Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.
How low can we go? It used to be accepted that the landslide defeat of 1997 was the nadir of modern Tory fortunes: 31 per centof the vote and 165 seats seemed about as bad as things could possibly get.
Indeed what happened next was called ‘flatlining’ — a reference to our poll ratings, which stayed stuck in the low thirties for year-after-year. Surely, we thought, this was rock bottom. How naïve we were!
It turns out that rock bottom is, in fact, the ceiling for a subterranean world of unpopularity we had no idea existed. But thanks to the political speleology of the Truss government we now find ourselves deep underground, with poll ratings somewhere between the upper-teens and mid-twenties.
A vote share along those lines would produce by far the worst general election result in the Party’s history. There’d be nothing remotely as bad to compare it with — not 1997, not even 1906 (when Arthur Balfour’s Conservatives and Unionists won just 156 seats). Right now, we’d struggle to get our seat tally into triple figures. Indeed, the direst of the recent polls show us losing Official Opposition status to the SNP or the Lib Dems.
But just how plausible are these worst-case scenarios? After all, it looks like we’re heading for an orderly Rishi Sunak coronation. Furthermore, there doesn’t have to be a general election for another two years. We can’t expect miracles, but we could claw back enough support to achieve a landslide defeat that John Major would be proud of.
Yet there’s no guarantee that we’ll reach these giddy heights. For a start, we need to avoid an immediate general election and that won’t be easy. If our next leader succumbs to scandal, it’s game over. The same applies if the parliamentary party fails to back the new prime minister. And let’s not forget the markets; if they have another meltdown, then, again, it’s election time.
Of course, it is possible that we’ll get the show back on the road and keep on trucking. But that doesn’t mean the voters will forgive us. John Major’s government was never forgiven for Black Wednesday — despite the economic recovery that followed it.
And thus for the first time in its history the Conservative Party is facing the possibility of extinction — or, at least, the end of major party status (which, for us, is pretty much the same thing).
Anyone who thinks that a wipe-out on this scale can’t happen should remember what happened to the Canadian Tories in 1993. They’d been in power since 1984 under the leadership of Brian Mulroney. However when his popularity nose-dived, he was replaced by Kim Campbell who led her party into an epic defeat in that year’s federal election. The Tories lost power — and 154 of their 156 seats.
So what might a worst-result-ever do to the British Tories today? Let’s assume we’re left with something like a 100 seats, which is pretty generous given current poll ratings.
In such a precarious situation, unity would be of the essence. But rather like the dying Liberal Party after the First World War, what we’d get is bitter factionalism. With a Labour majority of 200-plus there’d be no effective opposition anyway — and little hope of recovery at the next election or the one after that. Party discipline, which is bad enough in government, would be non-existent in the wilderness.
Some right wing commentators – most notably Peter Hitchens – have spent years looking forward to the destruction of the Conservative Party. He’s never been closer to getting his wish. However, I doubt that his palaeo-conservatism would provide the inspiration for a successor movement.
If the party does take a radical new form – or gets replaced altogether – then the most obvious model is Toby Young’s “Unite the Right” idea. Young’s original proposal was for an electoral pact between the Conservatives and UKIP, but a Tory wipeout might allow for a completely new party. Whatever the organisational structure, the underlying principle is a coming together of the rightist tribes: the the Borisites, the Trussites, the ERG and the various UKIP successor parties.
Just imagine it: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Steve Baker, Nigel Farage, Richard Tice, Laurence Fox, Mark Reckless and Neil Hamilton — all together in one big happy family!
Except I don’t think it would stay happy for very long. Nor would it be very big. While the leaders of British populism are libertarians by instinct, most British voters, including Leavers, are not. This is why Farage, Tice and Fox have struggled to replace Brexit as a rallying cry. It is also why Truss found so few takers for her growth agenda.
Johnson is the only big-name populist who understands this. So instead of Unite the Right, a more viable model might be Unite behind Boris. The once-and-future prime minister would become a Trump-like figure: out-of-office, but an ever-present channel of populist anger.
Of course, either of these models would leave behind the left and centre of the Conservative Party. But if Tory moderates couldn’t tolerate a full-scale populist takeover, where would they go? Some to the Liberal Democrats, perhaps – especially if whole swathes of rural England turn yellow at the next election. A Tory influx would hasten the Lib Dems’ evolution into a nimbyist ‘Party of the South’.
There might also be an attempt to create a brand new centrist party (I’d be surprised if the thought hadn’t crossed George Osborne’s mind). Previous attempts may have ended in farce, but there is one scenario in which a moderate force could succeed: a Labour schism.
As things stand, Sir Keir Starmer is set to lead his party to a crushing victory. However, a stonking majority won’t protect him from the money markets. The bond traders have taken back control, and if they demand austerity, then austerity we shall get.
In government, this would place Labour in an excruciating position. A full-scale rebellion on the Labour left could force Labour moderates into an alliance with the Lib Dems and centrist Tories. Britain could even end-up with a French-style political realignment: an establishment party in the centre, opposed by radical forces on the left and right.
But while Starmer might fancy himself as a Emmanuel Macron of British politics, he won’t want to be the Ramsay MacDonald of the 21st Century. He will strain every sinew to avoid a Labour split. The base case, therefore, is that Labour stays together — while a rump Conservative Party falls apart. If we also assume that the Faragistes fail to make the most of this opportunity, then that will leave a centre-right vacuum for somebody else to fill.
I’m thinking of Dominic Cummings here, who hasn’t exactly concealed his intentions. Tweeting about the implosion of the Truss government, he said: “this is our chance to plough the Tories into the earth with salt so they never recover & are REPLACED”.
This is no idle threat. Cummings was the architect of the Vote Leave campaign and the 2019 Conservative election victory. He and his colleagues have a track record of pulling off stunning political upsets. If he can defeat the might of the Remain establishment — twice — then replacing a broken Conservative Party wouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
The trick, therefore is not to break. If we can’t stay in office after the next election, then we must stay in one piece.