Can the Conservative Party survive? asks Andrew Hawkins

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By Andrew Hawkins.

Today’s two by-elections, in Kingswood and Wellingborough, are seen as a litmus test of the Conservatives’ electability as we approach the General Election, which the latest prediction says will be held on Thursday 23rd January 2025.

The 2019 Election, when the Conservatives won 45% of the vote to Labour’s 33%, now feels like ancient history.

The current average of all published polls has Labour on 45% and the Conservatives on 25%, with Reform hoovering up 10% – around half of whom were 2019 Tories.

But the polls conceal deeper shifts in the political coalitions that make up both main parties. For those old enough to recall, Labour is daily looking more like the Party did in the final months before the 1997 Election: cautiously silent on detail, cautiously moderate in tone (unlike in 2019). Their existential crisis appears largely behind them and they are looking more like a party ready for government.

For the Conservatives, their unease – likely to be reflected in today’s by-election results – will have catastrophic consequences. In January 2023, Rishi Sunak staked out his claim to fight the next election on managerial competence rather than ideology, spelling out his five ambitious pledges to halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce national debt (i.e., not the deficit), cut NHS waiting lists, and pass new laws to stop small boats.

Having given himself two years to achieve those pledges, it is unfortunate to say the least that, on the day of the two most important by-elections of his premiership, the economy is confirmed to be in recession.

For decades, divisions over Europe have been held responsible for the Conservative Party’s fractures. But its current divisions run far deeper than that. For many Conservative voters, it is not enough to pledge to run the country more efficiently than Labour. For many of its former supporters, the Conservative Party is simply not, well, conservative.

Whatever the outcome of today’s by-elections, over the coming months there will be a protracted and bitter fight over the soul of the Party. In retrospect, we may come to see Europe even as the sticking plaster which masked deeper divisions in a Conservative Party which, 34 years after Margaret Thatcher left office, has still not decided whether it is the party of small government, low tax and social conservatism, or a fiscally relaxed, socially liberal alternative.

And whether the Party will even survive that tension is not guaranteed.

Andrew Hawkins is Founder and CEO of Whitestone Insight. Follow Andrew on Twitter / X here.


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