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Defeated Tories shouldn’t move to the Right

Where is the opening on the British Right? Credit: Getty

July 5, 2024 - 10:00am

Before last night’s general election results, the expectation was that a Reform UK breakthrough could only come at the expense of a Tory wipeout. But, with prominent exceptions like the defeat of former prime minister Liz Truss in South West Norfolk, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

A handful of seats and one in seven votes is a breakthrough for Reform, but with more than 100 MPs the Conservatives can still claim a clear if distant second place — and official Opposition status. That’s not to say that they weren’t pulverised last night. Between them, Boris Johnson, Truss and Rishi Sunak have turned the biggest blue majority since the Eighties into the worst result in the party’s history. Nevertheless, this was humiliation not extinction. Unless, that is, Sunak’s successors do something really stupid, like allow Nigel Farage to mount a reverse takeover.

For the first time since the war, the Parliamentary politics of the British mainland features two significant Right-of-centre parties. What’s more, and as I anticipated at the start of the campaign, Labour’s massive majority is built on an underwhelming vote share. It is lower than that gained by Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 and much lower than Tony Blair’s achievement in 1997. Most importantly, it is lower than the combined Tory-Reform vote share from last night. In seat after seat — including South West Norfolk — Labour only won because of the Tory-Reform split of votes. So why not unite the Right?

There’s only been one point when a Tory-RUK link-up might have made sense — and that was in the immediate run-up to the general election. With all other options exhausted, the last, desperate chance that the Conservatives had to turn things around was an alliance with Reform, possibly with Farage as leader. Nothing else could have made so much difference to public perceptions in so little time.

Of course, it could have blown up in their faces; but, on the other hand, it might have been the game-changer that prevented a Labour landslide. Now, though, the picture is different. For a start, it wouldn’t reduce Starmer’s majority by a single seat — not until the next general election, which is years away. Until then, what his opponents lack in numbers, they will have to make up for in focus. But good luck with that if the Tories (and Reform) spend their time tearing themselves apart over whether or not to merge. Which, of course, they would.

There’s something else the Tories need to attend to, and that is their own profound failures as a party. In 2019, they had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remake British politics, but they comprehensively blew it. Working out how and why they got it so wrong, and what they now need to change about themselves, is the only path to recovery.

For the Tories, a link-up with Farage’s party is not a shortcut but a diversion. The two parties are just on fundamentally different trajectories. Farage should focus on his stated aim of building a popular movement. Many of last night’s results suggest that this would most likely be at Labour’s expense. The Conservatives, however, should not forget what they once were: a party of government. They must concentrate on what Farage shows little interest in — and which they themselves neglected in office — and that is the task of finding true solutions to this country’s deepest problems.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Chris Bradshaw
Chris Bradshaw
16 days ago

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
16 days ago
Reply to  Chris Bradshaw

Amen.
The stood as conservatives and ruled as labour

Robbie K
Robbie K
16 days ago

What does Farage want if not to become leader of the conservative party, in whatever form that may be?
As suggested by the author, let’s not pretend he has a genuine interest in the country, he is merely a chancer and a player.
The Conservatives must reinvent themselves behind a fresh leader with energy and integrity and win back the Reform voters with innovation and a new take on traditional values.
The best person for that role is Badenoch.

Edward Hamer
Edward Hamer
16 days ago

I suspect that getting their act together will involve the Tories making Reform redundant, but indirectly, not by stealing their clothes. Immigration is a hugely salient issue, but it is downstream from other issues that a serious party of government would need to address such as social care provision, the role of universities, increasing productivity, helping family formation and providing decent housing for young people.
Increasing the size of the population also poses problems that should concern many centrists, like the environmental and infrastructure problems caused by over-development and population density, and the high-intensity agriculture we would need in order to feed more people securely.
If the Tories can address those issues in a joined-up way then I suspect the immigration issue could fall away, and Reform with it.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
16 days ago
Reply to  Edward Hamer

The Tories have been incompetence personified for the last fourteen years. They had their chance to sort out all those thing…they didn’t.

