How the Tories could disappear – and what happens if they do

Graphic depicting Conservative party wipeout
Half of all Tory voters – including a quarter of those who voted for the party last time – want the Conservatives wiped out entirely - Thomas Broom

For the last century, the Conservative Party has been defined by both its electoral successes – since 1906 it has been in power for some 77 years – and its chameleonic nature. It is ruthlessly successful, picking up and discarding policies and ideologies as required to stay in power. When it does lose, it inevitably returns, reinvented and renewed: the Terminator of British politics.

Those powers of recovery and reinvention are about to meet with their greatest test yet. The mood in the country is ugly; half of all voters – including a quarter of those who voted for it last time – want the Conservative Party wiped out entirely, taking home zero seats on polling day.

Barring a miracle, recovery in time for this election is now impossible. But recovery by 2029, or 2034, is still on the cards. By the time the exit poll is released just after 10pm tonight, the Conservative Party will have begun its internal civil war as the differing factions seek to remake the party in their image.

Which of these factions comes out on top – and whether the party survives the coming blow at all – depends to a great degree on how this election plays out. It is the personalities left with seats in Westminster who will shape the next iteration of the party.

Here we examine three potential scenarios suggested by the baseline prediction of recent polls, as well as their lower and upper estimations – a major defeat, a near total wipeout, and an unexpected success – to discover what could happen next.

It takes a while for the magnitude of the earthquake to sink in. As the votes are tallied and the results come in, it becomes clear that the Conservatives have suffered a stunning defeat. The party which has dominated British politics for a decade and more has suffered its worst loss in history, with hundreds of seats falling. The prime minister loses his own seat, along with several of his cabinet colleagues, and the Left-wing press is predictably ecstatic.

While this may indeed sum up the results on July 4, it is actually a description of the 1906 election, which to this day remains the worst ever result for the Conservative Party.

The echoes are startling. Keir Hardie’s Labour Party had “achieved a triumph”, one paper crowed at the time, with a huge swing and an even larger rise in the number of seats held. The Right, meanwhile, mourned its most devastating electoral loss to date. The Telegraph looked to the future, declaring that only a “strong opposition” would be able to “keep in check the revolutionary elements” of the new government, with its desire to reform the House of Lords, and speaking kindly of the ousted prime minister’s attempt to “keep his party together in very difficult circumstances”.

Ultimately, however, that day belonged to Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and the Liberals.  From the 402 seats held before the election, the Tories tumbled to just 156, while Hardie’s Labour Party rocketed from 2 to 29. It would take the outbreak of the First World War – and the forming of a national coalition government – to bring the Conservatives back to power.

Were today’s Conservatives to suffer a fall of similar proportions in 10 days’ time, the rump party would be very different to the one we know today. All but a handful of the biggest names in parliament would probably lose their seats, including Priti Patel, Suella Braverman, and Liz Truss to the Right of the party, and James Cleverly, Rishi Sunak, and Jeremy Hunt to the centre and Left.

Naturally, projections suggesting individuals are likely to lose their seats does not mean that they are guaranteed to do so. On recent data there’s a better than 50 per cent chance, for example, that one big name from each of the two camps stays.

Kemi Badenoch – the most prominent of the likely survivors – has been talked up as a potential leader almost by default. But even in this relatively favourable model, she still has a 49 per cent chance of losing her seat. A similar analysis applies to Claire Coutinho, Douglas Ross and Tom Tugendhat on the Left of the party, and Danny Kruger on the Right. Together with Badenoch, it would not be surprising if one or more of this grouping did end up ousted.

Who shapes the party?

It’s a sobering thought that the direction of the future Conservative Party could owe as much to chance as to vision or political skill. But that’s what is likely to happen in this scenario, with so few “big beasts” of the party surviving.

If Badenoch wins through, for example, and Patel and Braverman are out, she would likely win over the Right of the party, while facing relatively weak opposition from the Left, and go hunting for voters from Reform.

If, on the other hand, the Right finds itself represented by Liz Truss against Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat, we could see the Conservatives again base their strategy on appealing to the centre ground.

Won’t the rest of the MPs matter? Not really. Using data produced by Survation and Chris Hanretty at Royal Holloway, we can roughly assign an indicative value of how far each Conservative MP leans to the economic Left or Right. In this “major defeat” scenario, the remaining Conservative MPs in Westminster appear no further to either side than they are today.

In other words, the direction the party takes will not be defined by how many MPs from each bloc are left standing; they most likely retain their current proportions. Instead, it is likely to be a matter of a tiny number of personalities at the top, in the inevitable leadership contest, with the winner shaping the party in his, or her, own image.

