom. That’s not her fault, of course. It’s something you’ve either got or you haven’t. But a Prime Minister absolutely has to have it.
The truth is that Truss just doesn’t land with voters. The Conservative selectorate can either accept this reality now or find out the hard way over the next two years. My guess is that even if the MPs don’t come to their senses, the party members will. Ideologically, they may prefer Truss to Sunak or Mordaunt, but the priority is beating Starmer, Davey and Sturgeon. As in 2005, the membership will choose whichever of the final two is most capable of winning a general election.
So is that it then? Yet another L for the Tory Right? Perhaps not. Luckily for them, there’s another option and her name is Kemi Badenoch.
Just to be clear, I’m not a member of the Kemi campaign. And though I think she’s the future of the Conservative Party, I’m not 100 per cent convinced she’s ready for the present. However, she’s a gifted communicator, she’s popular with the membership and, ideologically, she’s soundness personified.
So my advice to the Tory right is this: unite around a candidate who’s likeable, conservative and comes across to the public. A crazy idea, I know — but it might just work.