Who can reach all parts of the Tory electorate? Credit: Rob Stothard/Getty

July 14, 2022   5 mins

The Conservative Party is in the grip of its most important leadership election in nearly 20 years. While the last two contests, in 2016 and 2019, were all about Brexit, this one is about the deeper question of what it means to be a Conservative in post-Brexit Britain.

Our exclusive poll provides an answer. For UnHerd, I surveyed three key groups in British politics — a sample of Conservative Party members who will determine the outcome of the leadership race, voters in the Red Wall who will ascertain whether the Conservatives can hold together the coalition who swept Boris Johnson into power in 2019, and a representative sample of all voters.

Our survey showed that the leadership race remains wide open. Among Conservative Party members, the slight favourite is Rishi Sunak on 18%, followed by Liz Truss on 15%, Penny Mordaunt on 13%, and Kemi Badenoch on 7%. This picture is to some extent mirrored in the Red Wall and among all voters, though the real winner among all these groups is “none of the above”.

Perhaps because the contest is so short, perhaps because so many people are running, the blunt reality is that nobody yet holds a clear and commanding lead. This race could yet go in one of several directions, which underlines how precarious this moment is for the party.

What, then, do voters want the next leader to focus on? The priority, as you might expect, is the cost-of-living crisis. Britain is heading into its most difficult winter for decades, with energy prices, inflation, low growth, and sluggish productivity all combining to undermine the nation’s finances. Even though very few of the candidates are speaking to these longer-term, structural difficulties — hardly anybody has set out a convincing case for tackling our productivity problem — our data shows that many voters are keenly aware of them. And they are deeply worried.

We also find a clear and present danger for the party —one that is a leftover from the Brexit revolt. While the Conservative Party leadership hopefuls have focused almost exclusively on pressing the case for tax cuts, thought to be popular among the rank-and-file, we find a far more nuanced story.

When asked whether the next leader should increase taxes and spend more on public services, keep taxes and spending on services at the same level as they are now, or reduce taxes and spending on public services, the story is not what you might think. Many Conservative Party MPs and their supporters are far apart.

Only a minority of Conservative Party members — 33% — say we should reduce taxes and spend less on public services while a plurality — 39% — want to keep the status-quo (the rest say we should increase taxes or are unsure). Yet Red Wallers are even less supportive of slashing taxes; only 15% of them want to cut them and spend less on public services while almost half, 34%, want to keep the status quo and a further quarter want to raise taxes so we can spend more on things like health, education, and benefits.

This is consistent with the longer-term trend in Britain — and one that every Conservative must note. As the National Centre for Social Research points out, support for slashing taxes and spending less on public services is actually a very fringe position, supported by around only 5% of the country. Over the past decade, against the backdrop of austerity, public support for increasing taxes to spend more on public services rocketed, peaking at 60% in 2017 and staying above 50% in the most recent data, from 2019.

I am not saying this is the right position, just that many Conservative candidates are firmly disconnected from the position of many voters — which may yet come back to haunt them, especially in those important Red Wall seats. As much research since the 2019 general election has shown, many of these voters have always sat further to the Left on the economy and further to the Right on culture than most Conservative MPs in Westminster.

This points to the major tension now at the heart of the Conservative Party in the age of realignment: a party that is torn between its tax-cutting leadership candidates and True-Blue Tories in the shires, and its new Red Wall voters who are either comfortable with the status-quo or would even like to pay a bit more to get better public services in return.

Given the current slate of candidates it is hard, if not impossible, to see how the party resolves this tension. Many voters, it appears, want a leadership candidate who is not on the ballot sheet; one who is willing to intervene a little more to fix what they see as a rigged economic system, while also maintaining a tough line on Brexit, crime, and reducing immigration. A Blue Labour or Red Tory candidate would go down very well in a poll among these voters.

Another myth that is blown apart by our polling is the idea, fashionable after Brexit, that British politics would soon swing back to focus heavily and exclusively on the economy. But this is not supported by our polling.

Conservative Party members do not only want to talk about the economy but also, in descending order, immigration and asylum, health, tax, Brexit, and free speech/cancel culture. For Red Wallers, too, while the cost of living tops the agenda, it is followed by health, immigration, taxes, and levelling-up, while among all voters their priorities after the cost-of-living crisis are healthcare, immigration, taxes, climate change, and Brexit.

In short, many people want to talk about issues that are glaringly absent in the campaign so far. Do candidates want to retain mass immigration? How will they reform the NHS and social care? How can levelling up become a serious and sustained strategy for driving growth and productivity? All have been conspicuously quiet so far.

The relative prominence of Brexit, immigration and, to a lesser extent, free speech and cancel culture really matters; these concerns all point to the continuing power of the “cultural dimension” in British politics which, increasingly, is cutting across the old tribal loyalties.

So, too, does growing public anxiety about the rising prominence of “woke” ideology. Several candidates — most notably Kemi Badenoch and Suella Braverman — are actively campaigning against it, however, with Badenoch warning against “identity politics” and taking aim at what she argues are supposedly impartial, yet woke civil servants, and Braverman pitching herself as the “anti-woke” candidate.

While the issue of identity politics is often dismissed among the Twitterati as a fringe culture war issue, and some don’t have a clear idea of what exactly “woke” pertains to, it is still important not to dismiss it. After all, we frequently poll voters about things such as the economy, productivity, levelling-up, knowing they tend to have very different views about what these things are.

When we told Conservative party members and voters that some leadership candidates were “promising to oppose woke ideology, on the basis that they argue it undermines free speech”, we found widespread support for this position. Our findings suggest that the free speech campaigns do cut through.

Nearly three-quarters of Conservative Party members, 69%, said they strongly or somewhat agreed with “the need to oppose woke ideology”, as did 40% of Red Wallers (versus 16% who disagreed), and 36% of all voters (versus 22% who disagreed). The perceived need to oppose wokeness is especially strong among pensioners (52%). This, to me, points to the beginning, not the end, of a growing debate about what this ideology means for British schools, universities, how we make sense of our history, and, ultimately, who we are.

This was all brought home to me at an event held by the Centre for Policy Studies, in the heart of Westminster, this week, where many of the party’s current and former advisors were agonising over the future of the party and conservatism more generally.

There appeared a broad consensus in the room that while the Conservative Party might still be holding the largest majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher it has nonetheless become clearly disconnected from many of the key groups that made this possible to begin with — whether on tax, the lack of attention to the big challenges facing Britain, or a growing public appetite to debate the ongoing effects of immigration, Net Zero policies, and culture.

This is certainly supported by our polling which suggests, clearly, that unless the next leader can repair and reboot the party’s relationship with the people who put it into power less than three years ago then it may not remain in power for very long at all.

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.