Will Disunity Drive the Tories Out of Downing Street?

A new book charts the troubled path of the U.K. Conservative Party in the wake of Brexit.

By , a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street in London.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street in London.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street in London on June 28. Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images

The Edinburgh University academic Henry Drucker, writing in the 1970s, characterized the U.K. Conservative Party as an “oligarchy tempered by assassination,” a comment on the party’s tendency to appoint leaders from among the British elite and jettison them from office a short time later. The epithet still feels apt. David Cameron, who resigned as prime minister in 2016, is the grandson of a baronet. He was educated at Eton College and the University of Oxford, along with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and numerous other Tory leaders. Current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is the richest member of the House of Commons. Sunak is also the Conservative Party’s fifth leader in the past seven years—and its third since last September.

The Edinburgh University academic Henry Drucker, writing in the 1970s, characterized the U.K. Conservative Party as an “oligarchy tempered by assassination,” a comment on the party’s tendency to appoint leaders from among the British elite and jettison them from office a short time later. The epithet still feels apt. David Cameron, who resigned as prime minister in 2016, is the grandson of a baronet. He was educated at Eton College and the University of Oxford, along with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and numerous other Tory leaders. Current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is the richest member of the House of Commons. Sunak is also the Conservative Party’s fifth leader in the past seven years—and its third since last September.

If British public life sometimes resembles a parlor game in which government offices are passed casually between competing Tory elites, it’s in part because the right wing knows it won’t ever be out of power for long. Since 1945, the Conservatives have won 12 U.K. general elections and produced 12 prime ministers. The Labour party, by contrast, has produced just five; the most recent, Gordon Brown, exited Downing Street in May 2010. But the stretch of Tory rule that began with Brown’s ouster may now be coming to an end. After the strains of austerity, Brexit, and COVID-19—and in light of the ongoing Partygate scandal—the British electorate is spent. Labour has a sustained lead in the polls, and a general election is due before the end of 2024.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, is a seasoned chronicler of the British right wing. His 2010 book The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron traced the development of U.K. conservatism from the heights of the Thatcher revolution in the 1980s to the nadir of New Labour dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s. In a new book, Bale identifies Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016 as a flash point for Tory political fortunes. (Cameron, of course, felt compelled to stage the referendum because of intensifying Euroskepticism among his colleagues.) The Conservative Party After Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation charts the factional warfare that has engulfed Tory politics as the consequences of Brexit—social, economic, and constitutional—have become undeniably clear.

Bale is a lucid guide to Conservative disunity, explaining that since Brexit, Tory politicians have split into competing ideological blocs. At Westminster, a smorgasbord of backbench Conservative clans—including libertarians, Thatcherites, anti-woke culture warriors, Europhobes, and even a handful of old-fashioned one-nation liberals—jostle for influence over the government and the press, he writes. This division reflects the souring of the Euroskeptic dream. Having promised to lead British voters into the “broad, sunlit uplands” of endless economic growth and lavish public investment prior to the 2016 referendum, Brexiteers now face the sobering reality of life outside the European single market, which today still accounts for almost half of Britain’s external trade.

Three and a half years after the Brexit experiment officially began, the United Kingdom boasts the weakest economy in the G-7, chronic labor shortages, a critically understaffed health service, and near-record levels of inflation. And as the problems associated with Brexit have mounted, the nationalist adrenaline rush that drove the Leave campaign’s success has ebbed, amplifying Conservative unrest. The wider political impacts are just as stark. The Brexification of the Tory Party has eroded British democratic norms, weakened the Anglo-Scottish union, and squeezed the British public into what Bale describes as “profound and polarizing” Leave versus Remain identities. In that sense, the splintering of British conservatism mirrors a broader fragmentation in which existing groups—the Scots and the English, progressives and reactionaries, democrats and populists—have drifted further into their cultural silos.

Strictly speaking, The Conservative Party After Brexit isn’t an anti-Brexit book. Bale doesn’t argue against Britain’s departure from the EU nor launch leftist broadsides against Tory policy. Instead—in lively, journalistic prose—he allows the Conservatives’ record in government to speak for itself. In the last decade, that record encompasses not only Britain’s historic rupture with the EU, but also the paralysis of then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s administration, the chaos of Johnson’s administration, and the brief administration of then-Prime Minister Liz Truss last year. Truss’s market-spooking fiscal strategy further undermined the Tories’ supposed claim to being responsible stewards of the U.K. economy, and Sunak may bury what’s left of this reputation. Inflation remains stubbornly high and growth stubbornly low; in the last year, rising living costs have pushed an estimated 800,000 Brits into “absolute low income” status.