It is a common complaint among those who spend too much time following British politics that the results from different polling models are all over the place. But in case anyone at CCHQ was taking comfort from this, thinking predictions are too harsh, there is a sting in the tail: they might not be harsh enough.

For over the campaign the trend within estimates from the same pollsters is downwards.

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage, pictured on Thursday during an interview with Nick Robinson, could be integral to the future of the Conservatives if the party is wiped out at the general election

YouGov’s estimate for the number of Conservative seats went from 155 before the election was called to 140 afterwards, to 108 in the most recent data. Similarly, Survation’s pre-election figure of 98 seats has fallen to 72, and More in Common’s from 180 to 155.

What happens if this downward trend continues until polling day? Comparisons are already being drawn with Canada’s 1993 federal election, which saw the worst defeat for the ruling Progressive Conservative Party in history, reducing it to just two seats and effectively ending it as a political force.

What happens to the Conservatives if the continued aura of sleaze, self-inflicted wounds, and increasing enthusiasm for Nigel Farage’s Reform UK sees the party shed a percentage point or two in the polls to the parties most likely to damage them?

The answer is straightforward: the party goes from bruising defeat to wipeout. The Conservatives, currently favourite to win in 53 seats, would be favourite to win in just 15. They would likely win a few more that they are expected to lose (and of course lose some that they are expected to win), bringing their total to somewhere in the 20s – putting them firmly behind the Liberal Democrats as the third party in Westminster.

This, in turn, would have catastrophic consequences. The parliamentary party would be reduced to a veritable “who’re they?” of MPs, lacking in big names and brand recognition with the public. Such recognition can be acquired – David Cameron was a relatively minor figure until he won the leadership contest in 2005 – but requires a degree of prominence to do so. And as the third party, the Conservatives would be starved of airtime, and starved of money, too, with the short money awarded to the leader of the opposition’s office now directed to the Lib Dems.

Who shapes the party?

Working out whether the remaining 20 or so MPs would be more to the Left or more to the Right is utterly pointless; there would be so few leadership candidates left that the most senior surviving figure could well take the contest by default.

Douglas Ross
It is a possibility that Douglas Ross, who recently stood down as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, could play a larger part in the party in the future if he wins a seat at Westminster - Jane Barlow/PA

In this event, that mantle could well pass to Douglas Ross, currently leader of the Scottish Tories. There is a very real chance that this outcome would have no leadership candidates left at all, and that the conversation would switch from working out what the Conservatives should become, to what should replace them.

Just as the Conservatives could underperform the polls, they could outperform them too. As polling day approaches, wavering voters could return home. There are still a sizable number of people answering voting intention surveys with “don’t know”, many of whom voted Conservative in 2019.

If the party appears to have learned its lesson – accepting that it is on course for defeat, accepting that its actions alienated voters, and apparently sincere about avoiding a repeat of its mistakes such that a vote for the Conservatives is not taken as an endorsement of the policies that drove its voters away in the first place – then it might just be able to win some supporters back.

After all, there is no great enthusiasm for Keir Starmer or the Labour Party. Both have firmly negative approval ratings, and have done for well over a year. The problem, instead, is that Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party are particularly despised, with the Prime Minister less popular today than Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn at their respective lows.

If a vote for the Conservatives becomes a way to limit the size of the mandate handed to the Labour Party, then a wipeout could be avoided, particularly if there is a squeeze on the Reform vote, and polling turns out to have been unduly pessimistic.

Just as the uncertainty in modelling means it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Conservatives win under 50 seats, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for them to win something closer to 200. Even a moderately sized swing could go quite a long way; if the Conservatives can scrabble up 3 percentage points in the last few weeks of the race, we could see another 30 or so seats drop into the “favoured to win” bucket, and a few more of the unfavourable races break their way too.

Who shapes the party?

This scenario requires the least exposition. Many of the biggest names in the party would retain their seats, and there is the intriguing prospect of Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt being forced to defend their joint record to an incandescent Suella Braverman.

Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak
If Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak are re-elected, they could end up defending their record from a faction of the Right of the party, possibly led by Suella Braverman - Maria Unger/Reuters

In this scenario, a much more traditional leadership battle would ensure, with several candidates across the ideological spectrum of the party vying for the support of the fellow MPs and, ultimately, party members among the public.

Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat, Priti Patel, and Suella Braverman have all been touted as potential successors to Rishi Sunak, while James Cleverly has reportedly ruled himself out.

