1828 Journal (King’s College London): A leadership election that shows the Conservative Party will never die

This article was first published on the 1828 Journal, the official journal of the King’s College London Conservative Association.

The Conservative Party is in choppy waters. Election polling shows the Tories regularly slipping to fourth place. Over 1,300 council seats were lost in this year’s local elections, and last month’s European elections saw the worst result in the party’s history. Theresa May is the fourth consecutive Conservative Prime Minister to be dislodged over Britain’s relationship with Europe. 

It is no great surprise, therefore, that over the last few painstaking months, predictions of the Conservative Party’s imminent demise have emanated from every corner of the commentariat, with pundits climbing over one another as they compete to make the most dramatic proclamation about the Tories’ impending doom. 

We have been told time and time again that Theresa May was the last stopcock holding back the avalanche. Countless newspaper columns from across the political spectrum informed us that as soon as May vacated Number 10 and the starting shot was fired on the subsequent leadership contest, the party would be engulfed in unprecedented levels of internal chaos. 

Barely two weeks into that leadership contest, it is clear that, as is so often the case in politics, events are nowhere near as histrionic as the press lobby collectively decided they would be. The sky has not fallen in and a plague of locusts has not descended on Matthew Parker Street. On the contrary; this leadership contest is broadcasting to all, the innate pragmatism and reasonableness of the Conservative Party, even – or perhaps especially – in times of crisis.

The standard prognosis of Tory ruination was that the leadership contest would allow reams of festering fury within the party to rise above the surface for the first time since Theresa May first darkened the door of Number 10. Les idées reçues decreed that insurmountable divisions over Brexit would become apparent and that the party would begin its irreversible slump into factionalism.

How could the significant number of Brexiteers who were adamant about the need to leave the Customs Union ever reconcile with the even more significant number of soft Brexit One Nationers? The loss of those on the extremes of the party – People’s Voters like Sam Gyimah and Justine Greening and ERG No Dealers like Mark François and Andrea Jenkyns – was, of course, a foregone conclusion.

This doom-mongering is entirely incompatible with the reality of the situation. Not only are all those people still in the party, but they have enthusiastically thrown their weight behind leadership contenders. Crucially, candidate endorsements have allowed those supposedly insurmountable divisions to be repeatedly… surmounted.

Jeremy Hunt, the only remaining Remainer in the leadership contest, has secured the backing of prominent Brexiteers such as Penny Mordaunt and Liam Fox. Boris Johnson, the face of Vote Leave, has earned the public support of many on the centrist wing of the party, including Johnny Mercer, Damian Collins and James Brokenshire, whilst also maintaining the endorsements of hardliners such as Steve Baker and Priti Patel.

The analysts self-assuredly prophesied that the Brexit policy debate would see leadership contenders hardening their positions – such as backing No Deal outright – and thereby teeing up a rip-roaring party split. In the real world, the Brexit stances of the two finalists are barely distinguishable. For instance, both intend to seek those enigmatic alternative customs arrangements. Johnson is perhaps more open to No Deal than Hunt, but neither has ruled it out.

The introspective debate over Brexit policy taking place within the Conservative Party is nuanced and sober. The tone of the intra-party discourse is not being lowered by brash Farage-esque assertions about betraying 17.4 million people or fatuous jibes about selling the NHS to Donald Trump in exchange for a few thousand lorryloads of chlorinated chicken. Tories are behaving near-universally with a notable maturity, and the party as a whole is much better for it.

The Labour party, on thew other hand, would be incapable of keeping its head in the same way. A long overdue leadership contest would surely finish off a party that is already being shredded to within an inch of its life thanks to its entryist, populist leader. The party would self-bisect along Brexit lines, with Remain ultras Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry heading a face-off against Corbynistas led by Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett.

Labour are haemorrhaging voters to both the Brexit Party and the Europhilic Liberal Democrats and Greens. As a result, a very clear dividing line would soon emerge down the middle of the party, consigning it to the political fringes for a generation. By comparison, the Conservative Party has excelled itself in its composure, dignity and capacity for self-preservation.

Part of the reason the Conservative Party’s ‘heirs’ were asking the party to ‘change the will’ is down to Tory party members and activists. Mohammed Amin, the Lib Dem-voting Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, vowed to quit the party if Boris Johnson was elected Prime Minister. He had barely drawn a breath before making a straight-faced direct comparison between Johnson and Hitler. As it turns out, he was booted out by his own sub-party group before he had a chance to fulfil his promise and turn over the tables in front of a Channel 4 News camera.

Similarly, Dominic Grieve made the grandiose claim last year that he would resign the whip if Boris Johnson became leader. When it became plain that this comment was insufficient to single-handedly disrupt Boris’s journey to Downing Street, he hurriedly rowed all the way back to the boathouse. Meanwhile, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown was widely mocked for hastily backtracking on her pledge to leave the country in the event that Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. The party doom-mongers’ bark tends to be much worse than their bite.

At its core, however much discourse may be temporarily clouded by grand visions, the Conservative Party is unshakeably pragmatic. Confronted with a political emergency, it is capable of setting cliques and coteries aside and coalescing behind compromise candidates and practicable policy positions in order to preserve the integrity of the party.

The Conservative Party will not split or implode or consume itself or vanish from the political landscape for any other reason in the foreseeable future. We Tories are not going anywhere any time soon.

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