Stumped: Tories near extinction, claim pundits
Are the Conservatives finished? At its annual conference, the party is in a mess. Its leader is weak, its members are bickering and its voters are confused. Will Brexit be the death of it?
The Conservative Party’s logo is a sketch of a tree. As Theresa May prepares to address her party at its conference in Birmingham, the things the tree symbolises — growth, renewal, stability — seem to be in short supply.
This is not just May’s fault (although her disastrous speech at last year’s conference certainly made her look weak). Just as it split the country, Brexit has divided the party into feuding camps.
Some, like the prime minister, want the UK to maintain close ties with the EU. Others, such as Boris Johnson, are keen on a complete break. Others yet do not want to leave at all. Ministers are not just debating these ideas: they are openly mocking each other. Last week, Johnson called May’s plans “deranged”.
Meanwhile, other issues are being largely ignored. May’s slogan for the conference is “opportunity”; today, she is expected to talk about living conditions for “hard-working people”. But as long as Brexit’s future is uncertain, it will dominate the headlines. The result is an identity crisis: what does the party stand for?
As their name suggests, Conservatives generally try to keep systems and traditions in place. They tend to favour things like private property, free trade, low taxes and a strong military. Leavers argue that the party will have more leeway to pursue these ideals once the UK has left the EU.
Yet Brexit remains a huge shake-up of British society. This in itself goes against Conservative principles. As journalist Hugo Rifkind puts it, “They have tarnished their brand for being safe, reliable, a little bit boring.” The constant infighting only adds to that impression.
There is evidence that all this is hurting the party. Its membership has been declining for years; in last year’s election, every age group under 50 preferred Labour. Its efforts to look young and modern backfired last week when its new app turned out to have a huge security flaw.
“[The Tories are] experiencing a nervous breakdown,” said one journalist. A Tory councillor went further: “We are a dead party.” Are they?
Of course not, say some. The Tories are one of the oldest political parties in the world; they have survived by adapting to challenges. They will muddle through this one too, and their voters will stay loyal. Just look at the polls: they are still level with Labour, which is just as confused about Brexit.
Don’t be so confident, reply others. Parties do die. Research shows that this becomes a risk when they change their brand, then preside over a disaster. Brexit could create both those conditions for the Tories. It is completely reshaping British society, and the party is just too slow and out of touch to keep up.
- Will Brexit finish off the Conservative Party?
- Would it be good if it did?
- Design a new logo for the Conservative Party that appeals to young voters.
- Come up with two new policies for the Conservatives that appeal to young voters. Make sure that they fit the party’s brand.
Some People Say...
“Most people are a little bit of each [political party].”Daniel Radcliffe
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Theresa May has led the Conservatives since July 2016; nobody has yet challenged her for the role. If someone wants to do so, they must get 48 Tory MPs to ask for a confidence vote. All Tory MPs then vote; if a majority goes against May, she resigns and a leadership contest is held (in which she cannot take part).
- What do we not know?
- How long May will last as leader. “I’m in this for the long term,” she declared yesterday. Most disagree. Since the party’s poor performance in last year’s election, there has been constant talk of replacing her. Boris Johnson is currently the bookmakers’ favourite, followed by Sajid Javid. But the party also thinks that triggering a leadership contest during the Brexit negotiations would cause too much chaos. May is likely to stay until 2019.
- The term was first used to describe the party in 1830. Its previous name, the Tory party, has stuck as a nickname.
- Disastrous speech
- While speaking, May struggled with a cough. A prankster interrupted her speech at one point. Meanwhile, letters spelling out the party’s slogan kept falling off the wall behind her.
- According to the party itself, its membership was 273,000 in 2002, and 124,000 in March 2018.
- Security flaw
- For a short period of time, users were able to access the private phone numbers and email addresses of high-profile politicians.
- A politician elected to a council. While Parliament governs the country, councils run the affairs of a local area, such as transport and waste management.
- Carried out by political scientist Noam Lupu for his book Party Brands in Crisis. See Vox’s article in Become An Expert.