What went wrong for the Conservatives?

6 hours ago

By Ione WellsPolitical correspondent

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The Conservative Party had become accustomed to almost being the Manchester City of politics.

A blue, winning machine for so long that some of its key players could barely remember anything else.

But their streak – that delivered Tory prime ministers in four elections in a row – has been brought to a dramatic end.

Many Tories, both winners and losers, are almost speechless and still processing it.

One told me they were simply “not coherent”.

A post-mortem on what went wrong with their tactics and leadership, and where to go next, is now beginning.

When I speak to Conservatives, several themes come up repeatedly.

Some feel Labour’s policy offering was not drastically different to theirs, but think the choice became more about perceptions of “competence”.

They have had five leaders, and prime ministers, in less than 10 years.

Seismic events, from Brexit to Covid to multiple leadership contests, splintered the party into ideological factions. Some Tories spent more energy plotting to take each other down than their opposition – and never really patched things up.

Scandals rocked the party in a whack-a-mole fashion, from lockdown parties to sexual misconduct allegations to a mini-budget that contributed to raising interest rates. An election betting saga was the cherry on top.

When I asked former Chief Whip Sir Mark Spencer during the campaign if the party had a conduct problem, he mentioned that other parties also had to suspend MPs for poor behaviour – which is true – but conceded this had become too regular.

Then there was the undoubted desire for change – a word Labour deployed in its campaign.

The cost of living, NHS waiting lists, and small boats were all issues voters raised on the doorstep – and felt had been getting worse, not better.

Nigel Farage’s late return to the fray meant the latter theme became a particular thorn in Tory sides, with some right-leaning voters who switched to Reform UK wanting tougher immigration policies and lower taxes.

Rhetoric and policies attempting to win them back alienated some more centrist Tories who abandoned the party for Labour or the Liberal Democrats, leaving the Tories pincered in between.

This was a more comfortable switch for some centrists who didn’t feel they could vote Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

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Did these circumstances mean defeat was inevitable? Most Tories I’ve spoken to describe the result as “not unexpected”, but some feel the scale of it could have been mitigated.

There were avoidable gaffes – like Rishi Sunak leaving D-day commemorations early.

While Boris Johnson was prone to gaffes too, some of his fans felt Mr Sunak didn’t charm voters back in the same way. The former prime minister still yielded chants of ‘Boris! Boris!’ at an eleventh-hour rally to try to energise the campaign.

There is still a lingering bafflement among some about why Mr Sunak decided to call the election in July.

Their campaign guru, Isaac Levido, had argued for a later date – hoping by then there would be more “measurables” to demonstrate their policies were having an impact.

A flight of asylum seekers taking off to Rwanda, for example, or an interest rate cut.

But he lost that argument. And the Conservatives had little evidence in their armoury of some of their policies working when they went to the electorate.

The risk of the alternative, Mr Levido’s critics argued, was that more bad news could come down the road for the Tories – more Channel crossings this summer, more offenders being released because of prison overcrowding, universities going under.

But policy and identity wise, what else could the Conservatives have done? That’s where their focus will lie now as a search for the soul of the party begins.

What – and who – could come next?

Mr Sunak has confirmed he will resign as Tory leader once arrangements are in place to choose his successor.

There have been murmurings for the last few weeks about whether an interim leader is appointed to avoid the awkwardness of, for example, the former PM having to do Prime Minister’s Questions from the opposition benches.

Could this be someone who served in the cabinet previously – like Sir Oliver Dowden, James Cleverly, or even Jeremy Hunt, who just about scraped back into the Commons?

If so, it would probably need to be someone who doesn’t actually want to run for leader full time.

Otherwise, Mr Sunak could stay on until the next Tory leadership contest concludes.

There are some MPs who have been working behind the scenes for a long time on shoring up their support, including Kemi Badenoch (the bookies’ favourite) who is on the right of the party, and Tom Tugendhat, who is more to the centre.

Former contenders like Suella Braverman and former Sunak ally-turned-critic Robert Jenrick are tipped to run too.

They both spent time in the Home Office, are on the right of the party, and have criticised the government’s record on immigration.

One interesting thing to note, though, is who the remaining Tory MPs are, and what that might mean for who wins support among the parliamentary party.

I’ve had a quick skim over the new intake of Tory MPs and who they backed in the first Tory leadership contest of July-September 2022.

Interestingly, the majority are Sunak-backers, with a hefty chunk of Liz Truss supporters too.

Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch have lost a couple of their key allies on the right of the parliamentary party. A couple of Mr Tugendhat’s backers are gone too.

Some of the most notable Conservative losses this election

Why do the leanings of the remaining MPs matter? Well, partly because this will determine how the Tory party decides to shape itself going forward.

Does it decide to elect someone on the right of the party, like Ms Badenoch, Mrs Braverman or Mr Jenrick, to try to stave off the growing influence of Reform UK who have now won several seats?

Some in the party argue not being tougher on issues like immigration was part of their downfall.

Or does it try to shift back toward the centre ground with a candidate like Mr Tugendhat or Mr Hunt to reclaim some of the space Labour is now trying to occupy on the political spectrum?

Some in the party argue the Tories’ drift to the right was part of the problem, and alienated socially liberal, but fiscally conservative, voters.

The answer will be the result of a lot of tussling and soul-searching over the weeks to come.

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