Week-in-Review: The Conservative Party risks spiralling further into incoherence

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One of Britain’s best, and most underrated, election rituals is the concession speech. Dotted throughout results night, the address sees a vanquished incumbent verbally pass the parliamentary baton on to an opponent, all while extolling the virtues of the constituency which rejected them and their own spurned record. 

The early of hours of Friday 5 July, of course, were littered with Conservative MPs reciting their political swan songs as they marked the end of a campaign and, presumably in some instances, their career. 

But depending on a defeated incumbent’s motives, a concession speech can also be an intensely political, strategic device. Straddling the stark divide between relevance and irrelevance, it offers a routed candidate — especially a high-profile one — the opportunity to shape the political narrative over the pivotal next few hours as the national result is digested. 

It was in these terms that several ousted parliamentarians considered the power of their count pulpit on Friday. And speeches were duly packed with potent messages, lest the broadcast cameras linger long enough for an intervention to register.

Grant Shapps, the former defence secretary, was one of these lucky ex-parliamentarians. Having graciously congratulated his opponent and reflected on a career spanning several Whitehall departments, the camera fixed firmly on Shapps as he delivered his verdict on the exit poll. The public, he said, was sick of the “endless political soap opera” and the “internal rivalries and divisions” that warring Conservatives have played out in public.

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Penny Mordaunt, who lost her Portsmouth North seat later in the night, agreed: “The Conservative Party has taken a battering because it failed to honour the trust people placed in it”. Looking ahead, she urged her party not to indulge in “talking to an ever smaller slice of ourselves”.

Sir Robert Buckland, a former cabinet minister, was the first Conservative loss of the night in the bellwether seat of Swindon South. Addressing his count, he queried: “Do we value those who work to bring people together and who come into politics to do something rather than be someone, or do we shrug our shoulders and accept that politics is a mere circus …? I know what side I’m on.”

Crucially however, the united case prosecuted by Buckland, Mordaunt and Shapps on Friday was far from the consensus view among routed Conservatives. Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, another former cabinet minister, gave a short concession speech — but quickly bounced into the broadcast studios to lament his party’s failure “to deliver on Conservative core principles” and the actions of the scheming “cabal” who ousted Boris Johnson. 

Nick Fletcher, a rebel right-winger in the last parliament, told his count that the “British way of life is eroding” and noted how, this election, “Reform and Conservative votes added together would have saved many seats, including this one. … But excuses are no good to anybody, and we should have provided a government that people could have voted for”.

Andrea Jenkyns, one of two Conservative MPs to call for Sunak’s resignation in the last parliament, made a similar argument. Jenkyns insisted she had “fought hard to save the heart of our Conservative Party”, unfortunately however, “nobody listened. … I was unpopular among my colleagues for speaking the truth”.

She revealed that for “nearly three months I tried to unite conservatism” by holding meetings with Rishi Sunak as well as Reform’s Nigel Farage and Richard Tice. But any kind of collaboration was scuppered by “the arrogance of political egos”. “We could have had a truly united Conservative alliance in government this evening”, she bemoaned. 

Suella Braverman was one of just 121 Conservatives to deliver a victory speech on Friday. But her address didn’t sound especially victorious. “I’m sorry that my party didn’t listen to you. … We did not keep our promises”, she said. That Braverman’s address was intended for a national audience is, of course, highly revealing as to her post-election intentions. 

Still, this wasn’t the ex-home secretary’s first foray into fault-finding and blame-assigning this election. Not 48 hours before polls opened on Thursday, Braverman declared the race over in an opinion piece for the Telegraph, urging the Tories to prepare for opposition. Robert Buckland, speaking to the BBC moments after his concession speech, referred to the article as an instance of “astonishing indiscipline”.

Ultimately, the divergent views advanced by Conservative candidates in their concession addresses and subsequent interventions, epitomise the incoherence into which the party looks set to spiral over the coming weeks.

For Braverman, the lone survivor of the aforementioned Tories, it wasn’t her unsparing, widely-reported criticisms that were the issue — it’s that her advice wasn’t heeded. That Sunak should have given in to the demands of his “infighters”, Braverman’s election night speech implied, is borne out by his party’s cataclysmic defeat. 

