The identity crisis facing the Conservative party

Fringe Tory conventions draw attention to ideological fractures in the party

Rishi Sunak scratches his head
Underlying tensions and ideological rifts remain among Conservative MPs
(Image credit: Matthew Horwood / Contributor)

“The Tory party knows it is sinking,” said Tom Peck in The Independent. This much is clear, not only because many Cabinet ministers – such as Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch – obviously have their eye “on the soon-to-be-vacant captain’s job”, but also because of the mood of revolt and ideological frenzy in the party ranks.

The past week has seen not one but two fringe Tory conventions – “mad hatter’s tea parties”, Keir Starmer called them. Last Saturday, “Boris Johnson’s biggest fans”, from Andrea Jenkyns to Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg, gathered at the inaugural meeting of the Conservative Democratic Organisation in Bournemouth to mourn the death of true conservatism, and to fantasise about bringing Johnson back.

At the second event, the National Conservatism Conference in London, British and American culture warriors were brought together by a US think-tank. Braverman’s speech there “set the tone”, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian, at an event designed to champion “the muscular nation state and traditional nuclear family against the dreaded forces of wokery”.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

A ‘full-blown identity crisis’?

It’s no wonder that the party is agitating for change, said Camilla Tominey in The Daily Telegraph. Many traditional Tories struggle to think of a good reason to vote for Sunak, except that “Labour would be worse”. A vote for him is a vote for the status quo. And what does that mean? “Continued strikes and backlogs? Continued mass migration and inflation? Continued economic stagnation?” The highest taxes in half a century? The party now seems to have lost sight of what it stands for.

It is suffering a full-blown identity crisis, said Stephen Davies in the same paper. For many decades, British conservatism was defined by a combination of free-market economics and social conservatism. Today, politics has realigned. The big divides now are between economic nationalists and global free-marketeers; and between those who assert traditional identities against the left-liberal ideas often labelled as “woke”. The problem, as we saw in the local elections, is that such issues split the Tory vote: the nationalist and anti-woke message puts off the David Cameron-style liberals.

Sunak stands in ‘no-man’s land’

What seems very odd, though, is the popular view that Rishi Sunak is somehow not a “true Conservative”, said Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail – and that Boris Johnson is. On public spending, on immigration, on crime, on family, the PM is an orthodox Thatcherite, whereas Johnson is an unprincipled opportunist.

But Sunak is little better at managing the party’s underlying tensions, said Rafael Behr in The Guardian. “Where Johnson would bluff and bluster, Sunak prefers tactical discretion.” He is giving the Tory right-wing “much of what it wants”, on EU laws and on immigration, for instance, but not enough to keep it happy. Sunak stands awkwardly between the zealots and the pragmatists – stuck “in the churned up bog of a political no-man’s land, sinking”.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.