Any trust that they had has gone. They cannot recover within ten years, more if Labour delivers some prosperity.

Peter B
Peter B
16 days ago
Reply to  Edward Hamer

Immigration is directly related to providing decent housing for young people. It’s absolutely central to both housing and productivity (clue: importing hundreds of thousands of low-skilled people isn’t good for productivity).
I’m astonished how many people cannot make the connection. It’s simple supply and demand. Import more people and don’t build the huge number of new homes needed and you get housing shortages and more expensive housing. And yet we still struggle with “supply and demand deniers” who insist there is no link.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Bit tedious this repetition PB. 99% agree net migration too high. What needs to be forensically assessed is why The Tories signed off so many legal visas and what we can do about the themes behind those to reduce such need in future. You’re raging about the symptom not the problem. The Country had enough of that and wants some solutions that are practical.
As regards the illegals, clearly a much smaller number than the legals yet more visible. Different responses needed.

Peter B
Peter B
16 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I’m not actually “raging” !
Certainly over 1 million illegal immigrants in the UK. Only a small problem then …

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
15 days ago
Reply to  j watson

The Tories signed off so many legal visas because the “experts” in the civil service predicted that there would be a flood of EU citizens returning home on the day we left, and also massively underestimating the number of people from the 3rd world who would take advantage of the relaxed visa conditions.
Just like I remember in 2000 all the experts predicted that allowing free immigration from eastern Europe would not lead to any significant increase in immigration.

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
16 days ago

The Tories went sharp Left and were annihilated.
They need to return to their roots on the Right, or they will be deservedly dead and buried.

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
15 days ago

Moving sharp right could have the same effect.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
15 days ago

I agree with both of you. The sweet spot is right of centre on culture and left of centre on economics. It’s not that difficult. The SDP pursue th8s exaxt approach.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
15 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

This household prefers socially liberal but fiscally prudent and a strong focus on the economics of growth. The left are useless at that because they loathe business – and hold their noses while going cap in hand to business for the wealth to redistribute. There are many like us without one foot in the grave.

charlie martell
charlie martell
13 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

The SDP? Maybe,but who votes for them?
Left wing economics are a disaster everywhere they are tried. They favour the rich, who are insulated from the consequences of their ideology.

charlie martell
charlie martell
13 days ago

What does sharp right mean?

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
12 days ago

Exactly. Never mind moving to the Right, they should have been there all along.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
16 days ago

High tax, open borders (even during ‘lockdown’), assault on freedoms, etc etc.
The Conservatives got trounced after moving sharp left.
How many Reform voters would have abstained if Reform had not run?
A huge number surely.

Steven Targett
Steven Targett
16 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

I certainly wouldn’t have voted without Reform being on the ballot.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
15 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

They only went what you call left to pay off the debt incurred by Covid costs and energy subsidies. Younger people are more socially liberal and have to be appealed to for survival.

Peter B
Peter B
16 days ago

Labour’s national vote isn’t only lower than in 2017 (peak Corbyn). But – astonishingly – even than 2019 (also Corbyn).
So, in terms of actual votes, they lost to Corbyn every time – as well as in Islington North.
If that seems bizarre, compare the total Conservative vote in 2024 to 2019. It’s *less than half*. With 2 seats to go,they’re on 6.8 million votes. Theresa May bagged 13.6 million in 2017. And Boris Johnson 14.0 million in 2019.
Yes, that’s right. The Conservative lost *half their voters* last night. 50%.
Labour’s share of the national vote is currently 33.7%. And this is called a “landslide” !!!

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
16 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

They were lucky to bag 6.8 million.

Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh
16 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

maybe so – but they did;

AC Harper
AC Harper
16 days ago

Both Labour and Conservatives were contending for the middle ground, neither obviously ‘left’ or ‘right’.
Arguing that the Conservatives shouldn’t move to the right is just an excuse for continuing the middle of the road attitudes that have proven unsatisfying. Moving to the Right, against the sullen resistance of the Blob, would be difficult but worthwhile if you don’t want two ‘centre’ parties with no unique selling point. Alternatively Labour could tack sharply ‘left’ in government, opening the centre ground once more.
What a mess.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
16 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Starmer would be well advised to govern from the centre-right and just do the simple things the mindless herd of Tories failed to do.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
15 days ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Labour will tack left in Government. They need the Corbynista kids.

Anthony Roe
Anthony Roe
16 days ago

The muslims are coming and they really, really don’t care-ask Jess Phillips.

Joel Dungate
Joel Dungate
16 days ago

If the Tories don’t credibly demonstrate a commitment to reducing immigration, combatting DEI and moderating the net zero hysteria, they will lose again. If they can change, then the government could flip again as early as the next election.

Phil Day
Phil Day
15 days ago
Reply to  Joel Dungate

Even if they do change in these areas what voter is going to believe them.
I’m not expecting to see trust restored in the current Tory party during my lifetime.

Arthur King
Arthur King
9 days ago
Reply to  Joel Dungate

The numbers show that conservatives want a commitment to oppose the DEI cult. There is a good piece on the poscast Triggernomitry regarding that the numbers show that the Labour win was hollow and that the electorate is shifting right but wanted to punish the Conservatives for their failure to fight for them.

Guy Haynes
Guy Haynes
16 days ago

Posted this on another thread, but very relevant here.

There’s definitely some truth in the repeated assertion that elections are won from the centre. However, the problem is, the self-proclaimed centre has become the extreme in so many areas.

Immigration is an obvious example, what on earth is moderate or centrist about letting in a million people, many unskilled, every year legally, and allowing people to enter illegally without any meaningful penalty? This is a ludicrously extreme position, as extreme as threatening to deport all immigrants and let nobody in would be in the opposite direction. Oh and then they pretend that this and the pressure on public services are entirely unconnected.

What on earth is moderate or centrist about not only maxing the country’s credit card out year on year but increasing its credit limit continually? What on earth is moderate or centrist about ignoring pernicious crimes such as shoplifting and letting offenders off scot-free? What on earth is moderate or centrist in allowing pro-Palestine protestors to take over the capital every weekend, to beam offensive stuff onto the houses of parliament, and to make London a no-go area for Jewish people? What on earth is moderate or centrist about trying to end petrol based cars in under a decade and passing the cost of this onto families who have no hope of being able to afford the associated costs?

I could go on. So yes, you can say that the Tories need to hold the centre and avoid tacking to the right – but it’s just words isn’t it? There’s no real meaning, because there’s no real centre any more – they’re just as extreme as everyone else. And this is why the fringe parties are becoming mainstream. If the government had adopted a sensible, middle of the road position on immigration, crime, law and order and fiscal policy, you wouldn’t even have heard from Nigel Farage – we’d have just had a very tight election and probably a hung parliament.

BTW, not saying the solutions here are simple – but if the main parties simply pretend that no problems exist (as they do), don’t be surprised when that particular vacuum gets filled.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
15 days ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

Well said.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
15 days ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

Exactly.
The “extreme centrism” of the uniparty – which is a combination of hyper-neoliberalism plus woke identity politics – is almost the diametric opposite of where the median British (or French, or American) voter is.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
15 days ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

Seemingly not, according to the election results.

Dr E C
Dr E C
15 days ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

100%

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
15 days ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

If you think that is extreme, you had better gird your loins.

Steve King
Steve King
15 days ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

Great post

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
16 days ago

Tories: ignore this “policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues”. He’s why you lost.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
16 days ago

“For the first time since the war, the Parliamentary politics of the British mainland features two significant Right-of-centre parties.”
Well, that might be correct, I’ll have to study the makeup of what’s left of the Tory parliamentary party before reaching a conclusion. But while people like Stride and Kearns are amongst their number, I’m not confident. The Tory party on the day Parliament was dissolved was definitely not right of centre.
The idea the Tories can recover by fighting Labour, LibDem and Greens for the (left of) centre ground is ridiculous.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
16 days ago

Conservatives should get back to being the party of government? Isn’t effectively identifying as liberals basically what they’ve been doing, and what has caused its ongoing impotence?

j watson
j watson
16 days ago

Author is right on this one.
But the more activist/ideological gravitational pull Right already happening and one can see it here in many comments. Good news for Starmer. Remarkable what echo chambers can convince themselves of when they try.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
15 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I have no idea what you’re saying here.

