Finding Conservative Party unity
meF THE ISLAND the atom bomb reduced the Conservative Party to just two BPs, it would still be deeply divided. Sir John Hayes is the BP for South Holland and the Deepings, the safest Tory seat in Britain. He is the chairman of the Common Sense Group, a caucus that believes in a cultural struggle against bullying, mass immigration, the Human Rights Act and what Sir John calls “globalists”. The Tory’s second safest seat is Boston and Skegness, and its geographical neighbour, held by Matt Warman. He is a rising star in the One Nation group, a rival faction of Tory centrists who believe in protecting institutions and fiscal prudence and are comfortable with social change.
However, these two very different Tories are usually found in the same voting lobby at Westminster. Like a lunar orbit maintained by the interplay of centrifugal force and gravity, the Conservative Party is caught between two opposing instincts. One is ideological division, the other calls for unity. The struggle for reconciliation is the cause of most of his troubles.
At the moment the party is defined primarily by its divisions. It has broken into an alphabet soup of fashion. Tory leaders change more often than usual and the resulting cabinet reshuffles are more brutal. (Anthony Eden killed one colleague when he took office in 1955; Rishi Sunak shot 17, notes Nicholas Allen, an academic.) On 23 January Sir Simon Clarke, who was cabinet minister, to launch a putsch against Mr. Sunak himself, warning that the party will be “murdered” at the next election if he stays. BPs disagreements on, among other things, the European Court of Human Rights, the merits of Donald Trump, the Rwanda export scheme, tobacco control, net zero and housing construction. Some of these disputes may be false but many cannot.
It may seem like a miracle that the party is not splitting. But there are good reasons not to. Unity is a strategy. The Conservative party has governed Britain for 68% of the 106 years since universal male suffrage because they have united suffragettes with a broad coalition of BPs and fluid policies. David Marquand, an academic, has described the failure of leftists to form a united front as a “progressive dilemma”. For conservatives, there was no question of a regressive dilemma: the Tory party is the only game in town. Prevents separation on the right – first from UK Independence Party and now from Reformation UK– has been a leader within the government for the past ten years.
Unity is also a psychology. Being the BP it’s a lonely job. The burden of voters, the opposition, the media and bullies on Twitter is creating a siege mentality; their colleagues may be lions, but they are the lions. Lee Anderson resigned as Tory deputy leader in January to vote against legislation to implement the government’s Rwanda scheme, only to be stopped because “the Labor workers were laughing and laughing and taking the stick.” The party can inspire almost Leninist loyalty. Theresa May fought back tears as she was ushered out of Downing Street in 2019; months later she was campaigning on behalf of her nemesis, Boris Johnson.
Leonard Stark, an academic, has written that party leaders are all chosen according to a hierarchy of priorities that places unity above electability and electability above ability. Mr Johnson, who did not have many fixed ideas, promised that he could only weld together a party that had broken over Brexit. Unity destroyed him in turn. It was lost in 2022 after the mass resignation of its colleagues. “The herd instinct is powerful,” Mr Johnson lamented at the time. “And when the herd moves, it moves.”
Unity is easier when you have few rules. The Labor Party is a 20th century bureaucracy with leadership set by committees, conferences and endless motions. The Tory party is a pre-literate tribe that finds consensus informally through BPs listening to lectures, banging the tables and saying “yeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”. In Labor the factional leadership must seize the machine; among the Tories, it means winning the argument. A rare point of institutional depth – a Tory rule BPThey can challenge their leader if they send in a certain number of secret letters – a source of instability that many would like to eliminate.
For all the noise, Mr. Sunak’s government can be surprisingly harmonious. He got a tough new deal with the EU last year with only 22 rebels, and he lost only one vote when he was prime minister. But the price of unity has also been the common denominator: Mr Sunak often prefers to reduce legislation rather than risk a gap. The Rwanda bill is a piece of factional equipment that nobody thinks will work. A determined group would have stiffed the bill or been killed; instead of Tory BPThey voted with only 11 rebels.
We are all in this together
Unity can also seem irrational. Most of Sir Simon’s colleagues believe he has lost his mind in trying to fit the party’s fourth prime minister into one parliament. His supporters argue that it is sheer madness to unite a leader who is leading their party to defeat. (Mr Sunak’s approval rating is a net -46, according to pollster Ipsos; Sir John Major scored -30 in January 1997, before losing in a landslide to Sir Tony Blair later that year). Division is better than unification something voters don’t want, the argument ran.
Many Tories are holding fire until after the election, and it is expected to be a battle to reshape the party. Rival groups are studying election projections to determine how many allies will retain their seats. A preview of the fun will come on February 6 when Liz Truss launches a new movement she optimistically calls “popular conservatism”. But the winner of any future leadership contest will almost certainly promise to unite the rump party. The Tories are itching for a clarification schism but are more likely to go through with it. It is a safe bet that Mr Warman and Sir John Hayes will remain uneasy political bedfellows. ■
Read more from Bagehot, our British politics columnist:
Coalition for growth backs Britain’s Labor Party (January 25)
The left turn of Scottish nationalism (January 18)
Keir Starmer, Reform UK and Britain’s populist paradox (11 January)
Also: How Bagehot’s column got its name