And it is easy to see how this argument snowballs over the coming weeks — because it is a fundamentally familiar one. Indeed, for all her election night euphemism, the Braverman position is well-known; since her sacking in Sunak’s November 2023 reshuffle, the former home secretary has argued that, on tax, immigration and net zero, the Conservative Party has abandoned, even betrayed, its core voters — creating political space for the Faragist right to exploit. 

On election night, it was left to Mordaunt, Buckland and Shapps to advance the counter-argument, one which has remained curiously implicit over recent months. But unburdened of ministerial office and the solemnity it’s considered to imply, their argument was this: that Braverman and other Tory “infighters”, whose interventions drip with ambition, should really have stayed shtum.

Now, this dividing line within the Conservative Party between the, (a), ministers should have listened to right-wingers’ warnings position; and the, (b), infighting toxified the Tory brand position is one that will feature prominently over the coming months. In fact, at this juncture, it would seem to feature above all else — a pertinent point given precedent suggests that a consensus regarding the causes of an electoral routing, especially one as severe as this, is a necessary factor if a party is to successfully move forward. 

In the next parliament, of course, it won’t be Shapps, Mordaunt or Buckland prosecuting the case for point (b). This job is left to the remaining MPs from the party’s moderate wing, which did not have a strong night. 

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In the months and weeks leading up to polling day, it had been speculated that a significant Conservative routing at this election, as came to pass on Thursday, would actually tilt the ideological balance of the party in favour of its moderate flank. That, it should be said, is the default position of the modern Conservative Party. Despite the media focus on the ever-frenzied right-wing factions, in the last parliament, the official Tory One Nation group boasted a membership of over 110 MPs — dwarfing any of the so-called “five families”. 

But the ideological state of the Conservative Party today would seem far more finely balanced between Tory moderates and right-wingers than previous parliaments. 

On Friday, erstwhile cabinet-ranking moderates Conservatives Gillian Keegan, Michelle Donelan, Alex Chalk, Victoria Prentis and Lucy Frazer all lost their seats. On top of this, both the chairman and deputy chairman of the One Nation caucus, Damian Green and Matt Warman respectively, were routed. 

Elsewhere, Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s former adviser and a new candidate this election, lost his race for the seat of Bicester and Woodstock. Harrison had been touted as a potential key figure in a moderate rebuild of the Conservatives. It was Sir Ed Davey’s ruthless Tory removal service, travelling down the A30 and deep into Conservative heartland areas, that proved many moderate Tories’ comeuppance.

Logically, the loss of a number of one nation Conservatives — including high-profile ex-cabinet ministers, as well as lesser-known but outspoken moderates like Buckland and Tobias Ellwood — will have implications for the party’s post-election political trajectory.

And while a number of one nation Tories did keep their seats, such as Alicia Kearns and Caroline Nokes as well as Tom Tugendhat, Victoria Atkins and Jeremy Hunt, they will be locked in fierce competition with a relatively healthy-looking Conservative right. After all, likely leadership challengers Robert Jenrick, Kemi Badenoch, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman all kept their seats this election — alongside other notable survivors including Danny Kruger (New Conservatives), Mark Francois (European Research Group) and Sir John Hayes (Common Sense Group). 

Nick Timothy, former joint chief of staff to Theresa May and like Rupert Harrison a new candidate, won his race for the seat of West Suffolk. An advocate of Britain leaving the ECHR, he could buttress the forces of the Tory right in the next parliament. 

The nature of the Conservatives’ defeat, therefore, will need to be contested within a party that is irredeemably split. The task for the remaining 121 Tory MPs over the coming months is to consider what went wrong; how that informs the party’s positive vision going forward; a strategy for dealing with a new electoral adversary on the right in Reform; and, even, the very rules and structure of the party going forward. 

Indeed, before the Conservatives can pick a leader, a new chair of the backbench 1922 committee is needed after Sir Graham Brady, famed for his role in delivering PMs from office, stood down this election. The new 1922 committee will need to lay out an agreed leadership election timetable, with right-wingers reported to prefer a quick contest and moderates urging a more substantial period of reflection. 

And throughout these tortured processes — or as a consequence of them, the Conservative Party’s lost reputation for competence will somehow need to be rediscovered. 

Ultimately, one lesson the Conservative Party should take from Rishi Sunak’s tenure as prime minister is that things — even when one thinks rock bottom has been reached — can always get worse. In opposition, with the party more materially split than ever and with little recourse to any kind of resolution in several pertinent areas, the Conservative Party’s doom loop trajectory looks set to spiral still. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

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