Although Conservative MPs cheered Jeremy Hunt as he ended his autumn statement in the Commons on Thursday, the gloom on the backbenches over his £25bn of tax rises was evident soon afterwards.
As they licked their wounds later, right-wing Tory MPs complained that their party is turning into social democrats and offering “red Toryism”. One said: “What is the point of us if we are not a tax-cutting party? If we become Labour-lite, the public will vote for the real thing.”
Another Tory MP said that the statement, a defining moment for the new government, had not answered the “what is Rishi Sunak for?” question. He added that the party’s pitch had to be “more than saying Labour would be even worse”.
The Tories’ identity crisis is not new; since the vote to leave the EU in 2016, the party has wrestled with itself over whether to use the UK’s new freedoms to become a low tax, low regulation, small state party or remain in the political centre ground. It is deeply divided over the role and size of the state and whether to back global free trade or national resilience, plus some protectionism.
The choice was masked during Boris Johnson’s premiership: he talked the talk about exploiting Brexit’s opportunities, but became a big state, tax-raising prime minister as he tried to lock in the pro-Brexit voters in the North and Midlands who switched from Labour to the Tories at the 2019 general election.
The simmering tensions erupted when Liz Truss succeeded Johnson. Right-wingers were jubilant, convinced that Truss would finally exploit Brexit’s freedoms and turn the UK into “Singapore-on-Thames”. Their joy, of course, was very short-lived: Kwasi Kwarteng’s £45bn of tax cuts caused turmoil in the financial markets, and blew up the Truss administration after just 44 days.
Although the Tory waters have looked calmer since Sunak succeeded Truss, the same tensions bubble away just beneath the surface. Kwarteng is unrepentant about his tax cuts, insisting the pace was too fast but the go-for-growth strategy was right. That view is shared by many Tory MPs.
For now, the centrist and the right-wing factions are probably stuck in a marriage of convenience. With an election only two years away, they are unlikely to divorce soon. But might the party split if it loses power in 2024, as the opinion polls suggest it will?
The Tories’ claim to be the longest-serving party of government in the world – dating back to Pitt the Younger in 1783 – and a successful election-winning machine is built on their traditional unity. Yet some senior figures admit privately it is no longer fanciful to imagine a formal split into two parties.
If Truss and her minority libertarian faction had retained power, she would have faced a centrist opposition from within. The first signs emerged during her only party conference as leader last month. “It might have happened if Truss had stayed on, but now the grown-ups are back in charge,” said one former cabinet minister.
There was also talk of a split when Johnson considered running in the race to become Truss’s successor, but the prospect receded when Sunak became prime minister. The loyalty factor should work to Sunak’s advantage – even though some of Johnson’s remaining fan club have not given up hope he will challenge Sunak for the leadership next summer. A “Bring Back Boris” WhatsApp group is still in business.
A more likely scenario is the strains reaching breaking point after an election defeat. One senior right-winger who defected to Ukip and is now back in the Tory fold said: “If we have to break away again, we will do it. We would take a lot of grassroots members with us. We have done it before, so we can do it again.”
Much would depend on the election result. If Sunak suffered a crushing defeat like Canada’s Progressive Conservatives – who went from 157 seats to two at the 1993 election – a Tory split might be more likely. Paul Goodman, editor of the ConservativeHome website, told me: “A lot depends on the numbers. Were there to be a Canadian-style wipeout – which I now think is unlikely but may seem possible – it’s easier to see a split.
“If the Conservatives lost but still won 270-290 seats, I can’t see any reason why there would be a split. What is more likely is a fierce internal debate, with some to the right of the Conservatives seeking to make hay, but on balance I think a split is unlikely.”
Those making hay would probably include Nigel Farage, the former Ukip and Brexit Party leader. Love him or hate him, he has arguably been one of the most influential figures in British politics in recent times. His presence bounced David Cameron into promising the 2016 EU referendum. His decision to stand down candidates helped Johnson win a thumping majority in 2019.
Farage might join forces with Reform UK, led by the businessman Richard Tice, which supports “a low tax, smartly regulated, high growth economy”, and claims that thousands of Tory members defected to it when Truss was ousted. Craig Mackinlay, Tory MP for South Thanet in Kent who was a founder of Ukip, warned that a Farage-style party could pick up votes from Tory voters frustrated by the small boats crisis which has seen more than 40,000 people cross the Channel this year.
He said: “Unless we get this solved to people’s satisfaction, my real worry is that we could see some sort of challenger right of centre party coming forward.” He argued that “literally dozens” of Tory seats – “enough to lose the majority” – are at risk.
Although one poll suggested 38 per cent of Tory voters would consider backing a new party led by Farage, it’s not certain he will make yet another comeback. He highlighted a big potential stumbling block for any new party – winning seats under our first-past-the-post system.
Characteristically, Farage told The Daily Telegraph he has been “overwhelmed” with requests to return but said: “I won’t rule it out of hand, but there’s a lot to think about, given the electoral system.”
