All week, the media has been talking about Rishi Sunak and the Tory Right. Apparently, he and they are engaged in a “life or death struggle” — which is odd, because the “Tory Right” doesn’t exist, at least not as a coherent entity.
It’s easier to say what is not the Tory Right — most notably, the party establishment, consisting of Sunak and most of his ministers. However, the alternative to the establishment is split between competing ideological (and personal) loyalties. Leadership contenders who aspire to unite the Right, for instance Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, have their work cut out for them.
Here is an introduction to the five factions which matter most — and the likely trajectory of their influence over the Conservative Party.
1. The old Right
These guys are (or were) the original Brexiteers — hardcore Eurosceptics like Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin who defied the advice to stop “banging on about Europe”. Instead, they turned up the volume until David Cameron gave in and called a referendum.
But then, having won the war, they lost the peace. Pigeonholed by their favourite subject, they were mostly left behind on the backbenches while newly-minted Brexiteers took the plum jobs.
Today, they’re ageing out of politics altogether. Expect their clout to decline as retirement takes it toll.
2. The neo-Thatcherites
Incubated in the think tanks of Tufton Street, this lot are free marketeers more than Brexiteers (though many are both). Their influence was sufficient to propel Liz Truss into Number 10 on a cloud of libertarian-lite hot air.
The subsequent collapse of her government was a massive setback for their movement — and they’ll need new champions to recover. Lord Frost is a potential leadership contender, if he can transfer from the Lords to the Commons. Another is James Cleverly who, though less obviously ideological, was a Truss ally.
They also need something new to say. The Eighties were great, but it’s the 21st century now.
3. The economic nationalists
Diametrically opposed to the Trussites, this rising faction has had enough of fantasy tax cuts and wants a robust industrial policy to rebuild the British economy.
A case of Make Britain Great Again? Not quite — these are not British Trumpians. However, in a dangerous world, they’ve lost patience with laissez faire, both in respect to the UK’s flatlining productivity and its decaying social fabric.
Associated with the Onward think tank — and in particular the Future of Conservatism project — expect Nick Timothy and his allies to play a major role in rebuilding the Conservative Party after the next election.
4. The New Conservatives
Another growing force is the New Conservatives group, which stands for the 2019 realignment of British politics in which 50 Red Wall seats were captured from Labour.
Given the betrayal of this agenda by successive Conservative prime ministers, its not surprising to see the New Cons clashing with Sunak. The return of Cameron — the embodiment of pre-realignment Tory politics — is a particular provocation.
There’s a limit to what the New Conservatives can do to prevent electoral disaster and the loss of the Red Wall, but their leading lights — especially Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates — are likely to feature prominently in the ensuing reconstruction.
The economic nationalists and the New Cons have a great deal in common and, really, should join forces. That they’re not closer comes down to the neo-Thatcherite influence on the latter. How this tug of war gets resolved might just determine the future direction of the entire party.
5. The Boris loyalists
Finally, we come to a faction which could go nowhere or everywhere — it all depends on whether Boris Johnson returns to Parliament to lead a post-election Conservative Party. The protest-resignations of Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams suggest that not even his closest allies expect this to happen soon, but after a few years in the wilderness of opposition, the Tories may be in a more nostalgic mood.
Whether Johnsonism even counts as Right-wing is open to question, but perhaps the answer doesn’t matter. In the event of a shattering election defeat, the other factions will fight a battle of ideas — and if all that ideology comes to nothing, the party will turn to personality instead.