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Are the Tories on the verge of splitting?

Rishi Sunak's Tory coalition is nearing breaking point. Credit: Getty

April 28, 2024 - 8:00am

In many ways a Tory-to-Labour defection was easy to predict. Though there is the traditional enmity around crossing the floor, there are plenty on the Conservative Left feeling both alienated and nervous about their seat flipping. Moving to Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour is a way to make a point and, at the same time, perhaps save their skin come election time. Indeed, with hindsight, Christian Wakeford’s move in 2022 looks like one of the shrewdest a Conservative has made this parliament.

That it is Dan Poulter who has gone from blue to red was perhaps less easy to spot. He has made clear that this is not a career-lengthening move, including in his announcement that he’s standing down at the election. Indeed, even if he has a volte-face, his seat would only expect to go Labour on the very worst-case scenarios for the Tories. This seems to be a rare thing: a move of principle.

The NHS is apparently central in Poulter’s desire to sit out the last few months of his political career in Opposition. There is more to the defection than mere opportunism. He might have started his public life bullish about spending cuts — in 2012 when the British Medical Association voted to strike, Poulter resigned from it. Yet by 2016, he was already speaking out publicly in favour of NHS funding. It’s a curious journey, but one which feels honest.

Going now perhaps speaks of a bigger shift in the Tory Party, less to do with policy and more with culture. Over the last few years, the party has shed many of the voters who resemble Poulter — middle-aged, well-off professionals. Brexit was a part of this, as was the realignment that sought to take political advantage of it. So too is the Conservatives’ embrace of more pugnacious rhetoric and policies such as the Rwanda bill. In some ways, it is as much a shift of sensibilities as ideas.

Still, with both this and the political rivalries making defection look tempting, it becomes a real question of whether Rishi Sunak’s party can hold together. Rumours abound of MPs flirting with Reform (so far just one, Lee Anderson has gone over — and that was after losing the whip) and others will be eyeing up Labour as a chance to save their skin. No longer held together by the prospect of government, parts of the party are pulling in different directions. This will only intensify when post-election recriminations begin.

Chances are perhaps higher than ever of a permanent split in the party. The centrist side feels alienated from the Right, the Right held back by the Wets. Parties are a broad coalition, but there are limits on how far that can stretch, especially when these issues extend beyond policy to a broader vision that combines both ideology and identity. The wings increasingly feel made up of very different people, chasing very different voters. Some would perhaps admit, very quietly, that they’d rather see Labour running things than the other half of the Tories.

A bad defeat will compound this. Political parties have an inertia to them. The strength of their brand and existing campaigning infrastructure makes splitting to start something new far less attractive than trying to take over what currently exists. If the Tories are close to wipeout, however, the cost of walking away from a tarnished brand with few sitting MPs is a different prospect.

Only Poulter knows the full truth of his reasons for quitting now and what he hopes to achieve. Such defections are rare and headline-grabbing, but rarely have a long-term impact. It’s unlikely any others will follow now. Indeed, spotting a traitor usually pulls the rest of the pack together a bit. His move, however, may foreshadow the Conservative coalition becoming unbearably stretched, closer to breaking point than ever.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

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Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
24 days ago

I assume Poulter’s planned departure as an MP is forced – after all, the Labour chaps can’t abide MPs who have second jobs
.

Robbie K
Robbie K
24 days ago

Moronic decision and really just an empty gesture that he will have to live with. Throwing yet more money at the NHS is not the solution.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
24 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

The NHS is like the Titanic but where’s an iceberg when you need one ?

Peter Principle
Peter Principle
24 days ago

Good article, thanks. John Oxley refers to Left, Right, centrist and Wets as the groupings relevant to the fault lines in a possible split. An alternative classification would be on attitudes to economics and social issues. The one issue that unites Boris, Truss and Sunak is that they are all in favour of mass immigration from the Thirld World as the solution to the UK’s problems. The snag for them is that this makes it increasingly difficult for their party to get re-elected. Telling porkies about this issue in the election manifesto only works a few times before all but the thickest twig.
Unlike the party membership, a sizeable chunk of the electorate is left-ish on economics and right-ish on social issues. It is difficult to see a re-branding of the conservative party aligning with that constituency.

