The demise of Liz Truss’s premiership revealed deep divisions within the Conservative Party. Martin Smith and Dave Richards argue the Conservatives are now dominated by two distinct factions: a ‘Bolshevik’ wing with an uncompromising belief in Thatcherite principles, and a ‘Menshevik’ bloc, led by Rishi Sunak, which sees the need to compromise around issues of welfare and health spending to build public support. The party’s future electoral prospects will depend heavily on which of these two factions gains the upper hand.
Seven years ago on this platform, we wrote about the success of David Cameron’s Conservative Party having secured an outright majority in the 2015 general election. We considered why it was that Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s 2005 critique of the Conservative Party, The Strange Death of Tory England, appeared somewhat premature. Much has changed across the British political landscape in the ensuing years. Here, we revisit this debate to consider whether, once again, we are witnessing the potential demise of the Conservatives as the ‘natural party of government’.
For much of the Twentieth Century, John Stuart Mill’s epithet of the Conservative Party as the ‘stupid party’ was regarded less as an insult and more a badge of honour by its members. It reflected a willingness to eschew ideas and ideology, a scepticism towards idées fixes by those ‘too clever by half’. The Conservatives were a party of pragmatism and adaptation. Its mission, as Jim Bulpitt succinctly put, was of winning elections and being seen to govern competently.
Electorally, the notion of nation was central to Conservatism, not in the sense of ‘othering’ invading migrants, but in terms of building an idealised community that cut across class conflict. The rejection of class as a political driver was key in distinguishing Conservatism from social democracy. As Nigel Harris argued fifty years ago, ‘the continuity of the Conservative Party consists above all in the existence of the party itself, with common symbols and terminology, rather than a coherent, ideational system’.
After Labour’s success in 1945, the Conservatives’ approach was pragmatic and adaptive, embracing a One Nation brand of Conservatism to build a broad electoral coalition. This it did through three, successive, electoral victories between 1951-64 and despite the growing dominance of progressive modernism. The party eschewed what it regarded as the entrapment of ideas and ideology, instead focusing on more nebulous concepts of community, nation, tradition and order. Within this framework policies were adapted to create a broad electoral appeal.
This form of Conservatism began to change during the economic and political turbulence of the 1970s. The government led by Edward Heath (1970-74) embraced a more ideologically-orientated, free market position, which like the Truss approach in Autumn 2022, collapsed in the face of political opposition and economic crisis. The Thatcher government was more effective at developing a coherent alternative to social democracy and One Nation Conservatism through what Stuart Hall famously called authoritarian populism.
It is easy to forget how many of the current strands of Conservative thought within the Conservative Party were presaged by the Thatcher administration. There was a focus on self-help, limited government and laissez faire economics. A distrust of established institutions such as the BBC, the Civil Service, local government and even the Church of England. At the heart of the Thatcherite project was a focus on parliamentary sovereignty; the belief that democracy should be limited to the election of a strong executive and that intermediate institutions were constraints on the democratic will of parliament.
Given what we have just witnessed under Truss, what is interesting about the course of Thatcherism is that its progress after 1979 was both evolutionary and pragmatic. It had learnt from the lessons of Heath’s U-turns in the early 1970s. The project was built on compromise and setbacks. It sought to secure a broad base of support in the cabinet, the Conservative Party and the wider electorate. Paradoxically, in statecraft terms, Thatcher could be regarded as a Menshevik within her party. She recognised that there was a need to accommodate others, to build a broader coalition and to work within the political parameters of the day to protect. As Marsh and Rhodes chart, Thatcherism’s radicalism played out in its third term in office.
The problem for the current Conservative Party is that many who claim to be the heirs of Thatcher are, in statecraft terms, Bolsheviks. They believe in ideological purity and the need for a rapid and sustained revolution. Compromise with other positions will lead to the dissolution and ultimately the failure of the revolution. This ideological maximalism is a threat to the existence of the Conservative Party, as it potentially undermines the coalition that created its electoral success.
Those on the right of the party, spearheaded by the European Research Group, have distilled Thatcherism into its purest form. They fundamentally reject any constraints on the sovereignty of parliament, whether that is the European Union, the European Convention on Human Rights, or even a Northern Ireland protocol that requires compromise with the EU.
They present themselves as disruptors, who place ends over means. They accept that political and economic damage is necessary as the price of transition. Parliamentary sovereignty is the tool for forcing through the changes necessary to create the free market, deregulated state that they desire. Any opposition is an anathema. Hence, under Truss, the desire to sack Tom Scholar from the Treasury, to question the actions of the Bank of England, or challenge the role of the OBR.
Interestingly, this Bolshevik-stylised statecraft attempts to build on the Johnson electoral coalition by aligning a very dry economic liberalism with an uncompromising defence of social conservatism. The ‘culture wars’ is an importation of US right-wing extremism, employed as a mechanism for building support amongst non-traditional conservatives in so called red wall seats. Reframing refugees as an ‘invasion’ and developing a culture war as a symbol of everyday politics is their chosen mechanism to build an electoral coalition that develops Johnson’s populism, whilst pursuing a much more ideological approach to managing the economy.
Such an approach is fraught with danger for the Conservative Party. We are no longer witnessing a tussle between Thatcherites and One Nation Conservatives. The latter are now a minority species within the party. The centre of the Conservative Party is now firmly established as Thatcherite. In political statecraft terms, what we are currently seeing is a fight between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks.
The Mensheviks, led by Sunak, see the need to compromise (as in the case of the COP summit), to build electoral support around issues of welfare and health spending and pursue the revolution gradually. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, are convinced by their ideological purity. So Jacob Rees-Mogg can rather astonishingly accuse Sunak of being a socialist, or the current Secretary of State for International Trade, Kemi Badenoch, can de-legitimise the OBR, arguing it ‘has a view and we have view’. Ends matter and their aim is to push through the revolution, whatever the opposition or consequences.
Truss’s short-lived period in office demonstrated the dangers of this position. First, all governments (as John McDonnell recognised when Shadow Chancellor) must negotiate between what markets will accept and what voters will support. The markets clearly will not tolerate wholesale economic liberation or a radical redistribution to top income earners. It is also clear, in traditional Downsian terms, that the centre ground of British politics is well to the left of the Conservative Bolsheviks in terms of economics, taxation, welfare and the so-called culture wars.
Secondly, in brooking no compromise, Conservative Bolshevik statecraft requires either the elimination of their Menshevik opposition and/or a split in the party, as happened in 1846 over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Both have the spectre of the electoral wilderness looming. The future of the Conservatives is in the balance, with the post-Brexit fight over its identity proving to be an existential challenge. Claims of its death remain somewhat premature, but the party would do well to reflect on the wisdom of a past party doyen, Rab Butler, that politics is the ‘art of the possible’.
About the Authors
Martin Smith is Anniversary Professor of Politics at the University of York.
Dave Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester.