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The coming Conservative catastrophe

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June 25, 2019   7 mins

Richmond-upon-Thames is a brilliant day out. Located in leafy south-west London, it is one of the greenest places in the capital. When I’m there, I like to spend the morning strolling through Richmond Park, pop in on the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens or Kew Palace, and polish off the day with a pint at the White Cross pub, watching the Thames flow by.

It’s quiet, tranquil and doesn’t really ‘feel’ like London at all. Play your cards right and you might even bump into the local MP, the Tory Zac Goldsmith, a self-styled liberal conservative who talks passionately about protecting the environment.

Here’s an alternative day out. The small town of Rochford in Essex is about 40 miles east of London. It is known locally as the ‘green gateway to Essex’. Head over to Rochford for the day and you could visit the theme parks at nearby Southend-on-Sea, take the kids to ‘Rollacity’, visit the award-winning Rayleigh windmill or simply take in the coastal views. Grab a pub lunch here and you might bump into the local Conservative MP James Duddridge, or his better known neighbour, the passionate Brexiteer Mark Francois, MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.

Richmond and Rochford offer two completely different days out, but they also symbolise two very different factions in the Tory tent. While they are both represented by Conservatives they have fundamentally different features. For a start, Richmond-upon-Thames is far more ethnically diverse than Rochford, which is 97% white.

In Richmond, one in 10 residents has no qualifications. In Rochford, it is closer to one in four. In Richmond, over half of the local population has at least ‘level 4’ qualifications – such as a diploma, NVQ or university degree. In Rochford, it’s only one in five. Richmond is also younger; Rochford is older. And whereas the share of people who work in managerial or professional positions is twice as high in Richmond as it is in Rochford, the share employed in working-class jobs is twice as high in Rochford.

Such differences are mirrored in the Brexit divide. In Richmond, nearly 70% flocked to Remain. In Rochford, nearly 67% flocked to Leave. This basic tension was further underlined at the recent elections to the European Parliament. In Richmond-upon-Thames, where Goldsmith clings on with a majority of 45 votes, the resurgent Liberal Democrats walked away with a staggering 53% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 8%. In Rochford, meanwhile – where across recent elections the majority of the local Conservative MP has been whittled down to just over 5,000 votes – it was the Brexit Party that stormed it: it won 52% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 9%. The Tories were equally humiliated in both places but for very different reasons.

As Richmond-upon-Thames and Rochford underline, whoever becomes the next leader of the Conservative Party – be that Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt – he faces a daunting task. Across the country, from leafy Remainia to working-class Leave Land, the Conservative Party is in meltdown.

In the polls last week, the governing party averaged just 20% of the vote. It has shed more than 20 percentage points since the general election two years ago. Of the past 50 polls, the Conservatives led in merely two. The party has not held a lead outside the margin of error for more than three months. Unless something changes – and fast – then the party of Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher is destined for the worst election result in its entire history. And nobody really knows what to do about it.

Nor is the reason fully understood. “It’s Brexit, stupid” is the common analysis. Which is right, but only partly. There is absolutely no doubt that the implosion of the Conservative vote owes much to referendum fallout. Ever since it became obvious that the party was more interested in talking about Brexit than delivering it, support has been ebbing. Disillusioned Leavers have turned to the Brexit Party in places such as Rochford while alienated Remainers have moved to the Lib Dems in places like Richmond-upon-Thames.

There was a wobble in the summer of 2018, when Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her widely unpopular vision of Brexit. But even though most Tories were not particularly happy about the compromises she detailed, they stuck with their party; support recovered and held steady.

Then, though, as Britain drifted toward March 29, 2019 – what was supposed to be ‘Brexit Day’ – it dawned on Conservatives that a once-in-a-generation promise was about to be broken. Whereupon they started to abandon their party in droves.

By the end of March, the Conservative Party’s average had dropped from around the 40% mark to 35%. By the end of April, it was down to 29%. By the end of May, 23%. Now it’s at 20%. How low can it go? Nobody really knows.

The problem for the Tories is that they are, increasingly, being pulled in two different directions. Right now, almost 40% of the Conservatives’ 2017 voters say they plan to vote for Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party at the next general election. These disillusioned Tories, along with one in 10 of Labour’s 2017 voters and a handful of Lib Dems, explain why Farage is sitting on between 20-26% of the national vote.

But to bring down the Tories, he doesn’t actually need this level of support. With, say, 10-15% he will easily throw dozens of marginal seats, such as leafy Richmond-upon-Thames, into Lib Dem hands, and others to Labour. If he is slightly stronger than Ukip were in 2015, then the Rochfords start to fall as well.

The Brexit Party is a big reason why, at elections to the European Parliament last month, the Tories slumped to 9.1% of the vote, their lowest in history. Data compiled by Lord Ashcroft suggests that more than one in two of the 2017 Conservative voters who turned out put a tick next to the Brexit Party, slightly more than what we see in Westminster polls. Only one in five Tories stayed loyal.

