Do the Conservatives have a future in opposition?

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I have a growing concern.

A well-functioning democracy, something which I hope that in years to come the UK will once again be recognised for, having been greatly tested in recent years, requires two things: a well-functioning, competent government, supported by the excellent civil service, and a competent opposition who can hold that government to account.

I am quietly confident that the incoming Labour administration of January 2025 (or perhaps earlier) will be reasonably competent, certainly less dogmatic, ideological and chaotic than what we have had to endure since 2015. I am less certain of the second component, and I find myself seriously wondering what kind of opposition, if any, the government is going to face after the election.

The bizarre appointment of the unelected Lord Cameron, the move of James Cleverly to the Home Office and other more minor shifts in the cabinet have made it reasonably clear that the caretaker PM knows he has no hope of winning in January 2025, and that he is trying to avoid wipeout by holding on to normally safe, traditional, Conservative constituencies – especially where there is a danger of loss to a more educated Labour and Liberal vote.

After the election defeat, one assumes Mr Sunak will head to the West Coast of the USA, and take up a senior role in AI or Data Sciences, or something similar, a path already trodden, rather controversially, by another former party leader and Deputy PM.

He will leave a Conservative opposition in disarray, in search of leadership.

Currently the only likely candidates to make it into the last two of any vote for a new leader seem to be Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch, for it is the last two that go to the Conservative membership to select the party leader and hence, leader of His Majesty’s Opposition.

My money is on Braverman to become leader of the Opposition, espousing a supposedly “Conservative agenda”, which in this case means nationalist, xenophobic, Europhobic, and anti-woke.

That is the language of most of the Conservative party membership, though not especially representative of the country at large. I may be wrong, but Badenoch will only win if she can out-right Braverman.

Either way, we will probably witness a significant lurch to the right, with a focus on a loyal base of mostly older, culturally less liberal voters.

There will be little room for whatever remains of the One Nation Tories.

I discussed my worries about an irrelevant or incompetent opposition with Jo Swinson at Anthropy 23 (a former senior politician now happily out of politics). She took a different view from me, reflecting on the Conservative Party in the 2000s after the disaster of 1997.

Yes, for a while we may see a succession of leaders who have no hope of becoming PM, some of whom will merely demonstrate the paucity of talent in the party (remember Michael Howard and IDS?).

But the party believes it has a natural claim be in power, and when it comes to its senses that its policies and leadership don’t back up the claim, the membership will, however reluctantly, tame their instincts and vote for a more centrist leader with an ambition to win an election, not just lead the party. A David Cameron, in short.

I am not so sure. I think one of two things may happen between 2025 and 2030. Either the centrist Tories, abandoned by their new leader, will simply disappear, and a younger generation of would-be Centre-Right politicians will try to make a career probably on the Liberal wing of the LibDems.

Or, more intriguingly, the rump of One Nation Tories may realise they are closer to mainstream Britain than their leadership, much as Labour’s Gang of Four did back in 1981, and actually choose to form a new political movement to represent traditional One Nation Conservatism.

As Starmer’s popularity inevitably wanes with the first crises and failures, they can put up candidates in by-elections and in local elections and see if they are force to be reckoned with. Like the SDP in 1983, they may fall at the hurdle of the first past the post system.

If so, the ultimate beneficiaries may be the LibDems. Unless they find themselves in coalition with Labour, which is unlikely, they may be wise to hold a door open to a troupe of talented, young, centrist politicians looking for a real home with some hope of a decent representation at local and national level.

In so doing, they may – just may – outflank the Conservatives entirely, as the SDP so nearly did to Labour in the early 1980s.

About every 100 years the official opposition goes through a radical change of landscape. Perhaps the time will be ripe in the second half of the 2020s? Or perhaps First Past the Post means this remains just an illusion?

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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