John Riordan
John Riordan
15 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

He’s trying to convince himself that the leftwing crap that got the Tories kicked out of office wasn’t really what got them kicked out of office, with the worst result in living memory.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
16 days ago

This is T.May BS. Don’t have anything to do with F’rage! Hand me the salts, please!
This attitude is about as unTory as you can get. The old Tory party got votes from all over, solid working class patriots, deep bigots, economic liberals. They did so because they understood that parties are broad churches; they did so because they didn’t mind associating with anyone, as long as they were human; they did so because they knew what they believed in. Obviously, T.May Tories who have nothing between their ears believe in nothing and so are scared to associate with red meat types. That was Cameron,Osbourne, T.May. The lot of this rotten bunch. They don’t understand the first thing of representative democracy as spelt out by Edmund Burke that the representative retains their discretion to think on their feet. A representative democracy does not receive mandates. It interprets them. T.May types are so unschooled, they have no idea. In fact, the only idea T.May had was feminism and she thought that important in the hierarchy of state concerns. Good riddance to the lot of them.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
16 days ago

The Conservatives, however, should not forget what they once were: a party of government.
Were they? Here I thought that being conservative meant being the party of limited govt, not the endless variety characterized by non-stop mission creep. Govt, by definition, should be limited in scope, driven by the efficient provision of public services. Then and only then should it even consider, let alone wade into, the murkier waters of ephemeral issues such as climate, EVs, and farming.
Perhaps I’m one of those weird anachronistic people who wants a competent and efficient govt, not an activist one. Defend basic individual rights, protect the border, keep taxes at a manageable rate, and ensure public safety. THAT is conservative govt. Which of those did the Tories consistently do? The answer has a lot to do with explaining their loss.

james elliott
james elliott
16 days ago

“Defeated Tories shouldn’t move to the Right”

This is a predictable, but ridiculous, take.

The Tories were wiped out because they have been governing as a Left of centre party.

The only hope they have of ever getting into government again is to move back to the centre Right – and probably beyond that.

Deb Grant
Deb Grant
15 days ago
Reply to  james elliott

That’s outdated viewpoint.

John Riordan
John Riordan
15 days ago

The article doesn’t support the headline. Happens a lot, shouldn’t happen at Unherd.

The headline is obviously wrong: the Tories lost so badly because they shifted Left and their natural support base has in due course let them know, yesterday, what the consequences of doing something that stupid are. So obviously the Tories must either move Right, or remain in Opposition until they move Right.

The rest of the article is good. Except that I suspect that the Tories and Reform needn’t spend years ripping each other to shreds, they can just plan around a Coalition strategy for 2029. Starmer’s seat majority is huge, admittedly, but his vote count is low enough to make that majority even more fragile than Boris Johnson’s majority of 2019: even a small shift in voter sentiment could rapidly see hundreds of Labour seats at risk from a coordinated attack by Reform and the Tories.

Rob C
Rob C
15 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

The headline supports what the author thinks, which is that both Labour and Conservative rule as right-wing. He’s delusional, however. What does he think left-wing would look like?

David McKee
David McKee
15 days ago

They’d be bloody fools if they embraced Farage and his motley crew. They’d be even bigger bloody fools if they turned left, and made themselves even more indistinguishable from Labour than they already are. And they’d be almighty bloody fools if they sat on their behind and waited for the electoral wheel to turn.

So that leaves….?

