July 7, 2024 - 1:00pm

When did the Conservative Party begin its life? The conventional account locates its founding to the first part of the 19th century under Robert Peel. Others go back much further, to William Pitt the Younger and even to the English Civil War, painting “a continuous tradition from Strafford, Laud and Charles I” to the present day. The only true answer seems to be that no one really knows: its origins are simply lost in the mist of English history, with which its destiny has been intertwined over the centuries.

Until Thursday night, before the exit polls offered a last-second commutation, the country was faced with the prospect of the Tories — the world’s oldest continuously existing political party — being wiped out entirely. It responded that it did not care. A quarter of 2019 Tory voters said the party deserved zero seats. Another poll showed that 0% of girls between the ages of 16 and 17 supported them. The party looked as if it was, quite literally, going to die out.

It is difficult to imagine England without Tories. It would be like Trollope without the steeples, Dickens without London, Wodehouse without mad baronets. Yet in many ways it is already a reality. As Samuel McIlhagga’s recent tour of Conservative clubs showed, large parts of the centuries-old social infrastructure of the party have long collapsed, like the ruins of the temples of some ancient religion denuded of meaning. A party which once seamlessly commanded support from the highest classes to the lowest has essentially abandoned the urbanised, the university-educated, and anyone below the state pension age.

Perhaps Toryism has been running on fumes which have just run out. Then again, people said the same sort of thing a century ago, when the long-dreaded universal suffrage became a reality — its one great casualty actually turned to be the Liberal Party. And though it will command over 400 seats, Labour’s vote share in England has barely budged upward; in parts of the country (as well as in Wales), it actually fell. Without Reform’s last-minute intervention, the result might have looked very different, though defeat would not have been averted.

Tomorrow, there will still be a Tory Party. It can take comfort in the fact that it has not been superseded by Reform — yet. It should worry that it came so near to dying with barely a murmur of protest from anyone. It should dread the fact that so many of its traditional supporters not only turned against it, but wished for its total destruction. Deep roots are not reached by the frost; the question is whether the ground has thawed permanently.


Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

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