Conservatives. Welcome to opposition. What next?

Written by


James Bird

Published


In my 40th year, this is only the third time I have seen a change in the party of power. From Major to Blair in 1997, Brown to Cameron in 2010, and now Sunak to Starmer.  

The manner of the change, an 80-seat majority secured in 2019 with Boris Johnson to a Labour majority of over 170 in less than 5 years is nothing short of historic. The implications for the Conservative Party are profound, but not as profound as I had expected. It is not an extinction event, but it is in the style of a UFC kicking. A lesson in efficiency and discipline that has left them with a bloody nose and mouth.  

It is a kicking that reflects five prime ministers and numerous scandals that lost the trust of the public, and their faith in the party to deliver.  

There are three key points for the Conservatives to ponder before they hit the – what next button?  

The first is the vote share. Labour have won an outstanding majority, but with a low percentage of the vote at 35% (at time of writing). This is a vote share which is less than Jeremy Corbyn secured in 2017 and Blair in 2005. It is also less than the combined share of Reform and Conservatives. Of course, this doesn’t matter, a win is a win. However, the Conservatives will be mindful to play on the perception that this was much a protest against themselves rather than a ringing endorsement for Labour. Every issue the country faces is now owned by Labour, and they will need to show delivery. Their majority provides no excuses.  

The second is the machine. Labour was simply more disciplined in message and unity, and ultimately in where they secured their victory. Although their overall vote didn’t increase by much, they succeeded in distributing it clinically, securing votes that had previously piled up in their existing strongholds to the provinces where previously they faltered. They were also clinical in candidate selection and now sit with hundreds of fresh-faced future leaders. Quite simply, a united and well-oiled, machine wins. Labour achieved this in less than four years, it can be replicated.  

The third is that the Conservatives retain the status of official opposition. It might seem like an obvious point, but there was a sense that the Conservatives might even come third, which would constitute an ‘existential crisis’. This didn’t come to pass – and the status counts because it provides authority. Authority through speaking from the Dispatch Box, having Shadow Ministers, and a suite of offices for the Leader of the Opposition. Turning this into momentum is at the behest of the next leader: despite the success of the smaller parties, they can’t claim the official Opposition mantle.  

So what next? The challenge for the party is to remain relevant. Conservative MPs will feel completely deflated. A caucus of backbench Labour MPs will likely have more impact on policy than the Conservative opposition in the near term.  

First on the agenda is electing a new leader. The choices will be slim, the debate between left and right will be thrashed around, but they will face a quick question. A loud and high-profile Nigel Farage will sit on the benches. Would you let him into the party? Each of the candidates will be mindful of its consequences either way.  

Upon their election, the leader will have to navigate a path that attracts those who switched to the Lib Dems in the south, whilst securing Reform voters across the country. A hard task and one that arguably requires a centre ground position that might not be forthcoming depending on the selected leader. 

The focus for the party will be to reflect on why it lost. The polls show it lost the public’s trust and their belief in its competency to deliver. In Keir Strarmer’s words, Britain is experiencing the ‘sunlight of hope’ and, with the majority Labour have acquired, there is nowhere to hide with a volatile electorate. Conversely the Conservatives watching from the sidelines will hope that Labour may falter in the ‘shadow of delivery.’  

For more information on what’s been said, visit our General Election Hub

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