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
15 days ago

We are a deeply unserious country. The idea that we could produce a generation of Josephs, Lawsons, Lilleys, Fields, Cooks et al is for the birds. Listening to Richard Dawkins yesterday I was dismayed to hear that Oxford academics find large numbers of students unwilling to engage in hypothetical arguments which might compromise their world view (heterodox being akin to leprosy). We will very soon lose the last generation of thinkers who can follow the rigour os the scientific method, as younger academics hyper-segment their field of study, obfuscate, complete DEI grant statements, and publish by weight rather than intellect (citations being the true currency of “tenure” in 2024). The quality I find most missing in the world is courage – to be oneself, think for oneself, and stand up for one’s considered point of view.

Dr E C
Dr E C
15 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

It’s true. Over the course of my lifetime, academe has become a racket.

Ernesto Candelabra
Ernesto Candelabra
15 days ago

There was a majority of votes cast in this election for right/centre right parties because of Farage, not in spite of Farage.

Ernesto Candelabra
Ernesto Candelabra
15 days ago

Sorry – that should have read ‘there were more votes cast for right/centre right than were cast for Labour’.

Mike Rees
Mike Rees
15 days ago

If the political right of centre goes into elections split with our electoral system it will never win power. This Tory patrician air that Reform and its populism are too vulgar to be considered will damn conservatism to opposition to decades.

Mike Rees
Mike Rees
15 days ago

We know the lion by his claw. Anyone tell me a Conservative! policy successfully pursued by the outgoing government? Reducing the size of the state? Controlled immigration and borders? Housing provision? The traditional family? Cutting the tax burden? Free speech? Etc etc etc And we’re to fear the Tories turning further ‘right’? What a joke!

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
15 days ago

Theer are two major reasons why Conservatives lost the young vote; education has become a Ponzi Scheme which costs a fortune and delays earning a salary and cost of housing. Pre 1980 O Levels in say English, Maths, History, French and a either Physics, Chemistry or Biology were perfectly adequate for jobs in administration or starting an apprenticeship. Three pre 1980 a levels in say Latin, French and History or French, German and History or Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology with maths O Level were perfectly adequate for management roles.
Degrees were only essential for medicine, engineering, law, sciences or being an academic. After all, Churchill, Lloyd Gorge, Wellington, Nelson, G Stephenson did not have degrees.
If someone obtained S levels in French, Latin and History or Pure Maths, Applied Maths, Physics and Chemistry, they would obtain more knowledge than many people with degrees in many subjects from low grade universities. One could add a a year to 6th form study for S levels.
The issues of contamination, ecology and archaeology, etc greatly add to cost of housing. Building high quality flats in blocks up to 6 stories with communal gardens in area where young people want Lto live, which is in centre of urban areas, would greatly reduce cost. Much construction would be off site with asembly on site. Kitchens and bathrooms would be built offsite and fitted into structure.
Why are so few comments getting through?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
15 days ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

S Level . Someone with S Level in French or German would be basically fluent in languages. S Level in Pure Maths and Applied Maths would be the standard of second year maths at most universities.
Scholarship level – Wikipedia

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
14 days ago

Boooo – an analysis with no analysis. Not worthy of UnHerd, nor of my time or money.

charlie martell
charlie martell
13 days ago

By an unfathomable margin, this has been the most left wing Tory government ever. Even after shedding the Lib Dem tail which was wagging the dog. If they move any farther left, they will pass Corbyn on the kerbside.

What is “right” anyway?. Where is the “centre”?

Reform policies are bog standard centre right conservative policies of the eighties. The BBC like to deem this ” far right”. Which of course to them , as an institution steeped in Marxism, it is.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
7 days ago

There are no specifics here as to exactly what the Conservatives ought to be doing in government whatsoever! It is pretty obvious that there’s a huge disconnect between a wide range of the population and institutional elites over the issue of immigration. The fact that Peter Franklin doesn’t even mention this obvious fact – and not only obvious in the UK – shows that he’s probably rather too much on the side of those very institutional elites, who find these subjects all too coarse and embarrassing for words!