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Does The British Conservative Face A Split?

The United Kingdom’s Conservative and Unionist party is one of the oldest and most successful political parties in Europe. Formed in 1834, the ‘Tory’ party has been a key player in British politics since its creation, but now its future is hanging in the balance.

In Britain’s First-past-the-post system, parliamentary seats are won by the candidates with the biggest share of votes in each constituency. This electoral procedure has produced a two-party system in which it is difficult for small parties to win seats. FPTP has undoubtedly contributed to the Tory’s success, but it has outlasted multiple opponents, from the Whigs to the Liberals.

The Conservative party has always received the blessing of powerful sections of Britain’s ruling elite, but it has also adapted well to changing power relations. In the 20th century, the Tories had begun shedding itself of its aristocratic interests, absorbing the more Liberal, free-market policies reflective of modern capitalism. After the second world war, the Tories accepted the social-democratic consensus of greater state involvement in the economy, following the rise of Keynesian economics and trade union power in Europe. 

By acting as a conservative check on societal change, without ever trying to outright stop it, the Tories have managed to keep themselves relevant to modern politics and the economic elite. The only time the party did split was over the refusal of the majority of the Tories to repeal protectionist tariffs on corn, representing the interests of the landed aristocracy that they would later abandon. 

In recent years, global economic shocks have thrown political systems into turmoil as wage stagnation, austerity and inflation have caused the biggest fall in living standards for decades. Long-established parties across Europe have been defeated by small populist parties from the Left and Right or had their vote share slashed.

The Conservative party has not been an exception. Although shielded by the FPTP system, satisfaction and vote share have fallen considerably over the past 12 years. Right-wing populism emerged in the form of Brexit, the term given to Britain’s exit from the EU. As binary choices on referendums overcome the usual hurdles of electoral systems like FPTP, it became a focal point for populism to strike. 

Brexit has driven a wedge in the party, causing hostilities to erupt between various factions on an almost unprecedented scale. Prominent MPs and party activists trade blows on Twitter, rebel MPs in parliament vote against their government and threaten defection. These party divisions are only a reflection of societal divisions as different group interests that the factions represent have much to gain or lose from Brexit.

One contentious example is the Northern Island protocol, which has created a customs border between Britain and NI, instead of a border between the Republic of Ireland (EU) and NI. Physical borders on the island of Ireland have been the site of historic sectarian violence, which anti-British NI militants have attacked to further their cause of a united Ireland. The free movement of goods and people with Ireland and the UK’s membership of the EU meant the elimination of border checks, but now politicians are trying to find a peaceful solution to this heated issue. 

As the Conservative party is both politically and ideologically aligned with the pro-British NI Unionists, the separation of NI from the rest of the UK is viewed as the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to Irish unification.  Some MPs will refuse to accept any permanent arrangement of this kind and could certainly be a party-dividing issue. 

Brexit has also formed a new faction within the parliamentary party through Boris Johnson’s 2019 election victory. The election saw Brexit policy as the centrepiece of debate, with pro-Brexit, Labour constituencies in the north of England, dubbed the Red Wall, falling to the Tories. As these voters tend to be more left-of-centre economically but conservative with immigration, the new cohort of MPs positioned themselves against free-market and centrist Tories. They display a more populist character, pandering to the anger and frustration of voters with demagogic speeches and policies. 

If the current Tory leadership threatens the victory prospects of Red Wall Tories' next election with tax rises and austerity, they may defect to the Reform Party, a legacy of Nigel Farage’s populist Brexit party. It is led by former Tory politicians like Lord Crudass, who was a Tory peer and donor. Polling at 9%, it is unlikely such a party could take Tory seats in 2024, but it’s enough to prevent the Tories from winning against Labour in key seats. If Reform continues to gain support among voters, it could be feasible for more Tory MPs to join.

The free-market faction reared its head last year with Liz Truss’ doomed premiership. The Conservative Democratic Organisation, a pressure group in the party, has been organising a grassroots campaign against tax rises and an expansion of the state. Though not an incredibly powerful force, they have the backing of former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and reflect the interests of laissez-faire Tory MPs. As Truss’ former Chancellor  Kwasi Kwateng admitted, their small-state, low-tax plans were too expeditious for markets but still have support as a long-term solution to the UK’s slow growth.

The potential return of Boris Johnson as prime minister would have great potential to split the party as it would pit Red Wall Tories and Johnsonites against centre and free-marketeers. The centrists will oppose populism and the latter will be concerned over Johnson’s record of increased spending as prime minister.  

There are many issues on which the Conservatives could split within the next 10 years and it is more likely now than it has been for over a century. Predicting politics is like predicting the weather, it’s impossible to be 100% accurate. As Paul Goodman, Editor of Conservative Home makes clear; FPTP prevents small parties from posing any serious challenge to large parties. However, if the Conservatives failed to get more than 260 seats in the next election (which is a very real prospect at current polling) there would be less incentive to keep the party unified.

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Tags: #Crisis #UnitedKingdom #ConservativeParty #Split


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