Rishi Sunak has scored some important political and diplomatic successes in his short time as UK prime minister. But his party still has a long way to go to retain government at the next general election less than two years away.
The next UK general election will need to be called by the end of 2024. The Conservative and Labour Parties have difficult roads ahead to win government. The Conservatives will be buoyed by Sunak’s restoration of civility with the European Union (EU) and the neutralised Brexit ultras. Labour hopes to pick up seats in Scotland from the Scottish National Party (SNP) now that Nicola Sturgeon has resigned. But it is the Conservatives who have the most to do as the Brexit endgame plays out, and its reputation, damaged by the ideologues who rose to the top after 2016, clings to it like an electoral deadweight.
Pragmatism and ideology
The Conservative Party is one of the most successful political parties in the world. Second only in longevity to the Democratic Party in the United States, the Conservatives have dominated British politics since the party emerged from the factional political structures of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Conservative Party withstood the challenge from the Liberal and Labour Parties in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it has been in government at Westminster for 48 of the 78 years since the end of the Second World War.
There are many reasons for this success. One of those is its famed pragmatism. The party existed to win and retain power. It deferred to its leaders and could muster a formidable unity in times of political challenge. Moreover, it was a broad-based movement with an institutional presence in many towns and villages, particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the southern parts of England.
With the exception of its geographical location of support, this party is almost unrecognisable from the one currently running the United Kingdom. The Conservatives are now on their fourth leader since 2016. Neither Boris Johnson nor Liz Truss have retired quietly to the backbenches as convention dictates. Although falling short of being outright factions, the “research groups” of Parliamentary MPs – most notably the European Research Group (ERG) of hard Brexiteers – have had a disproportionate influence on policy with respect to the UK’s relations with the EU. The party membership has fallen from the several millions in the late 1990s to about 170,000 today. For comparison, the Labour Party can muster almost half a million members, and the SNP is not far behind the Conservatives with 104,000, despite Scotland only representing eight percent of the UK’s population.
Brexit saw ideologues take control of the party to the detriment of its pragmatism. And it was this radical group that steered England – and other parts of the UK – through the pandemic. The Truss “episode” (it is still hard to know how to accurately label her 45 days as prime minister) represented the high point of ideological leadership – or the moment when the lunatics really had taken over the asylum, depending on your view. Unusually, the City, opposition parties, the media, and the wider electorate aligned momentarily on the latter interpretation, and the parliamentary Conservative party got rid of her.
With up to two years before the next election, the Conservatives have expended their leadership A-Team and are already behaving like a party in opposition: blaming political programs that were good in theory (Brexit) and cleaving to old ideologies in the belief that the voters were suffering from some sort of false consciousness that only a dose of purgative political medicine could cure (Truss). In short, they sounded like an older version of the radical left from the 1980s.
The ghost of 1992
It was during the Truss episode that the Conservatives’ self-preservation instinct finally kicked in. Rishi Sunak was installed as party leader, and hence prime minister, via a rapidly improvised modification to the leadership selection process that avoided having to consult the ageing radicals in the grassroots party.
Sunak sought to restore the party’s image for competent government (an implicit criticism of his immediate forebears). The Windsor Framework agreement with the EU is the crowning glory in this strategy thus far, and the AUKUS announcement will make Sunak appear “statesmanlike.” But Sunak is not out of the woods yet. The party is massively unpopular. The support it gained in 2019 in formerly Labour voting seats – the so-called “Red Wall” – looks like a one-off loan vote on the issue of Brexit, which no longer exercises voters’ imaginations. Like a zombie that keeps stumbling forward despite taking hits to the torso, parliamentary scandals keep lurching into the public domain, not least that of Boris Johnson and “partygate,” but with a supporting cast that won’t go away. Labour’s strategy is – or should be – to give the Conservatives enough rope.
However, both parties might fear what we could call the “ghost of 1992.” Against expectations, in April 1992, Labour lost the general election when it was the party’s to lose. Only five months later, in September 1992, the Conservatives effectively lost the following general election when they squandered their reputation for economic competence, as they have done today after the Truss-Kwarteng episode – when the UK was ejected from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the process that put the European Community on the path towards the single European currency. Without that reputation for economic competence, the Conservatives had little to offer the wider electorate and were seen – as Theresa May put it – as the “nasty party.” The post-ERM period permitted five years of infighting and scandal that saw the party lose to Tony Blair’s New Labour when an election was eventually called in 1997. This landslide defeat was enabled by the abstention of millions of former Conservative voters disaffected by the scandal and mismanagement afflicting the party.
The Truss episode may well have had the same effect on voters. Mud sticks to the party in ways that suggest it has already lost. Contrasting Truss’s time in office with the shelf life of a lettuce (as the popular meme illustrated) or reaction to a minister’s suggestions that Britons should eat turnips as a way of overcoming shortages of vegetables (perhaps not the Brexit dividend people were hoping for) are manna from heaven for opposition parties.
Many in the Conservative party assume that Sunak merely is on a damage limitation exercise. But there are reasons to be cautious with this prognosis. The Conservatives are still sitting on a 71-seat majority: impressive by anyone’s standards. Sunak may be restoring faith in the party in the south of England that was under threat from the centrist Liberal Democrats, and where voters did not like Johnson. Not least, as in 1992, Labour has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory enough times for its followers to resist any sort of assumption about Conservative unpopularity in the polls translating to votes for Labour in the privacy of the polling booth. As the old joke has it: How do you get a champagne cork back in its bottle? Ask a Labour supporter.
For all this, the ideologues of Brexit have done a lot of damage to the country and their party. An end to the Brexit era in British politics at the next general election will benefit everyone.
Dr Ben Wellings is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University in Melbourne and director of the Monash Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degree. His research interests include nationalism and disintegration in the United Kingdom and the European Union, and the politics of AUKUS and the Anglosphere. He is the author English Nationalism, Brexit and the Anglosphere (Manchester University Press, 2019).
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.