As in Rochford, the Conservatives were obliterated across much of Leave Land. Aside from the territory of Mark Francois, Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt would do well to pay these places a visit if they are serious about winning back Leavers from Farage: Arun in West Sussex, Torbay and Torridge in Devon, Swale in Kent, Rother in East Sussex, South Kesteven in the East Midlands and Scarborough in Yorkshire. These are the places where Farage is strongest and where the Tories haemorrhaged around 20 percentage points.

Unless Johnson or Hunt deliver a meaningful Brexit, then their party will continue to inch closer and closer what I call the ‘Canada 1993 scenario’. Canada’s federal election of 1993 is an incredibly rare example in a first-past-the-post system of a socially liberal ‘progressive conservative’ party being effectively replaced by a socially conservative populist right party.

In one election, in one fell swoop, Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives shed 27 percentage points and 154 seats while Preston Manning’s Reform Party gained 17 points and 51 seats. A governing party, with a majority, was almost wiped completely off the political landscape. Could it happen here? It feels unlikely – but then, again, nobody really knows.

But it is also true that the Brexit Party is by no means the only problem for the governing Conservatives. Cheering about a No Deal Brexit might be popular among grassroots associations; but there is another dynamic playing out and which is reflected in the Richmond-upon-Thames of the world.

Surveys carried out since the European election suggest that about one-quarter of the Liberal Democrat’s support came from disillusioned Conservatives. So while the Tories are right to prioritise Leave Land, the next leader would also be well advised to take a walk through places like the City of London, Vale White Horse in Oxfordshire, affluent Bath and Winchester and South Oxfordshire. It was here where the Lib Dems performed strongly while the Tories fell off the map.

If the Conservatives aren’t careful, the Lib Dems will grow stronger, potentially form an alliance with the Greens and start to eat into pro-Remain voters on both sides, Labour and Conservative.

There are other worrying signs for the Tories. Turnout, for example, was higher in Remain areas and, given the broader fragmentation of Britain’s party system, there are probably more coalition options for Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens than there are routes into power for the Conservatives. Unless, that is, they want to start thinking about a formal pact with the Brexit Party.

This is all a part of the continuing polarisation of British politics – the consolidation of a process that really began with the Brexit debate and was then entrenched by the outcome of the 2017 general election. Theresa May’s assessment was that her path to power not only ran through the retention of the Conservative Party’s seats, including the nearly 250 that voted Leave, but also by capturing a good number of the nearly 150 Labour seats that had also voted Leave. Conservatives would raid Labour’s Leave territory, while defending seats in more affluent, middle-class and urban areas, like Richmond-upon-Thames, that had voted Remain, or at least that was the plan.

As we now know, that strategy failed. The Tories made their biggest gains in areas that had given strong support to Leave, where UKIP suffered major losses, and in districts which had large numbers of people without degrees, working-class voters, pensioners and white voters. But these gains were simply not enough.

In Leave seats, the Conservatives averaged an increase of 15-points. But Labour’s vote turned out to be more resilient than May and her team had estimated – it went up too, by 7 points. This put lots of seats out of Tory reach. In the end, the Conservatives only captured six pro-Leave seats from Labour. And look at pro-Leave Conservative seats like Rochford. There, the Conservatives added just 2 percentage points to their vote while Labour’s vote increased by more than 12.

Why? Combine disillusionment with Brexit and a desire for greater economic redistribution, something that Jeremy Corbyn is banging on about, and you have your answer.

Meanwhile, the Tories suffered costs that we continue to see. They made no progress or went into reverse in areas that were young, ethnically diverse, had lots of graduates and middle-class professionals. In the most strongly pro-Remain seats, Labour’s average vote jumped by 13-points while the Tories’ crashed by three points. Zac Goldsmith was rather lucky in Richmond-upon-Thames but next time will, I suspect, be much harder for him.

Whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt becomes leader, he will inherit a political party that is now losing ground in Remainia, especially in areas where the Lib Dems surge, and which is also now in reverse in Leave Land, where Farage has reappeared and rekindled his relationship with Eurosceptic Tories.

The delivery of a meaningful Brexit will help to hold up support in the Rochfords; but the next Conservative Party leader will also need a message for those places like Richmond-upon-Thames, not least given the failure of a decidedly pro-Brexit campaign to deliver a widely anticipated majority at the 2017 general election. Eurosceptic Tories are walking away from their party but so too are around six in 10 pro-Remain conservatives.

The next Conservative leader will need to deliver Brexit, to satisfy Rochford, but they will then need to pivot quickly and speak directly to the people of Richmond-upon-Thames. None of this will be easy. And because we’ve never been here before, it’s not entirely clear whether it is even possible.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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