by Peter Franklin
Friday, 7
May 2021

The Tories: the Doctor Who of political parties

They are capable of undergoing multiple regenerations while still in office
by Peter Franklin

Forget the faux sophisticated attempts to explain away Hartlepool. It is, by any standard, a stunning result.

Just compare it to every other time since the war that a governing party won a by-election:

What’s more, this has happened after eleven years of continuous Tory government. Or has it?

Yes, we’ve had a Conservative Prime Minister for more than decade. But the government in 2010 looks nothing like the government in 2021 — and nor does the Conservative Party.

In that time, the Conservatives chewed up and spat out the Lib Dems. They replaced one Prime Minister with another — and when that didn’t work out they did it again. They ripped themselves apart over Brexit and then, with freakish rapidity, pulled themselves back together. 

Most remarkably, the Tories have completely repositioned themselves. The liberal conservative party of eleven years ago has become the patriotic populist party of today. Under Dave they leaned Right on economics and Left on cultural issues, but under Boris they’ve reversed the formula. In the process they sacrificed seats like Oxford West and Abingdon, but gained dozens more — all the way to Hartlepool and possibly beyond.

Not without reason, there’s a whole lot of attention right now on Labour’s weaknesses; but the analysis is incomplete without a consideration of Tory strengths. Or, indeed, their unearthly super-powers.

This is the Doctor Who of political parties, capable of undergoing multiple regenerations while still in office. Goodness knows, it’s not that they don’t make mistakes; but just when you think they’re done for, there’s a burst of light and up they pop again. 

Suddenly there’s a new face, a new personality, a new set of clothes — but on they go until the next crisis. Their enemies might prefer to replace the Doctor with the Master in this analogy, but either way there’s no denying it: the Conservative Party is protean.

What should really worry Labour is that the Tories have further regenerations ready to go. Should Boris Johnson fall under a giant roll of wallpaper, Rishi Sunak is waiting in the wings. Or looking further ahead, it may be another rising star — Kemi Badenoch, for instance. I wouldn’t rule out a return for Ruth Davidson either. 

So as Labour struggles to make sense of the current situation, it needs to think beyond the present. They’re not just up against the Conservative Party as it is now, but all the Conservative Parties that are to come. 

Join the discussion

  • When I was a kid the family bookshelf contained “Pick of Punch” from 1959. Actually we have it still, and it contains an article entitled “A Short Guide to British Politics”. Of the Tories it says:
    “They hunted around until they found what looked like a status quo, and they’ve been keeping it ever since, against all comers, in a little box marked “Pending”, They took it out, now and then, to dust it, and were sometimes surprised to find that it had changed, all by itself, in the dark. One day, for instance, it might involve the sending of small boys up chimneys; another day it might require the closing of the Suez Canal. It is, in fact a source of constant wonder to its guardians, who secretly wish it was even half as rigid as the hidebound dogma of the Socialists.
    There’s a lot more, now that I’ve been reminded of the article it’s time to re-read it in full.

  • The tory superpower is that they have always been characterised by their capacity to reinvent themselves in relation to prevailing conditions, and the party attracts people who buy into that mindset. It’s why the party has been such a successful political winning machine over two centuries. Tories at all levels have always understood, the precursor to any model of social, economic or political change you want to enact (or resist), is that you must wield power. If the current conditions demand ditching the dogmas of Thatcher’s time, or any other past consensus, no one should be surprised that tories will not hesitate to embrace that. It’s something to do with the nature of the people the left attracts vs the mentality on the UK right. The right will aim for power even if it’s dirty – that doesn’t stress them the way compromise causes mental breakdowns on the left. This can be seen from the betrayal myths the left creates for itself. The tories will happily make accommodations with any group willing to vote for them, Centrists, Red Wall Working Class, anyone – and they won’t think twice about shafting one of those groups should the need arise either (DUP take a bow). Well, that’s unfair perhaps, they will think twice about it, but will do it anyway. The left can’t bring themselves to do this. The last person to do it on the left is Blair – and he is still reviled for it by his own side.

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