Grant Shapps, Penny Mordaunt, and Robert Jenrick have also been mentioned.

Tom Tugendhat, for his part, already appears to be making his case to be the moderate face of the Conservative Party. When he last made his pitch in 2022, Tugendhat pledged to retain the Rwanda policy, called for reversing a rise in national insurance, and emphasised his previous military service. The most recent ConservativeHome leadership poll of party members ranked him in fifth, behind Badenoch, Mordaunt, Braverman and Cleverly.

Badenoch, the leader in that poll, would be the favourite on the right of the party. She has said the right things on the culture wars, opposing “gender ideology and critical race theory”, and last year pushed Sunak to do “whatever it takes” to bring immigration down. The outstanding question is whether her record as a minister suggests she has the policy nouse required for the top job.

But perhaps the most important figures in the future of the parliamentary party are two men currently sitting outside of it.

The Kings across the water

Since Nigel Farage returned as the leader of Reform, the party’s share of the vote has risen sharply. He appears to be having the time of his life, campaigning across the country and gleefully welcoming predictions of Conservative doom. What he intends to do with this newfound status, however, is less clear.

At various points in the last month, he has declared he wouldn’t run for parliament, changed his mind, set out his ambition to be leader of the opposition and win the next election, said he would be happy to lead a merged Reform-Conservative party, and described his vision as being “more like a takeover”, saying he has no “trust” or “love” for the Conservatives.

If Farage were to win in Clacton, he could find himself facing a Conservative Party shorn of its most charismatic MPs, reduced to a rump of 20 seats. He could well then make an offer to merge the two parties. Some of those who might keep their seats – such as Mark Francois – have already said they would welcome him on the “Right pew” of the party. Others would be extremely hostile to the idea.

Should he be denied, he may get his wish for a Canada-style dissolution of the Conservatives, with some MPs breaking away to join Reform, some to the Liberal Democrats, and others standing as the last remnants of a broken party until they, too, are swept away. It is quite possible, too, that the Right wing vote would remain split between Reform and the Conservatives for another electoral cycle, as the two parties wrestle for the mantle of the Right, keeping Labour in office for longer, and prolonging the agonies of the Conservatives.

This is less likely in the “major defeat” scenario. Being reduced to 79 seats would be utterly catastrophic. The party would be the weakest it has ever been, and the recovery could still take a decade or more. But enough of the big names would retain their seats that Farage joining would be extremely unlikely; Priti Patel, Kemi Badenoch and others have all reportedly ruled his accession out, while Tom Tugendhat has previously stated his preference for “real Conservatives like David Gauke and Dominic Grieve”.

Suella Braverman
Suella Braverman has welcomed the idea of Nigel Farage joining the Conservatives, one of the most high-profile Tories to do so - Phil Noble/Reuters

Of the plausible leadership candidates, only Suella Braverman has welcomed the idea of Farage joining. Should she win through, he could be welcomed into the party. Otherwise, the battle will be between different wings of the Conservative party, as the combinations of remaining MPs begin to play the blame game.

The other wildcard in the post-election landscape is Boris Johnson. He currently shows no signs of wishing to return to the battleground, and there is little appetite for his return to the Commons among the general public. Conservative voters are split on the idea. But it would be an unwise man who ruled out entirely yet another attempt to grab the limelight.

The blame game

Regardless of who leads the Conservative Party, and which narrative they decide to promote, there are certain facts which are immutable. After 14 years in office, the Tories have accumulated significant battle damage.

There have been too many scandals – from the seemingly endless “pestminster” allegations to the current betting furore – and too many changes of leader for the party to present itself as the serious, disciplined force a government should be.

Equally, it no longer seems to know where or who its voters are. The 2019 coalition forged together by Boris Johnson was based around getting Brexit through parliament, and keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street. Once the UK had left Europe, and Corbyn had left the Labour Party, both motivations left with them.

The Tories found themselves trying to hold together a coalition of socially conservative voters with Left-wing economic values and a taste for economic intervention alongside free market liberals. In trying to appeal to both, they ended up appealing to neither.

But perhaps more important than political positioning is the simple matter of competence. In 2019, after nine years of government, the Conservatives were still more trusted than any other party to handle immigration and asylum, promote economic prosperity, and maintain law and order. They now rank behind the Labour Party on all three.

If the Conservative Party is to successfully reinvent itself yet another time, its next leader will not only need to work out a convincing narrative; they will need to work out how it managed to drift so badly off target, and how they can avoid doing so again.