Martin Ashford
Martin Ashford
24 days ago

Far-left MP in far-left party joins a different far-left party. In other news…

Robbie K
Robbie K
24 days ago
Reply to  Martin Ashford

Poulter said this: “gone from being a pragmatic, centrist, centre-right party
 [which] had a compassionate outlook on key issues” to “a nationalist party of the right, much more of what we see in Europe“.
Curious claim, most people seem to think the Tories have drifted Liberal left.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
23 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

“a nationalist party of the right” surely there should be a bit more marching, some smart uniforms and an invasion on Poland?

I am too facetious. However the rapidity with which the centre left reach for this insult is pernicious. There’s a perfectly decent fight between growing the government and shrinking the government without one side calling the other nazis.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
22 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes, Dr Poulter, a party boasting Nokes, Hammond, Elwood, Mitchell, Miller, Gale, Buckridge et al is clearly veering to the extreme Right.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
24 days ago

We must await the results of the May 2 Council elections, if the predicted wipeout of Tory councillors is confirmed, then we have a hugely different dynamic taking place.
Farage will commit to fronting the Reform party election campaign, possibly up to 12 Tory MP’s will defect to Reform and then we have the prospect of the politics of disrupiton denying Labour a credible working majority.
The Tory party will be annihilated.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
24 days ago

I’ve just voted by post and there wasn’t a Reform candidate on either ballot, so you are almost reduced to voting for Screaming Lord Sutch or trashing the ballot paper.

No UKIP candidate, or POW (Party of Women) candidate either. Lots of other minor parties that l had seen previously seemed to have disappeared as well.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
24 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Looking like a ‘no vote’ if the only choice is LibLabCon

AC Harper
AC Harper
24 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

It’s a strange phenomenon when the policies of the Monster Raving Loony Party struggle to be more outlandish than the policies of other parties.

Laurence Siegel
Laurence Siegel
23 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Sadly, he’s been gone for a quarter century.

Elon Workman
Elon Workman
24 days ago

Strange that the Labour Party would welcome an ex Tory M P whose former party Labour claims to have wrecked the NHS whilst expelling a former Labour Leader and an M P for over forty years and whom the current Labour leader once called his friend and would have served in his Cabinet had he become Prime Minister.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
24 days ago
Reply to  Elon Workman

“The Observer understands that discussions between Poulter and senior Labour figures have been going on for many months at the highest levels about the timing and organisation of his likely defection, as well as advisory roles he could play in future in developing the party’s health policies, with the benefit of his first-hand inside knowledge.” His first-hand inside knowledge of what? He is hardly the only doctor in Britain.

They mean Dan Poulter’s first-hand inside knowledge of being a Conservative Health Minister, which he stopped being nine years ago, and thereafter a backbencher who was very occasionally mildly critical in the media but who always toed the party line in Parliament. Either Poulter is being brought in to fix what he broke, or Labour has no intention of fixing it. His or anyone else’s only reason to prefer Wes Streeting’s Labour Party to the Conservatives is the desire for the full privatisation of the NHS in England.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
24 days ago

Tories destroyed at the May 2 Council elections.
Farage commits to leading Reform election campaign.
Disruption politics makes a working majority govt. unlikely
Tories annihilated at General Election 2024

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
24 days ago

Has Dan Poulter only just noticed about the National Health Service? Which measure has he voted against? On which has he even so much as abstained? On the contrary, albeit all the way back in 2013, he was the Minister who sold 80 per cent of Plasma Resources UK to an American private equity firm. Yes, that was as part of the Coalition, for every aspect of which both parties to it remain responsible. But even so. In 2012, Poulter had resigned from the BMA because it had voted to strike. The Labour Party welcomes him with open arms.

Now Lord Framlingham because he was not allowed to become Lord Lord, Poulter’s predecessor at Central Suffolk and North Ipswich was Sir Michael Lord. A nationalist party of the Right, indeed. Poulter has not defected in order to save his seat. That was true of Christian Wakeford, of course. But Poulter’s majority is 23,391. Poulter is one of very few MPs who really could make more outside. Keir Starmer has clearly offered him a way of doing so. Watch out for his advisory role, or something of that nature.

They always do well. Elected to this Parliament as a Conservative, Wakeford is now a Labour Whip. Peter Temple-Morris was ennobled. Shaun Woodward was put in the Cabinet. Alan Howarth had been an architect of the Poll Tax, but it was like Howarth before him that Quentin Davies was made a Minister and then a Peer. Gordon Brown rapidly made Davies a Minister for the first time in his life, but he had been elected as a Conservative MP at all five of the 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005 General Elections, and he had served in the Shadow Cabinets of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. The Conservative Party had taken an awfully long time to leave him. On defecting from Howard’s party to a warmly welcoming Tony Blair’s, Robert Jackson stated that he wanted to be in a party that was led by a Christian. Did someone say something about anti-Semitism?

