Are the Conservatives now the default party of government?

It may appear unconventional to commence an article on the Conservative Party by discussing the current state of its long-standing rival, the Labour Party. However, the future of the opposition could not be more relevant to that of the Tory Party. At the Labour Party conference on 24th September, Jeremy Corbyn was pronounced leader of the Labour Party, obtaining an impressive 61.8% of the vote, an increase from the 59.5% he won last year. With two huge mandates granted by the party membership in less than a year, the controversial Labour leader will no doubt consolidate his base, call for party unity and remain as leader until the next general election.

Despite Corbyn’s short-term political future appearing secure, the same cannot be said for his party’s. The vast majority of Labour MPs do not back their boss, with 172 of them supporting a vote of no confidence issued in June, prompted in part by Corbyn’s lacklustre performance during the EU referendum campaign. The Parliamentary Labour Party is thus at odds with their party membership, with factional divisions more apparent than ever. Corbyn’s backers believe Labour is finally returning to its grassroots, whilst moderates fear their party with Corbyn at the helm is less appealing to the centre ground, and consequently faces electoral oblivion. Some predict that the party will not survive the stark divisions between the Corbynistas and the Blairites, if such a term may still be employed, with Neil Kinnock worried that he will not see his party in government again during the course of his lifetime.

A divided Labour Party influences the Tories’ future prospects rather significantly. Most MPs, journalists and pollsters predict the decline of the Labour Party, or at least a considerable electoral defeat at the next general election. Indeed, a recent Ipsos MORI poll found only 26% of people believe Labour is fit to govern, down from 35% in September. Meanwhile, 53% of those polled stated the Conservatives were fit to govern. The radicalism of Corbyn simply does not bode well with the centrists of middle England and has had little success in winning back lost Labour votes from the Scottish National Party. The centre ground is politically renowned in the UK as the secret to electoral success, a notion Blair’s New Labour grasped with both hands. With Corbyn positioning the Labour Party ever further left, an opening in the centre ground is emerging, one both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are keen to fill.

In May 2015, the Liberal Democrats were electorally demolished and effectively rendered politically meaningless, left with a mere eight MPs. Nevertheless, the response to Brexit and Corbyn’s re-election has opened up new opportunities for Tim Farron’s party. Commencing with Brexit, the Liberal Democrats recognised that a large proportion of the electorate were dissatisfied with the outcome of the referendum, substantiated by 3.9 million people signing a petition that demanded a second referendum. Farron is thus eager for these signatories to channel their discontent through his political party, hoping Europhiles littered across the country can contribute to a Lib Dem revival. Indeed, his party’s membership has risen to its highest point in a decade, with political commentators attributing this surge to the EU referendum result. Nevertheless, the Lib Dem position on Brexit can be deemed as equally alienating, with voters on both sides of the EU campaign believing the result should be respected, thus prompting some to ironically label the Liberal Democrats as undemocratic.

In relation to Corbyn’s renewed leadership mandate, Tim Farron has made it abundantly clear that he intends to swoop up dissatisfied moderate Labour voters, exemplifying this in his party conference speech, somewhat controversially paying credit to Blair’s landmark domestic legislation. Having said that, his miniature band of MPs may not be overly appealing to moderate voters seeking an electorally viable party, as opposed to an ideological one, and this is where the Conservatives come out strongly.

Theresa May delivering her first public speech as prime minister outside 10 Downing Street on 13 July. Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The electoral redundancy of the Labour Party, coupled with the insignificance of the Liberal Democrats, suggests bright days are ahead for the Conservative Party. The prime minister, Theresa May, signified early her desire to retain the political centre recently secured by her predecessor David Cameron. Upon being elected leader by her Conservative colleagues, May’s victory speech was littered with indications of her desire to win over moderate voters, talking of inequality and social justice. The prime minister has attempted to shake off the Notting Hill, Etonian image of Tory government via her cabinet reshuffle and has preached to working people with her desire to control immigration.

It is crucial, however, that May does not become over obsessed with the centre ground and alienate the party membership or right of the electorate, with Osborne’s fiscal conservatism already relaxed by the chancellor, Philip Hammond. So far the prime minister is not in danger of doing so, having displayed an eagerness to stave off UKIP and maintain support from the political right in her own party through guaranteeing Brexit, and recently flirting with a “hard Brexit”, and proposing a return to grammar schools. This fine balance must be upheld if the Conservatives are to seize upon the weaknesses of the Labour party and remain the party of government.

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