The message of Bale’s commentary is clear: The Tories have lost control of themselves, and therefore they have lost control of government. Or as former party leader William Hague wrote in the Times last September, six weeks before Truss was removed from Downing Street and replaced by Sunak, “The Conservative Party cannot change its leader again before a general election … unless it is to be the laughing stock of the country and the world.” (Hague, a life peer in the House of Lords, went on to endorse Sunak as a “diligent, competent, resourceful, thoughtful person” and “superb prime minister.”)

Bale is particularly good when writing about the effects of what he calls “the party in the media”: the collection of right-wing newspapers (including the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Sun, and Express) that holds immense sway over the British conservative landscape. According to Bale, these outlets effectively function as an external organ of the party, loyally pushing its anti-Labour attack lines, fueling interpersonal rivalries, and echoing its neuroses. The right-wing dailies have enthusiastically endorsed every major policy mistake Conservative ministers have made in recent years. For example, when Truss’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng unveiled a radical tax-cutting budget that sent the British economy into a tailspin, the Sun splashed in typically flippant style with, “Kwart’s not to like?

In recent months, the Telegraph has waged a particularly bellicose crusade against so-called millennial wokery, and the paper’s hard-line position on social issues is showing up with growing force in Tory rhetoric. Since dislodging Truss late last year, Sunak—once erroneously associated with the moderate wing of the conservative movement—has embraced some of the alt-right’s most menacing ideas. In January, he took the unprecedented step of vetoing a Scottish parliamentary bill aimed at expanding the rights and freedoms of transgender people in Scotland. (Scotland’s new first minister, Humza Yousaf, is challenging the decision in court.) Three months later, Sunak launched a crackdown on asylum seekers so draconian that it provoked condemnation from the United Nations.

To Bale, these gestures are compensatory: a last-ditch attempt by a desperate prime minister to unite an ideologically fractured and failing party. But Bale doesn’t rule out the possibility that they might work. The Tories have always had an uncanny ability to eke out election wins even when they seem destined for the opposition benches. They have also often profited electorally from whipping up nationalist hostility against the left. Bale writes, “Support for the Tories in their current incarnation … might just prove more resilient than their opponents imagine, especially when we recall, as Enoch Powell once put it, that, ‘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.’”

For now at least, the votes are not with Sunak, whose efforts to restore Tory credibility by emphasizing traditional conservative themes such as border control and fiscal discipline have done little to stall Labour’s ascent in the polls. The Conservatives lost more than 1,000 seats in the English local elections in May, and media attention is already turning to Sunak’s potential successors. Kemi Badenoch, the current secretary of state for business and trade, is seen as one possible candidate. So was Johnson before he sensationally resigned from Parliament this month after a parliamentary report found he misled the House of Commons about his attendance at rule-breaking Downing Street parties held during lockdown in 2021. (In a blistering resignation letter, Johnson wrote there was “a witch hunt under way, to take revenge for Brexit.”)

Despite the political stakes, Bale can’t resist having some fun with his subject matter. His opening chapter includes a preamble that imagines what might have happened if the Leave campaign had lost the Brexit referendum, rather than securing a narrow win. In this vision, it is late 2019. Cameron’s once-chancellor, George Osborne, is prime minister. Cameron has moved from Downing Street into the House of Lords. May, Osborne’s main cabinet rival, is about to be sacked as home secretary. And—quite plausibly—Johnson has abandoned parliamentary life altogether to “make some money and have some fun.”

The purpose of this counterfactual sketch, Bale explains, is to remind readers of the part played by “chance, contingency, and human agency” in Britain’s political development. But the impression one gets from The Conservative Party After Brexit is that dysfunction is hardwired into Tory politics, that Britain’s conservative elites are so used to holding power that they routinely forget how to keep it. The compound policy failures of the past 13 years have finally caught up with Tory legislators, who now look set for a spell out of government. The only question is how long they stay there.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. FP earns an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Jamie Maxwell is a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
Twitter: @jamiedmaxwell

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