If Poulter means what he says about the NHS, then why is he joining the party of Wes Streeting? At best, he would no doubt tell us that, “My party has left me.” That never, ever leads to the follow-up question, “Yes, that may have been why you left your old party, but why have you joined this one?” Five Conservative MPs got away with that as they defected to Labour in the Blair years, in the case of Davies the night before Brown became Prime Minister. It has been 47 years since a Labour MP last joined the Conservative Party, and that was only the third time that it had ever happened. Both earlier cases had been in 1948, and both had been over the nationalisation of steel. Yet seven Conservative MPs have joined the Labour Party in the last 29 years alone, an average of one every four years, always without having recanted any part of their previous records.

Peter B
Peter B
24 days ago

The NHS isn’t short of funding. It’s chronically short of proper management. Poulter clearly isn’t very bright and there’s very little “that feels honest” about his defection.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
22 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Cry a bit more

M Doors
M Doors
24 days ago

You give the man far too much credit. He is the proverbial rat.

AC Harper
AC Harper
24 days ago

One of the advantages of FPTP voting is that it encourages a two (main) party system – so that they can take turns. A three (main) party system is too unstable. It helps that many PR systems end in protracted debates about forming a working Government showing the weaknesses of this system.
But the world is changing for FPTP. Party discipline (and discipline in the general population) can no longer be assumed as the default. Starmer has done well to control the indiscipline within the Labour Party, and the various Conservative PMs have not. Perhaps the Conservatives big majority has allowed indiscipline relatively free rein. In which case Starmer should be worried if Labour win the next General Election in a landslide…

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
23 days ago

The key to the middle aged, well off professional class that are leaving the Tories is that they are salaried. They get paid decent wages and wonder why everyone can’t just be given more money. They still think furlough, triple lock pensions and the NHS are just the kind of things a decent country should do. The idea that somebody needs to cover the costs is less obvious to them.

j watson
j watson
23 days ago

One suspects Poulter’s explanation is honest. He works as a Doctor in Mental health services and sees how bad things are every time he does a shift and importantly how much they’ve deteriorated. Being constantly faced with that would change perspective, like so many things when you are truly exposed to them.
No surprise though because a couple of key facts explain this. Firstly the workforce numbers have hardly grown in 15 years and in some specific areas actually declined, whereas demand has risen – c20% since 2016. Recruitment into vacancies remains v difficult, so just standing still v difficult.
Now one might argue the growth in mental health demand could be managed in other ways too and we need to not over-medicalise. But that’s easy to say and of no consolation to a patient (or parent) struggling to manage a psychotic episode in a desperately crowded A&E dept.
Of course funding the sort of workforce development needed not easy, and fact the Tories only last year finally allowed a long-term workforce plan to be developed (against wishes of the Treasury) a recognition of how much we’ve created this problem through a basic lack of sensible long term planning.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
23 days ago

If most of the Cameron intake of candidate MPs left the party it wouldn’t so much be “Splitting” as simply shedding people who were never Conservatives in the first place. Hopefully the careerist politicians who were Lib Dems at heart and only joined the Conservatives in the hope of getting into Govt will realise they’d be better off actually joining the Lib Dems or Greens.
But sadly the Tory party’s long, slow circling of the drain has led many within CCHQ to draw ENTIRELY the wrong conclusions from their dismal polling numbers and projections.
They’ll conclude that if Labour is so much more popular, that the Conservatives should try and be even more like Labour.
But what is the REAL reason that the Conservative party is being deserted by longtime Tory supporters?
I would suggest that it is because Tory voters have been dismayed – and feel betrayed – by the Conservative party simply not being Conservative. The electorate keeps voting Blue in the hope of a Tory Govt, but instead get Labour-Lite, Diet-Liberal, Woke-Zero, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Dawn Butler.
The Boris Johnson who wrote so convincingly on these pages of an optimistic, Conservative vision for Britain disappeared when he became PM, and even with an 80 seat majority failed to govern as a Tory.
If voters desert the party it is not because they no longer want Conservative policies, it is precisely because they do want them, ….. but have been forced to look to other parties to deliver them.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
23 days ago

They’ve already split. The genuine conservatives are all voting for Reform, leaving the rump Party carcass to be picked over by the vultures of woke pseudo-liberalism.