The Tories need a great political repair man. Johnson and Farage aren’t up to it

Boris & Priti
Boris & Priti

It’s rare for parties to implode during an election campaign, but the Conservatives do seem to be going through a form of disintegration. Tony Lee, its director of campaigning, has taken leave of absence amid allegations that he and his wife bet on the election date.

Richard Holden, who was supposed to lead troops into battle as party chairman, has instead tried to save himself by heading for a supposedly safe southern seat, which he now looks set to lose. A poll for this newspaper predicts Rishi Sunak may become the first Prime Minister to lose his own seat. This isn’t just defeat – it’s meltdown.

The odds are that Sunak will resign as party leader at about 9am on July 5 to avoid the Tories’ wrath. “He’ll have to, for his own safety,” says one minister. “He’ll be the first ex-PM to need protection inside Parliament, but not outside it.”

There will be a postmortem on the campaign, hopefully asking why the Prime Minister ended up with more people willing to bet on the election date than advise him on it.

There should be a second inquiry, looking at the Conservative Party from 2019 and asking how this once formidable election-winning machine came to be wrecked by power.

Such important questions may take a year to answer. Which raises another, more pressing point: what kind of leader will be required next month? A permanent one, who intends to fight the next election – or a caretaker, who will allow the party to pause and reflect?

Liam Fox, a former defence secretary who has made two attempts at the leadership, is being spoken of as someone who might hold the party together while it counts its dead and rethinks. He engineered the Michael Howard caretaker project, which was seen as a successful failure.

The party lost the 2005 election but did so in a way that created space for new talents to develop. This allowed the incubation of David Cameron and George Osborne and, eventually, a return to power. It could be another grandee, of course, but there may not be many to choose from (some polls envisage Dr Fox losing his seat).

Penny Mordaunt polls the best of all potential candidates with the general public, but her chances of keeping Portsmouth North seem slim. Kemi Badenoch is the bookies’ favourite, but she’d be looking to keep the job if elected.

Then comes Priti Patel. The former home secretary is understood to be on manoeuvres and is expected to stand with one main pledge: to resign after a year. She could be sold to the membership as a feisty, lightning-rod character likely to win airtime and compete with Nigel Farage (who could have GB News as his main platform).

But already, Ms Patel is being seen as ruse for another agenda: the return of Boris Johnson. “She would let him back in the first by-election that comes along,” says one Cabinet member. The theory is that there will be a by-election in a Liberal Democrat or Labour-held seat that would, in any other year, be solidly Tory. This could open the way to a Boris restoration, as he poses as the only man who can eclipse Farage. A campaigner par excellence who saved the Tories before and would do it again – by crushing Reform UK and reuniting the right.

Priti Patel would not have to engineer his comeback: all that’s required is that the party leader would not veto it. Almost any other Tory leadership candidate would do.

Most Tory MPs have always hated Johnson – thinking him selfish, undisciplined and uncontrollable. They only adopted him in 2019 when the alternative seemed to be oblivion.

“In the end, we had oblivion postponed,” says one minister who backed him. If the membership are still allowed to choose leaders (that may well be in doubt from a post-defeat overhaul), Johnson may be seen as unstoppable.

That is, of course, assuming Johnson wants it. He isn’t showing much sign of it at present, holidaying in Sardinia when David Cameron and Theresa May are putting in the hard yards on the election trail. His return would be a disaster for everyone: trapping the party in a time warp and causing misery for Johnson, too. The next Tory leader would likely have a miserable time, facing years of irrelevance, battling Left and Right and engaging in the main, gruelling job of reforming the party machine.

Asking a few Prime Minister’s Questions will matter hardly at all – and neither, at first, will the policies. 
The main job will be abolishing what is currently called Conservative Campaign Headquarters and building a new, functioning party apparatus in its place. The task is more personnel restructuring than campaigning. It’s what Starmer has done with Labour.

It’s hard to see Johnson or Farage as the great political repair man that the Tories now require. A good frontman needs something to front. At the moment, it’s hard to see much of a Conservative Party. Sunak ended up hijacking himself, calling an election for which his party machine is woefully unprepared. There’s no Scottish leader (Douglas Ross has resigned), no campaign director, no real message.

All of this makes an important point: if you take conservatism out of the Conservatives what are you left with?

This goes far deeper than Sunak, who needed a miracle (a far-faster economic recovery or a Labour implosion) that never arrived. The Tory ideology had decayed as much as its machine. Neither were up to this electoral battle – but this was only clear when the election was called.

And what will Farage be left with? Successive opinion polls make clear that Reform’s leader will be lucky to have enough MPs to fill a taxi, let alone take the fight to Labour. He serves as a purely destructive force, Starmer’s useful idiot. He has ended up being the nemesis of his own Brexit project.

Reform UK will serve only to increase Starmer’s majority, giving Labour more latitude to sign up to various Brussels regulations and move the UK back into the EU’s tractor beam.

There will probably be another two Tory leaders before the next general election – and the repair work could well take a decade to complete. And that work will have to start in two weeks time.