The writer is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of ‘The British General Election of 2019’
It’s not often that things get so desperate in UK politics that one is forced to take solace in poetry. But WB Yeats’s lines capture the truly parlous state in which the British Conservative party finds itself right now.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.
But before we write off what is, after all, the world’s oldest and most successful political party, it’s worth reminding ourselves that it has been here before — many, many times. The Conservatives have faced any number of supposedly existential crises in the hundreds of years they’ve been around — many of them self-inflicted and all of which they’ve eventually recovered from.
Indeed, it was only a few short years after Robert Peel put together the modern Conservative party’s first real statement of aims, the Tamworth Manifesto, in 1834, that the Tories tore themselves apart over the Corn Laws. The turmoil was so damaging that Benjamin Disraeli, remembered as one of the political titans of the Victorian era, actually spent the majority of his parliamentary career in opposition rather than government. It wasn’t until Lord Salisbury emerged as the leader of the party after Disraeli’s death in 1881 that the Tories could credibly claim to be the country’s “natural party of government”.
But anyone believing that things settled down nicely under Salisbury, who was prime minister three times between 1885 and 1902, and his successor Arthur Balfour, in charge until 1906, would be, to quote Liz Truss, “wrong, wrong, wrong”. Both men, and particularly Balfour, had to cope (and this might sound familiar) with a ferociously ambitious colleague hell-bent on upending the free-trade policy that, for decades, had been one of the main drivers of Britain’s economic growth.
Partly as a result of Joseph Chamberlain’s campaign to get the government to adopt tariffs, and partly because of Britain’s involvement in the Boer War — a foreign entanglement that, not for the first or last time in the country’s history, turned out to be both more protracted and costly than had initially been hoped — the Conservatives crashed. It was exactly the kind of defeat, at least in terms of seats, that opinion polls suggest may be on the cards at the next election. Losing 246 seats, most of them to a resurgent Liberal party, the Tories returned only 156 MPs to Westminster.
As the Liberal government started to enact landmark social and fiscal reforms that many assumed would lock in the support of the country’s growing working-class electorate, many Conservatives feared that they might be out of power for years and years. Yet, just four years later, and still under Balfour (who was, incredibly, perhaps, from our contemporary perspective, allowed to stay on as leader after such a heavy defeat), the Tories not only gained more than 100 seats but won only two fewer constituencies, and more individual votes, than the Liberals.
You might think such experiences might have taught later the Tories a lesson about indulging in internal warfare over an economic programme that most experts thought as unworkable as it was unpopular. Not a bit of it. Protectionism remained popular with many in the party even though the policy lost them another election in 1923 — a contest which the leader Stanley Baldwin, who had inherited a healthy majority with years left to run, felt duty-bound to call (in marked contrast to Truss and, no doubt, her successor) to secure a mandate for such a marked change of direction.
Having reverted to free trade, Baldwin then won a landslide the next year only to throw it away five years later in yet another doomed attempt to persuade the country to adopt protectionism. It was a flip-flop worthy of our own era.
All of which — in common with more recent and familiar instances of electoral and reputational recovery after landslide defeats in 1945 and 1997 — serves as a valuable reminder of the Conservative party’s strong survival instinct. While it maybe something of a lumbering dinosaur (and occasionally with policies and attitudes to match), it is a dinosaur that has, over the years, nevertheless survived several massive meteorite strikes that might have been expected to finish it off once and for all.
The conventional wisdom is that the Tories’ ability to thrive under ever-changing socio-economic and cultural conditions is down to its supposedly preternatural talent for adaptation and its healthy suspicion of idées fixes. Yet, as its 19th and early 20th century history, as well as most of the 13 years it spent in opposition in the New Labour era, suggests, both of those qualities can be seriously overestimated.
Time and time again, in fact, the Tory party has found itself ideologically stuck and electorally shellacked, only for voters to forgive and forget when, as inevitably happens, “the other lot” eventually mess up.
True, that nearly always requires some time out of office as well as a new leader (or three). But we live in an old country, with small-c conservative reflexes, and two-party politics underpinned by an electoral system that, for good or ill, looks likely to be with us for some time yet. Whether deserved or not, there will be, to borrow from the title of Yeats’s poem, a second coming for the Conservatives. There always is.