The unprecedented purge of the 21 moderate Conservative MPs who opposed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s apparent willingness to pursue a no-deal Brexit has heightened divisions within Britain’s governing party. Various Brexiteer hardliners have welcomed this development as a means of finally and decisively dealing with a stubborn group of opponents from within the party ranks.
The once formidable Conservative Party unity is visibly disintegrating. The internal hostility between Conservative MPs is there for all to see. Internalised divisions are not new but past Conservative leaders have sought to soothe tensions rather than bring the civil war out into the open.
These divisions represent a significant breach in the deep-rooted traditions of the Conservative Party. The sacking of the 21 “rebels”, many well known and long serving, raises questions about what the party’s core principles and values are, as well as the types of people it wants to represent.
In withdrawing the whip from party grandees such as Kenneth Clarke, Nicholas Soames and Philip Hammond, Johnson is meddling dangerously with the party’s heritage. It’s hard to argue with the suggestion that this marks the demise of the moderate and pragmatic “One Nation” wing of the Conservative Party.
The “One Nation” Conservative tradition is deeply ingrained in the party’s history. The term was originally associated with Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century prime minister, who used a variation of it in his 1845 novel “Sybil: or the two nations”, which highlighted Victorian social divisions and the need to address them. Indeed, Johnson has in the past sought to align himself with this perspective.
During the 19th century, the developing Conservative Party sought to overcome its aristocratic origins and become a successful political organisation, primarily by offering a unifying political message. It embraced social reform, seeking to broaden its popular appeal as the country’s electorate widened throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Leaders such as Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s and 1930s, and Harold Macmillan in the 1950s were particularly keen to embrace this political approach. They knew that the party needed to appeal to both its traditional wealthier supporters and those from poorer social classes if it were to win elections.
“One Nation” subsequently became the dominant face of Conservatism by the mid-20th century. It came to represent a paternalistic concern for poorer social groups, while seeking to cautiously manage change and protect the status quo, in line with conservative views. In later years, the pro-business mindset of One Nation conservatism also meant that many saw the commercial benefits of joining the European Economic Community in the 1970s.
One Nation Conservatism was established as a centrist, moderate, internationalist political tendency. And since, under this ethos, the Conservatives governed either alone or in coalition for approximately two-thirds of the 20th century, many would argue that it provided a unifying electoral strategy that broadly worked.
It is also worth noting that since the Conservatives were infused by a more right-wing ideological certainty during the Thatcher years of the 1980s, their electoral record has been less impressive. Indeed, since Thatcher departed the premiership in 1990, the Conservatives have only won two general elections outright out of seven, and even then, by only small majorities on both occasions.
Johnson’s abrasive approach to party management can therefore be seen as a significant risk that may drastically backfire in an election. Dissident Conservatives such as the now-suspended Clarke have claimed that nationalistic “entryists” with links to the Brexit Party have infiltrated the Conservative Party in recent years, and this seems to be reflected in the party’s hardened eurosceptic position.
Clarke has declared Johnson’s cabinet to be “the most right-wing one ever” and admitted that he, like his former cabinet colleague Michael Heseltine, may no longer feel able to even vote for the party. The question, therefore, is how many Conservative voters will feel the same way.