March 12, 2024 - 10:00am

It might be comforting for those on the Left of the Conservative Party to believe that losing Lee Anderson to Reform UK is somehow a good thing in the long term, but as John Maynard Keynes put it, “in the long run we are all dead.”

The immediate reality for the Tories is abysmal, and surely now terminal for their hold on power. Even before Anderson’s defection, Rishi Sunak’s party had slumped to 20% of the vote — its lowest ever share recorded by Ipsos. The last time the Conservatives came close to this nadir was in December 1994, the month after Jimmy Goldsmith launched his short-lived but influential Referendum Party, exploiting the same kind of vitriol and division which now grips the Tory Party. And we all know how John Major’s time as prime minister ended.

For those convinced that we’re in store for another 1997, it is a strange coincidence that the Referendum Party — like Reform today — secured a Tory defection in the run-up to polling day, when the Eurosceptic backbench MP George Gardiner jumped ship after being deselected by his local party for calling the Prime Minister a ventriloquist’s dummy. Gentler times, I guess.

In Major’s memoirs, though, he was far from gentle in his account of this defection, dismissing Gardiner as “a viper slithering around in the parliamentary pit” who would have carried on slithering during the election. “It was an embarrassment to have him stand against us, but a relief to know he would no longer be undermining us from within,” Major wrote. There are certainly Tories today who take a similar line on Anderson: better off rid.

Yet, Anderson’s defection — like Gardiner’s almost 30 years ago — is not just a presentational problem for Sunak, but revealing of a deeper structural crisis that cannot be wished away with comforting fantasies of long-term renewal. After 1997, it would be another 13 years before the Tories returned to government, and another 22 before they returned to the kind of vote share recorded by Major in 1992.

What’s more, when they did return to government it was on a far more eurosceptic platform than the one Major was determined to hold onto in 1997, when he angered his backbench critics by refusing to rule out joining the euro in the next parliament. In 1992, Major was trying to hold his party together with the Referendum Party only on 2.5% of the vote. Today, Reform is polling anywhere between 8-13%.

For Sunak, Anderson might be an embarrassment, but he made him Conservative deputy chairman because he realised from the beginning that, to stand any chance of retaining power, he needed to rebuild as best as he could the coalition assembled by Boris Johnson in 2019. Despite much of the commentary about the extraordinary nature of Johnson’s coalition — that it was somehow unnatural because it included so many northerners — the marriage of working-class conservatives and Shire Tories has long been a central part of the party’s success, from Disraeli to Macmillan and Thatcher.

In 1997, Major failed to maintain a broad coalition of voters. Now Sunak is doing the same. Irrespective of Anderson’s merits or lack thereof, his departure reflects the Prime Minister’s central problem.

Sunak can console himself that he has steadied the ship, to some extent at least, after the Truss implosion of 2022 but, in another sense, the problems he now faces are even more profound. In 1997 the economy was strong; today it is in recession. Back then, Major had built his own coalition with his own mandate. Sunak has neither.

Major’s mandate in 1992 was for a moderate Thatcherism without the strife, the more uncomfortable edges smoothed off, the poll tax abandoned and the endless rows with Europe put to one side. When it turned out voters had received no such thing, they abandoned him and his party and would not come back until the economy imploded again under Labour.

But today it is not clear what Sunak’s offer even is. He inherited the 2019 coalition, including Anderson, but has never even convincingly tried to offer Johnsonism without the strife. Instead, he has slipped almost naturally into the kind of Toryism that existed before Johnson. Yet, not only has this Cameron coalition long since disappeared, it is no longer enough even if it could be resuscitated.

The obvious truth is that Sunak needed Lee Anderson, which is why he made him deputy chairman. Anderson’s loss is symbolic of the kind of voter who has, in the course of his premiership, slipped through the Prime Minister’s fingers.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.