Goodman added: “Nigel Farage had a very clear aim for 25 years – to get Britain out of the EU. Does he have an aim now? I am not convinced I can see one. Has he the appetite, given the life he leads [he is now a GB News presenter] to crank himself up all over again for a new cause? Reform is profiting from the disappearance of Boris Johnson but lacks a clear aim with which to project its message.”
More likely than a formal Tory split is a post-election battle for the ideological soul of the party. Neither the centrists or the right-wingers would want to walk away from the battlefield and the chance to own the party’s brand – and see the taxpayers’ money handed to opposition parties. Fighting each other at the ballot box might prove electoral suicide, merely aiding their real Labour enemy.
In defeat, the Tories would face a choice of two futures – continuing with the centrism and fiscal conservatism of Sunak or shifting to the right to become a small state, low tax, low regulation party that took a tough line on crime, immigration and “wokery” and pledged to exploit Brexit’s opportunities.
Remarkably, it seems that Trussonomics is not dead, just sleeping. The post-election battle is already being rehearsed. David Frost, who was Johnson’s Brexit negotiator and minister, claimed the government is now running “Soviet-style public services” and has conceded the principle that “the government knows best what is good for you”.
He wrote: “That is a fundamentally socialist, or at least social democrat, principle. It doesn’t stop being so just because a Conservative government implements it … if we start actively trying to convince people that socialism is really conservatism, we might find … that a lot of people prefer socialism because they have never heard the case for anything else. Then we really are in for collectivism.”
Frost attacked the counterview put by Onward, a centrist think tank, whose director Will Tanner has just become Sunak’s deputy chief of staff. In a pamphlet, Tim Pitt, a former Treasury special adviser, argued that Truss’s failed experiment was not a “brief aberration” but “just the latest manifestation of a Conservative Party that has become unmoored from its economic foundations” since the 2016 referendum.
Pitt argued: “Trussonomics was based on a superficial analysis of the challenges facing the UK economy and a highly partial interpretation of Thatcherism. Abandoning fiscal discipline, banking on as opposed to aiming for faster growth, and dismissing economic inequality are all fundamentally un-Conservative.”
Despite that, Goodman at ConservativeHome does not rule out a successful leadership bid by a candidate on a Truss-style platform. “It may be that this message – however unlikely it might seem –will rear its head again,” he said. “There will be a group of people after the election who carry on telling people what they want to hear. [Tory] members have been through some pretty bruising times; they are looking for hope. In hard times, you look for instant solutions. There aren’t any but this has got a spurious magic to it.”
It is much easier for a party to renew itself in opposition than government. So could a post-election Tory rethink address the elephant in the party’s room – Brexit? It’s in the “too difficult” box for now, but some senior Tories believe that business disenchantment with red tape and waning public support for leaving the EU means a reckoning will come eventually. It could result in reducing the trade barriers in Johnson’s threadbare deal and forging closer cooperation on defence and security.
As Goodman, a Brexiteer, put it: “At some point, people who supported Brexit will accept there is a debate to be had about the relationship we have. We can’t keep complaining about the EU in the way we did when we were in, because we are out.”
Intriguingly, one former cabinet minister told me: “I think that in 15 years’ time, there will be a pro-EU party in British politics and that party will be the Conservatives. Historically, we change – sometimes reluctantly. Eventually, we will get there and end the nonsense of the Eurosceptics. They can then walk away if they choose.” His timeline might be overtaken by Labour. While Keir Starmer rules out rejoining the single market and customs union for now, that might not last forever: a Labour government would foster closer links and after five years, might consider formal economic links, short of rejoining the EU.
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The former minister was right to highlight the pragmatism and flexibility of a party which has avoided the ideology that socialism gave Labour. The Conservatives are not a status quo party. In 1846, the party split after it embraced free trade when Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws. After the Second World War, the Tories reluctantly accepted the welfare state and a mixed economy with both public and private sectors, before Margaret Thatcher rolled back the state. More recently, they embraced policies they opposed – such as devolution for Scotland and Wales and a national minimum wage.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, London, and a historian of the Tories, told me: “If past performance is anything to go by, then the party’s traditional will to power means it will end up heeding Benjamin Franklin’s apocryphal warning that ‘we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately’. But if by some miracle, a Labour government ushers in proportional representation, then all bets are off.”
Bale, too, can envisage an eventual reappraisal of Brexit. “The party has a long and – depending on how you look at it – venerable tradition of coming to terms with reality, albeit slowly, often grudgingly and not necessarily permanently: think how it dumped tariffs in favour of free trade and accepted (albeit through gritted teeth and tight purse strings) the welfare state,” he said. “Whether the UK can afford to wait at least a decade or so for that to happen when it comes to Europe, who knows?”
Perhaps the clue as to whether the Tories will stick together is staring us in the face – in the party’s name. Despite all the huge policy differences and bitter personal rivalries, the party might well decide to conserve itself rather than break apart.