Tories ponder what is the right way to go

Former British prime minister Rishi Sunak speaks after winning the count for his Richmond and...
Former British prime minister Rishi Sunak speaks after winning the count for his Richmond and Northallerton constituency, watched by Count Binface (far right) and others. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
What now for the Conservatives after their crushing election defeat, Carol Jess asks.

Election night in the UK is a very different experience to that in New Zealand.

First off, the vote is on a Thursday, with polling stations open from 7am to 10pm. There is no early voting and voters don’t have a choice about where to vote. You vote in your allocated polling station in your registered constituency.

This year, for the first time ever for a general election, every voter was required to provide approved photographic ID at the polling station.

At 10pm, all across the country, the ballot boxes are collected together for the counting to begin. Simultaneously, the 10pm news bulletins announce the exit polls, at which point we get our first sense of how things have gone.

No actual result will be announced until around midnight (it has become a tradition that a constituency in Sunderland is always the first to announce its result), with the rush of declarations starting between 2am and 3am.

The counts are public, and hardcore election watchers can follow live TV feeds all through the early hours of Friday morning. In various sports centres, concert halls and other municipal buildings up and down the country, the candidates cluster together, usually on a stage, as the results are read out.

We also have the very British sight of serious political heavyweights standing next to candidates dressed as bins (Count Binface in Rishi Sunak’s constituency) or sporting a bean-covered balaclava (Barmy Brunch in Jacob Rees-Moggs’ constituency).

For those who win that is a fabulous place to be. But it also means there’s no hiding place for those incumbents who lose their seats. Most accept defeat with good grace, though there are occasional tantrums as well.

And on July 5, a lot of the losers were wearing blue rosettes. The Conservatives lost 251 seats, leaving them with only 121 MPs returning to Parliament.

To put this in context, the last time the government changed from Conservative to Labour in 1997 (Tony Blair’s first win), the Tories lost 178 MPs, leaving them with 165. By any reckoning, then, this was a crushing defeat for the party that has spent the past 14 years in power.

The 2024 Conservative Party is a very different beast from the 1997 version. Between 1979 and 1997, Britain had a consistent period of Conservative government, led by only two prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Since 2010, there have been five prime ministers, with three in the past five years alone. This revolving door at No 10 Downing St has made it very difficult for the Tories to claim to be the "strong and stable" party of which Theresa May once boasted.

It’s easy enough to see other factors that have damaged the party’s standing with voters.

Liz Truss’ 2022 Budget fiasco also undermined their claims to be economically reliable. Many traditional Conservatives, who believe in the rule of law and the importance of traditional institutions, were repelled by Boris Johnson’s cynical undermining of parliamentary sovereignty (remember the great prorogation row of 2019?) and his disparaging of the role of the judiciary in holding him to account over it.

Nigel Farage’s Reform Party is also part of the story. Given his prominence in the media, you might be surprised to learn that this is the first time he has been elected as an MP, on his eighth attempt.

Reform only have five MPs, and their share of the vote is not much higher than Farage’s previous party, UKIP, had in the 2015 election. But those votes were often in former Conservative seats, splitting the right-wing vote and allowing Labour victories.

How the Tories should respond to Reform is a major point of division. For those on the Tory Right, like Suella Braverman, the Conservatives didn’t go far enough in matching Reform’s "tough on immigration" stance.

More moderate Tories think their party made the opposite mistake, losing its own identity and credibility as it became obsessed with immigration and was drawn into divisive "culture wars" battles.

But Reform is not the whole story. The Conservatives also lost numerous seats in formerly safe Tory areas in southern England, mostly to the Liberal Democrats.

The LibDems have had an excellent election, returning their highest number of MPs (72) in 100 years (back when they were just called the Liberal Party) and unseating four incumbent cabinet ministers.

Many of these newly orange seats had been blue for a century, some from before universal suffrage in the UK. There are also two seats in Tory heartlands which now have Green MPs.

Those voters will not be tempted back to a Conservative Party which moves further rightwards to court Reform voters.

Given Rishi Sunak’s resignation as leader, there will inevitably be a leadership contest. The 1922 Committee will receive nominations. Tory MPs eliminate candidates through multiple rounds of voting until only two remain, from whom a winner is chosen by ballot of the membership.

The expected candidates are keeping quiet about their ambitions, but it is clear that there will be a period of intense, internal debate over where the future of the Conservative Party lies.

There has always been a broad range of views in the Conservative Party, all across the spectrum of the Right.

But the fractures within the party have never before led to such a bruising defeat. Given the scale of the defeat and the magnitude of the internal divisions, there will inevitably be speculation about whether the party will even split.

Some historians believe them to be the world’s oldest surviving political party, so that would be an astonishing development, and not one I would expect to see.

The real question is whether the Conservative Party that emerges from the ashes of this defeat bears any resemblance to the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher, or whether we see something closer to the nationalist populism that has become such a force in the United States, France and other parts of Europe.

 - Carol Jess is a former Dunedin South Labour LEC member and Labour NZ Council member, once again resident in the UK.