Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister will have a difficult task ahead of them in uniting the centre-right. Boris Johnson warned that the Tories are at risk of “Brexit extinction” and argued that the party “will not be forgiven” if it does not take Britain out of the EU on October 31st as planned. However, despite being the clear favourite to win the Tory leadership contest, Boris does not have what it takes to rescue the Conservatives from electoral suicide.
The Spectator’s James Dalingpole criticised the former London Mayor’s “One Nation Conservatism.” Boris has employed this empty slogan to “distinguish” himself from his opponents, and states his One Nation vision as being about “the vital symmetry between great public services and a dynamic free market economy.” This strand of conservatism is dead and belongs in the Victorian times. But as Dalingpole argued, the former Foreign Secretary’s version of One Nation Conservatism is the modern day equivalent of Tony Blair’s Third Way or David Cameron’s Big Society. It is far removed from the “One Nation” vision of local democracy and Empire that Disraeli had back in the 1870s. If they continue to chase the centre ground, the Tories will never win outright majorities. Cameron’s push to the centre since 2005 has had far-reaching consequences, one of them being that the centre-right in Britain has never been so divided.
Once Brexit has been delivered, the new Tory leader will have to define what the party stands for beyond leaving the EU. Many former Conservative activists have abandoned the party since the 2000s. Prior to Cameron’s election, membership was at 253,600. Today, it stands at 124,000. If the Conservatives are serious about winning elections, they need activists to campaign for them. The current state of affairs provides little motivation for volunteers to return to the party. The failure to deliver Brexit has caused Nigel Farage to re-emerge as a leading figure in British politics, with his Brexit Party securing 73 seats in the European Parliament. ConservativeHome found that 60 percent of Tory activists pledged to vote for Farage’s party last May. They have 100,000 registered supporters. Imagine how many Brexit Party supporters could potentially return to the Tories if they took Britain out of the EU by October.
Yet there are other parties depriving the Conservatives of activists and splintering the centre-right. Although emerging as a centre-left party in 1981 after breaking away from Labour, the Social Democrat Party (SDP) have established themselves as a centre-right party since the 1990s. They campaigned for Brexit and espouse conservative values the Tories seem to shy away from these days, like patriotism and the nation-state. Although they failed to specify how many members they have in an Evening Standard article, the SDP also proclaimed in the same piece that their membership is growing. Either way, their stance must be depriving the Tories of potential activists.
And then there is the Libertarian Party. Founded by Patrick Vessey in 2008 on a promise to implement smaller government, their membership soared by 21 percent in April 2019. According to their press release, this was because members were fed up of May’s failure to deliver a WTO Brexit and her support for big government. Like the SDP, they failed to make an impact in the recent local and European elections, but they, and the Brexit Party, are causing the Conservative Party’s membership to shrink.
Among these three alternatives to the Tories, there is a common trend here- their activists no longer feel the Conservative Party is their natural home. The new leader must start advocating small government, patriotism and a fear of the EU, ideas which helped the Conservatives win landslides in the 1980s. Never before has a Tory leader faced the prospect of only winning 26 seats in a general election. But that can be avoided if they establish themselves as a true centre-right party and prevent the Brexit Party, the SDP, and the Libertarians, from robbing them of volunteers. Without them, no party can ever win power. Whoever becomes the new leader must unite the centre-right, and fast, before Corybn wins power.