May faces revolt as Tory tensions intensify

Heading nowhere: A Dutch cartoon mocking May’s election disaster. © Tom Janssen

How long can Theresa May hang on? As MPs return to debate the Brexit bill, speculation is mounting not just about her future as prime minister but about the entire future of conservatism.

Theresa May was embroiled in a growing rebellion this weekend as it became clear that pro-Remain Tories are being threatened by whips not to try and soften the Brexit bill.

Angry Conservatives already upset by her insistence last week that she wants to lead the party into a 2022 general election are saying this makes a leadership challenge this autumn far more likely.

How times change. Only on March 31st, The New Statesman, one of Britain’s leading left-wing magazines, published an edition entitled “WANTED: AN OPPOSITION”.

Then this summer when Jeremy Corbyn appeared on stage at Glastonbury to speak before an army of galvanised young supporters, May was the butt of jokes all over Europe as she made her first tentative steps in the Brexit negotiations.

More recently it was the turn of the Statesman’s right-wing counterpart, The Spectator, to examine their souls and start talking about “the dying of the right”.

According to the magazine’s editor, Fraser Nelson, this is about a “basic lack of belief”.

“Tories used to be able to explain that tax cuts bring prosperity but also — crucially — were able to explain the point of prosperity. It brings a stronger, fairer, more cohesive society,” Nelson argues.

Conservatives appear to be losing the ideological war. They won only 30% of the vote from 35- to 44-year-olds — people who might usually be shedding the idealistic leftism of their youth.

But as it becomes harder and harder to buy a house and secure a stable, well-paid job, those voters are looking for something new. As James Forsyth puts it: “You cannot expect people to be capitalists if they have no capital.”

One other problem for conservatives is that presenting the case against socialism has become harder now that a poor, repressive, socialist empire no longer exists in Eastern Europe.

Can conservatism now survive?

What’s right?

Conservatives need to calm down, say some. It was only a few months ago that the left was asking itself similar questions. They need to do two things: stop being seen as cruel, and develop their own positive ideology for their societies. There will always be an evenly-matched tension between the conservatives and the reformers of the world.

But Ed West thinks the game is up. Writing in The Spectator, he describes left-liberalism as “the high status faith of our times”, just as Anglicanism was in the 19th century. This zeitgeist, he believes, is strong enough to brush aside any blips — Brexit, Trump — and continue marching through history. The future belongs to the left.

You Decide

  1. Does the future belong to the left?
  2. Can politics still be divided between left and right?


  1. Define, as concisely as possible, the word “conservatism”.
  2. Class debate: “This house believes that capitalism has run its course.”

Some People Say...

“The facts of life are conservative.”

Margaret Thatcher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That the right is suffering a crisis of confidence around Western Europe. Conservative voters in the UK are generally old, and there seem to be fewer people making the traditional ideological journey from left to right as they get older. We know that public opinion has turned against excesses of free market economics, and that polls suggest that Jeremy Corbyn could well win power at the next general election.
What do we not know?
Whether the problem for conservatives is terminal. Some believe that the left has held cultural power for so long that it has “won”, while others believe that events, such as another economic downturn or a conflict with Islamist terrorism, could shift public opinion rightwards.

Word Watch

Brexit negotiations
One of Theresa May’s first acts in the EU negotiations was to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to stay in Britain after Brexit.
Tax cuts
Labour pledged to significantly increase taxes on the top 5% of earners in order to pay for greater public spending, most notably free university tuition, and to raise the minimum wage to £10 per hour.
30% of the vote
According to a poll by Lord Ashcroft; it suggests 50% of this age group voted Labour.
Buy a house
According to Ipsos MORI’s election analysis, 55% of homeowners voted Conservative, while 54% of private renters voted Labour.
Eastern Europe
The recent failure of socialism in Eastern Europe may partly explain the comparative success of right-wing political parties there. Fidesz in Hungary and Law & Justice in Poland are arguably Europe’s most right-wing governing parties.

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