UK elections: Conservatives’ defeat pushes party towards a more radical populism

The figures emerging as future leaders of the opposition come from the hard-right wing of the Tories

Elecciones en el Reino Unido 4J
Rishi Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, go to vote on Thursday in Kirby Sigston (England).Ian Forsyth (Getty Images)
Rafa de Miguel

Before looking back to the center, a defeated political party always looks to the extremes to find the cause of its downfall. The Conservative Party of the United Kingdom will be no exception. The populist, Eurosceptic and xenophobic drift that triggered the Brexit referendum has continued to strengthen over the years. It reached its ephemeral splendor with Boris Johnson, became a caricature during the brief mandate of Liz Truss and has persisted, in a somewhat artificial and false way, with Rishi Sunak, a young, liberal and cosmopolitan technocrat who insisted on deporting immigrants to Rwanda and in questioning international law in a desperate attempt to win over the Conservative Party’s rank-and-file voters.

Everything suggests that the leadership battle of the new opposition party will contain an increased dose of those ingredients. “The chances that any candidate who does not redouble their commitment to Euroscepticism, climate denialism, the national-populist vision of reality, and the call for an increasingly reduced public administration will be able to win in this competition are increasingly remote,” said Tim Bale, professor of Political Science at Queen Mary University of London and author of The Conservative Party After Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation.

A sign of the way in which the Tories approached this year’s election campaign — destined to fail from the beginning — is the fact that they spent more time discussing the future than the present. More time was spent on the future contenders for the leadership of the party, once in opposition, than on efforts to beat the Labour Party.

Women of the hard right

Among the candidates to take over the helm of the conservative Titanic, three women stand out due to their presence and character, which have been noted in the internal debates of recent years. Firstly, the former interior minister, Suella Braverman, who has become the unofficial spokesperson for the most radical and reactionary side of the Conservative Party. Since her forced resignation as head of the ministry, in November 2023, she has been the fiercest critic of Sunak’s immigration policy. “Someone needs to be honest: your plan is not working, we have endured record election defeats, your resets have failed and we are running out of time,” she reproached the still prime minister in a letter after being sacked.

Braverman is applauded by the hard wing of the party, but provokes immense rejection among the dwindling number of liberals and moderates who still remain among the Tories.

Kemi Badenoch, the daughter of Nigerians from the Yoruba people, is a more enticing option. At 44 years old, she has demonstrated unquestionable leadership ability and an articulate and firm voice on big issues, as well as bomb-proof loyalty to the party. She was the first to harshly hit the populist Nigel Farage when he decided to run for office with Reform UK, and once again became the main existential threat of the Conservative Party.

Another name floated is Penny Mordaunt, who maintains notable popularity among the rank and file, due to her image as a woman with common sense who is traditionally conservative.

There are many other contenders being considered. Most lean more towards populism than towards moderation. Nobody is ruling out the reappearance of Boris Johnson, or even Farage himself, if amid Tories increasingly intense regret over the right’s loss of unity, he decides to return to the party he once left.

There are also candidates who preserve the spirit of the so-called one-nation conservatism, that successful invention of former prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who turned the Conservative Party into the natural refuge of most British people. There is talk of the possibility of returning to David Cameron, and men like Tom Tugendhat, the great hope of the centrists, or James Cleverly, who was interior minister until now.

“During the Brexit years of 2016-19, out went any respect for institutions, an understanding of complexity, a preference for incrementalism, and a caution over risk,” David Gauke, a former minister of the Conservative Party who left in anger over its Eurosceptic radicalism, wrote in the weekly The New Statesman. “In came a love of big, bold promises unmoored by reality. The Conservative Party ceased to be comfortable being a serious party of government.”

For the Tories that remain standing — many have lost their seats, and, therefore, their potential influential —, returning to the opposition will be a harsh reality check.

Barely a year ago, Gauke gathered around 20 lawmakers, and many more members of the press, at the offices of a public relations firm in London to present the book The Case For Center Right. Eleven notable figures from the party — all of whom are no longer involved in the daily life of the party — participated in a work that vindicated the traditional moderation of Conservatives.

Michael Heseltine, the most brilliant politician of the Margaret Thatcher era — his candidacy in the leadership battle against the Iron Lady led to the legendary prime minister’s resignation — explained to EL PAÍS the causes of the populist drift among the Tories. “Racism and immigration. Not only here, but all over the world. Tribalism, racism, immigration. And all fueled by that deep human instinct to protect what you have,” he summarized.

The Conservatives — who have just lost almost everything — face the choice of either recovering the unifying spirit of Disraeli, which for years turned the party into an election-winning machine, or definitively surrendering to the spirit of Farage and moving away from what they have been for centuries.

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