How a change in leadership could affect UK’s Conservative Party

The outgoing British leader, Boris Johnson, is believed by his critics to have moved his Conservative Party further to the right of the political spectrum.

With Johnson’s resignation as the party’s leader, observers wonder whether the Tories will continue the trend or change their direction to a more liberal stance.

“Any discussion of the Conservatives’ ideological position needs to be prefaced by the idea that there are at least two dimensions that matter – the conventional economic dimension of higher taxes/bigger government vs lower taxes/smaller government; and the second cultural dimension that some people called open vs closed, others call cosmopolitan vs nativist, and yet others describe as socially liberal vs socially conservative,” Nicholas Allen, professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, told Al Jazeera.

“The Conservatives are as right as they have been for many decades on the first dimension – although Boris Johnson’s talk of ‘levelling up’ implied a potentially bigger role for government in developing infrastructure,” he said.

The Conservative benches listening as Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) speaks [File: Jessica Taylor /UK Parliament/AFP]

The Conservatives also occupy a clear right-wing position on the secondary dimension, although that position is partly a legacy of Brexit and the party’s clear-cut rejection of European Union membership, according to Allen.

In the end, and compared with the Republican Party in the United States, for instance, the Conservative Party has mainly remained moderate, even under Johnson.

“It’s important to note that the party is not especially conservative by US standards. It is perhaps more sceptical of some progressive ideas around race and gender, but the party is generally pro-choice and supportive of same-sex marriage. Many if not most Tory MPs would probably be viewed as liberal by Republicans in the US,” said Allen.

Leadership candidates

Besides Brexit, the three remaining prime ministerial candidates are competing over the prospect of tax breaks, dealing with undocumented migrants and positioning in the dispute over rights for trans people.

Among them are former chancellor Rishi Sunak, considered the favourite, foreign secretary Liz Truss and minister for trade policy Penny Mordaunt, who are to face a final round of voting in the parliamentary group on Wednesday.

British Foreign Secretary and Conservative leadership campaign candidate Liz Truss speaks during her campaign launch event, in London
British foreign secretary and Conservative leadership campaign candidate Liz Truss speaks during her campaign launch event in London [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

The 200,000 Tory party members will decide in a runoff election over the next few weeks who will succeed Johnson. The process is expected to be completed on September 5.

However, with the stakes rising, the tone between the competitors has also changed.

The party’s right sees Truss as the most likely candidate to defend Brexit in its pure, rigid form. However, that, in turn, means that the other candidates will have to outbid Truss.

“There will be posturing, as we’ve seen, in the leadership contest where contenders are trying to be more ‘right’ than the others. This is natural given that ultimately the leader that emerges needs to win over Conservative Party members and not the general public,” Harshan Kumarasingham, senior lecturer in British politics at the University of Edinburgh, told Al Jazeera.

‘Socialist agenda’

Indeed, Sunak and Truss had heavily criticised each other during a TV debate on Sunday evening. The acrimony of the altercation reportedly even sparked concern within the party.

Sunak even accused Truss of having a “socialist agenda”, which reminded various observers of a US debate, where personal attacks and hostile campaigns against an opponent are the norm.

Mordaunt’s recent statement was a testament to this when she repeated a falsehood from 2016, namely that the UK needed to leave the EU because Turkey was about to join the bloc and otherwise, Turkish guest workers threatened to flood Britain.

In reality, however, Turkey has never been close to becoming a member.

Mordaunt
Mordaunt arrives for a meeting to address the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak [File: Simon Dawson/Reuters]

But Mordaunt has also been the victim of an attack by her opponents, who accused her of having been pandering to the far-left – a tactic Mordaunt called a smear campaign.

Whether this more aggressive strategy can be successful remains to be seen. After all, the role of a prime minister differs greatly from that of a president.

‘Vote loser’

“The British system is a parliamentary one with multiple parties involved, unlike the presidential one of the US where the Democrat and Republican parties are effectively institutionalised into their system and government,” Kumarasingham said.

“There is less concentration of formal power and attention on the British prime minister, who needs to take greater care to gain support from the cabinet, parliament and country in order to keep power. While there will always be a wide range of opinions, including on the right, a prime minister needs to try and gain support from all sides to get their programme through parliament,” he added.

Moreover, despite all the saber-rattling, analysts do not believe that the Tories will follow on the path its American counterpart has embarked upon.

“Radicalisation would be a vote loser, and the party lacks the institutional arrangements (primaries, personalised elections), ideas and figures that helped drive the GOP to the fringes of sanity (and beyond). The touchstone issues that motivate Republicans in the US – race, guns, Jesus, abortion – do not motivate Conservatives in the UK,” Allen said.

“Insofar as the party has moved right, it was Brexit that did it, not Johnson’s own relatively liberal view of the world,” he added.

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