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Meet the five factions of the Tory Right

Whose party is it anyway? Credit: Getty

November 17, 2023 - 11:55am

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.


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

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Howard Royse
Howard Royse
7 months ago

I would be surprised to see Boris back in charge. For one thing, he can make more money (which he needs) outside of politics. Also, he is what he really wanted to be – an ex-Prime Minister free of the responsibilities who can coin in from speeches and media columns by saying what he thinks should be done (but never had the nerve to do it himself).

El Uro
El Uro
7 months ago
Reply to  Howard Royse

Retired politicians are always the bravest!!!

Timothy Baker
Timothy Baker
7 months ago

It is all rather irrelevant now. Most people like me, ex=Tory members, activists and councillors, havre torn up their memberships and joined Reform.
there have been too many broken promises, too many Blairites too many closet Lib-dems to ever trust the tories again.
i realise that Labour will win the next election, but the bigger the Tory defeat the more likely it is that av right of centre party will arise to take their place. We don’t need the heirs to the Soubrys and the Heidi Allen’s masquerading as tories to get a parliamentary seat.

David Giles
David Giles
7 months ago
Reply to  Timothy Baker

Is that Reform or the Judean People’s Front?

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Timothy Baker

Out of interest TB are there similar or different factions in Reform or does it coalesce around one of the themes Author outlines? I suspect it has a tension between neo Liberal and Econ Nats just as much as the Tories do and more sunlight will expose this. I’d be getting ready for a similar debate if I were you.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago

Excuse the daft question, but to which faction would Sunak belong?
Also: I don’t think “Johnsonism” will ever be counted as right-wing or left-wing or as any other category we might recognise. It was just “that weird time when Johnson was in charge and the working class North randomly threw their lot in with a toff”.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
7 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

None of the above, Katharine. He’s not on the Right at all.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago

He’s an anywhere globalist.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
7 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It wasn’t “random” though – it was entirely to do with getting Brexit over the line, which he succeeded in doing, alone amongst any other politician in the UK.
Then Covid happened, and the legacy has fallen apart; some of it his fault, some not. So who knows?
Hasta La Vista?

Last edited 7 months ago by Steve Murray
j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

He was exceptionally lucky too for a period – Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson as evidence. And then the luck entirely flipped with Covid.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  j watson

He was too consistently lucky for it all to have been luck. It wasn’t by bad luck that he fell – it was his own errors. He seemed to have a knack of driving his opponents mad.
I don’t really think he has much of a legacy or that he had any consistent policies or views beyond political instincts and a partly inexplicable voter appeal.

Geoff W
Geoff W
7 months ago

The key question is: Could any of them run, say, a coffee shop?
Or failing that, the proverbial whelk stall? Or failing that, the similarly proverbial bath?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
7 months ago
Reply to  Geoff W

Unfortunately for us, the same question and accompanying answer will apply after the election to whatever ends up winning (Labour outright or worse some coalition of wokists)

N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

I thought Labour had already become a coalition of wokists (covert and overt).

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

Sounds quite appealing that Sats. How do I join?

David McKee
David McKee
7 months ago

It all looks terribly organised, doesn’t it? Five factions jockey for position, all with their phalanx of supporters. As a way of explaining to the general public what is going on, it’s a fairly rough approximation of the truth. The reality is a semi-organised chaos, as individuals slide closer to this faction or that, depending on which way the wind is blowing.
But then, it’s always been like this – just not so newsworthy.
And do you imagine all is sweetness and light on the Labour benches? Ha – guess again!
Try to imagine normal office politics, but amplified a hundred-fold. Then you’ll have a much better idea of what’s going on. Honestly – who’d be an MP?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
7 months ago

The third group would by far be the most electorally popular, a real vision to build the party around that would bring large numbers of the working classes on board. Led by somebody like Kemi Badenoch they could bring the Tories back from the wilderness.
Unfortunately I think they’ll plump for a mix of wooly social liberalism and hardcore Thatcherite financial policy that pleases nobody.

Last edited 7 months ago by Billy Bob
John Tyler
John Tyler
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I think you’re right. KBs problem is she talks good sense; the statu-quo mob prefers… well… nobody really knows.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I think she gets on the ballot put to members as MPs will support her (this all assuming Tories lose badly and Sunak goes – not 100% cert IMO). The question perhaps is who will she be running against as the Tory membership not got a track record of sound judgment in such contests?

Last edited 7 months ago by j watson
John Dellingby
John Dellingby
7 months ago

I’d say really we’re realistically down to factions 2 vs 3 after the landslide defeat. The Trussites might sense an opportunity, but will likely be too discredited among the wider public to be taken seriously, so that leaves the economic nationalists. In regard the others, the old Conservatives are on the way out due to age, the new Conservatives will be sacrificed due to the leaderships lack of interest in the Red Wall and Boris Johnson isn’t coming back to frontline politics (at least anytime soon).

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

Alot of talk about it’d be Braverman vs Badenoch, and regardless of ideology the Tories will ponder who is most electable, as opposed to ideological ‘pure’, much more in opposition. But you can never count out the Tory membership ability to elect a buffoon.

Last edited 7 months ago by j watson
N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago

Is there a golden age of British democracy we can look back to for inspiration and practical lessons on how it should be done? Or are we to be held captive by malcontents and wannabe leaders endlessly telling us what should not have been done?
Whatever the five factions claim they can achieve, if given the reins of power, what they will actually deliver is government by that awful shower: Keir Starmer’s Labour party.

j watson
j watson
7 months ago
Reply to  N Satori

You’re living in the Golden Age Sats. I’d contend it’s a limited perspective that makes you think otherwise.
Firstly Britain only been an entity for just over 300 years and democracy – in terms of universal suffrage and things like referenda, only towards latter third of that. If you hadn’t noticed we’ve had 4 GEs and 3 referenda in last 13yrs, plus obviously all the local elections etc. As you will also know nowhere near this degree in large chunks of the Globe still. Democracy though and liberal democracies esp have always had other checks and balances so we don’t entirely swing from one minority to another imposing tyranny. Our forefathers learnt some important lessons.
Putting aside your ‘foot-stamp’ exasperation your issue seems less about democracy and more about Policies and competency in Government. On that we would probably agree.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago

Interesting, having literally just read Robert Toombes in the Telegraph talking about 2 factions – Court and Country – dating back to Peel. It looks as though the Conseratives have followed the trend of hyper-segmentation. Perhaps we need PR to allow this surfeit of talent to find expression

j watson
j watson
7 months ago

Yes there is alot of this Tory faction gazing now prompted by the 13yrs shambles and the likely post election fight for it’s future. Author flags the inherent contradictions between some of these factions and in many regards the Right needs to go away and work through these contradictions honesty and openly – albeit that will only partially happen as Tories also favour power before principle.
Bojo seemed capable of pulling together the Econ Nationalists and New Cons and allied with his ‘boosterist’ schtick it did offer a major realignment and new direction. It certainly wasn’t traditional Tory or particularly Conservative. Bojo won London Mayor because he was also capable of appealing to the more ‘liberal’. These unique talents though were undermined by some huge character defects which many conveyed with warning and inevitable implosion followed. But what might have been will always be a question.
Leadership In Govt much more challenging than campaigning and the talent needed often different and it may be the Tories also learnt a lesson about this. To have Bojo followed by Mad Liz, where every interview a Car crash, showed how much the echo-chamber had befuddled itself.
UK needs a strong, sensible Tory party and whilst much of what has happened v predictable it has risen before from dire positions.

Last edited 7 months ago by j watson