The decline and fall of the ‘one nation’ Conservative

As the Conservative party’s various factions have jostled for position since 2016, the political landscape has undergone some profound transformations. 

The rise and falls of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss speak to the distinct trajectories of Conservatism’s intellectual strands. Most recently, Truss’ 49-day escapade was founded upon a free-marketer ideological zeal, retreating to the party’s glory days as a vehicle for Thatcherism. Johnson, regarded as a social liberal, is more complicated politically, but his appeal was forged by Brexit and the political incentives provided by the 2016 result on state intervention and “levelling-up”.

If there has been an outright loser of the Conservatives’ factional warfare it has been the party’s “one nation” wing. Associated with May’s administration, before being outcast by Johnson and banished into the wilderness under Truss — their political fortune has only seen marginal improvement from Sunak’s elevation. Indeed, while the current prime minister’s coronation was fostered by his opposition to Trussonomics, Sunak is an otherwise uncomplicated tax-cutting Brexiteer; a politician whose walls were adorned as a teenager by posters of Thatcherite chancellor Nigel Lawson. Our PM may possess a camera-friendly, soft Cameroon outer shell, but he is no wet.

A further signal that the one nation political tradition of Conservatism is on the descent is the case of Damian Green — recently rejected by the newly created Weald of Kent constituency executive to be their candidate at the 2024 election. The rejection of Green, who chairs the One Nation group of Conservative MPs and served as the de facto deputy prime minister under May, has fuelled speculation that grassroots Conservative campaigners are targeting moderate parliamentarians. 

In the aftermath, David Campbell Bannerman, a former UKIP MEP and chairman of the Boris-backing Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO), argued: “There is now hard evidence MPs allegedly associated with bringing down Boris are being directly held to account and punished by members”.

Equally, chief executive of the CDO Claire Bullivant told the Daily Express: “There are 60 MPs who are probably getting worried. It’s hard to see how those who stabbed Boris in the back will ever be forgiven by the members. … I suspect there will be more punishments to come”.

The details surrounding Green’s rejection remain contested, but that Boris-backers are openly flaunting the scalp of the One Nation group leader is significant. It points to a long-burgeoning breach in the deep-rooted traditions of Conservative politics and the broader decline of the party’s moderate tendency. In such a narrow ideological environment, which the CDO intend on narrowing still, centre-right Conservatism risks being lost to a “Bring Back Boris” wave.

One nation Conservatives epitomise the traditional centre-right in British politics. They pursue pragmatic and adaptive politics, providing a parliamentary counterweight to the eurosceptic, socially illiberal aspects in the party. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the recent political landscape has been cruel to the faction’s prospects. Brexit has recast the Conservative’s pitch, reorienting the electoral focus of the party to the red wall and a “new kind” of Conservative. New political incentives on the culture war, exemplified by the appointment of Lee Anderson as party chair, beg broader questions of the continued relevance of one nation politics. 

Compare the situation now to the landscape in the early 2010s, which saw key advocate David Cameron as prime minister and the one nation tradition in the ascendancy; plainly, the intervening decade speaks to a disastrous decline in the wing’s political fortunes. 

It is no secret that the Brexit debate from 2016-2019, directly and indirectly, claimed the political careers of several one nation Conservatives. Some, in the form of Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, Phillip Lee, Nick Boles and Sarah Wollaston, chose to leave the Conservative party altogether — others, like the 21 purged by Johnson for opposing a no-deal Brexit and backing the Benn Act, had the Conservative whip removed by the party leader. Of the ousted, only four ran as Conservative candidates at the 2019 election.

As divisions intensified between moderate Conservatives and the party’s right flank through 2019, one nation MPs sought to solidify their positioning in a new caucus. Making up around third of the parliamentary party, Damian Green currently acts as the group’s chair. 

However, if the caucus’ aim was to shape the future of the party and slow the shift to the right, it failed.

The 2022 summer leadership election saw two key MPs, widely regarded as one nation champions, vie for support. One was Tom Tugendhat, who launched a “clean start” campaign in The Telegraph, calling for Conservatives to rediscover their “values and their ability to enrich lives across every part of the country”. He could only muster 31 backers.

Perhaps even more tellingly, Jeremy Hunt — long-viewed as a latter-day Cameroon — refused to own his one nation label. The now-chancellor ran his ill-fated campaign on a promise to cut corporation tax from 19p to 15p on day one. He also picked Esther McVey, an MP who launched her bid for the leadership three years prior with a photo of Margaret Thatcher on her desk, to be his running mate. The ideological revamp did little to improve the 2019 runner-up’s prospects, however — and Hunt was eliminated in the first ballot of MPs.

Forming a central part of the parliamentary and media campaign that cost Liz Truss her premiership, the fortunes of one nation MPs were boosted slightly by Rishi Sunak’s elevation as PM. Sunak’s “cabinet of all the talents” saw key one nation advocates in Andrew Mitchell and Gillian Keegan given promotions. Tugendhat retained his position as security minister, a cabinet role he was first handed by Truss.

But Sunak’s elevation has also created long-term problems for the one nation caucus. The group was derided as headlining a Cameroon coup; after the events of the summer, they were picking up a reputation for ousting prime ministers with whom they disagree ideologically. 

Nor is the prime minister a conventional one nation Conservative. As a new MP, Sunak backed Brexit early, at a time when most young Tory MPs hoping for a government job were loyally arguing the case to remain in the EU. His first cabinet job as Johnson’s chief secretary to the treasury owed much to the patronage of the Vote Leave gang. And in government, Sunak became a seasoned preacher of the Johnsonian creed, even standing in for the prime minister for two national TV debates during the 2019 election campaign.

This version of Sunak is ideologically uncomplicated: he is a small-state, tax-cutting eurosceptic. A Thatcherite in the truest sense. 

It was only Sunak’s opposition to Trussonomics, on the grounds of fiscal responsibility, that saw the PM earn the backing of one nation MPs. It is some senses an awkward arrangement — a marriage forged by political convenience more than ideological compatibility. Indeed, that Sunak is viewed as a champion of the party’s political moderates is probably testament to the rightward shift Conservative politics has undergone since 2016. 

This leaves the one nation Conservative grouping in a politically fraught position. They are derided as wets and conspiring social democrats — a bitter Conservative fifth column responsible for consecutive coups over Brexit, Johnson and Truss. But this imagined intrigue is belied by the wing’s waning institutional and cultural influence. Despite making up over a third of Conservative MPs, the group has struggled to win the argument in their Brexit-infused party.

This returns us to the curious case of Damian Green. For the fallout of Green’s rejection and the rise the Conservative Democratic Organisation underlines the cultural barriers facing the one nation tradition. The episode, whatever the specific details, sees ideological maximalists like David Campbell Bannerman, a former UKIPer, gloat over their influence in the Conservative party at the expense of individuals like Green. It shows how the one nation wing, once vigorous and influential, continues to suffer the consequences of the sustained and rapid revolution experienced within the Conservative party from 2016-2019.

Recent polling suggests the Conservatives is heading for an electoral drubbing in 2024. It is a fact that bodes ill for the party’s one nation wing. For rarely after an election defeat, especially one which precedes a transition from government to opposition, does a party moderate its politics. Moreover, there is no Iain Macleod, no Kenneth Clarke, no David Cameron who may act as a leading light for the one nation cause in a new parliament. Indeed, if the CDO has its way, the parliamentary party will be entirely purged of the one nation tendency. Benjamin Disraeli, one speculates, is rolling in his grave. 

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