People walk past a Brexit sign outside the venue for the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain.
Henry Nicholls / Reuters

The Conservative Party’s Genius: Enduring

In trying to pull the country out of the EU, it will have to adapt to survive.

Since the birth of the political party, in 17th-century England, perhaps none has been quite as unsuccessful in its constitutional struggle as the Tories. Time and again, this most English of interest groups has been on the wrong side of history, advocating for a status quo that has slowly been eroded by the steady tide of human advancement.

And yet the Tories have survived at each turn, their genius lying not in an ability to conserve, but in an ability to adapt—reluctantly accepting reform and, over time, embracing the ancient, eternal nobility of the new settlement as if it had always been there.

Britain’s Conservative Party—the modern incarnation of Toryism, and its most dominant and persistent political force—does not burn bright, but it endures. Its cause is not ideological, but temperamental. Its strength is that while other political philosophies come and go, the conservative temperament remains, skeptical, tribal, cautious. Its allegiances are here and now, not abstract or academic: monarchy, Church, country.

The primary Tory duty is to govern in order to check the utopian passions of the tidy mind. “The Conservative Party exists, has always existed and can only exist to acquire and exercise power,” writes Robin Harris in The Conservatives. “It does not exist to be loved, hated or even respected … It is an institution with a purpose, not an organism with a soul.”

Set in this light, Britain’s current crisis over its withdrawal from the European Union is just the latest entry in the long roll call of political upheaval that English Toryism has faced and—so far—outlived. Its challenge now is to do so again in the age of Brexit, Donald Trump, and a surge in nationalism across the Western world, which are threatening to upend the basic political divisions in the United Kingdom, from class and economic interest to identity and place, just as Britain embarks on a mission to reimagine its global standing.

After giving the country a referendum on its EU membership, the Conservative Party has found itself with the job of trying to enact the result—one its past two prime ministers did not want and did not expect. Boris Johnson, the third Conservative prime minister in three years, though the first who campaigned for Brexit, is now tasked with taking Britain out of the EU on terms acceptable to his party, a majority in Parliament, and the country, each of whom has different, often competing, goals and desires. And he must do so before an October 31 deadline that he has insisted is “do or die.”

As the Conservative Party gathers for its annual conference in Manchester, it faces a set of challenges as daunting as any in its history. Squeezed from the right by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party—which demands a quick, “clean” break from the EU—and from the left by the massed ranks of anti-Brexit Remainers, it has a precariously narrow route to staying in power. It’s caught in a political trap, heralding an even bigger crisis for Johnson, the Conservative Party, and the country.

Boris Johnson stands in front of a lectern and runs his hand through his hair.
(Pool / Reuters)

And the crisis is not simply domestic. Success for the Tories—delivering Brexit while remaining in power—could lead to a shift toward an entirely new economic relationship with Europe and the United States, raising questions about the continued membership of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the U.K., and causing significant friction with its closest neighbor, Ireland. Failure, by contrast, is likely to presage the appointment of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, along with a program of government that could see Brexit canceled in a second referendum, an end to the post-Thatcherite economic consensus, and a revolutionized foreign policy outwardly hostile to many of Britain’s traditional security allies, including the U.S. and NATO, while sympathetic to longtime adversaries such as Russia and Iran.

Three and a half centuries after its founding, the oldest and most stubbornly successful political party in the democratic world (if one traces it to its Tory roots) is experiencing an existential crisis, and the fallout is not simply a British interest, but one that could have profound implications across Europe, the United States, and the entire Western security alliance.

Toryism was born of the tumultuous struggle for supremacy between King and Parliament. Its guiding attitudes centered on “authority, allegiance and tradition,” as they do today, according to Harris, one of the party’s preeminent historians. Its instincts were to support Charles I and his divine right to govern—a cause already out of date by the time his reign ended on the scaffold in January 1649—but as an organized political faction, Toryism only really emerged in the years after the monarchy’s restoration in 1660 and the succession crisis that followed. The Tories were for James, Duke of York, who was the presumptive heir to the throne, but a Catholic. England had broken with Rome the century before, and fears of Catholic—Continental—absolutism remained.

The Whigs, the Tories’ opponents and champions of parliamentary power, were pushing an “exclusion bill” banning Catholics from the throne. For the Tories, the conflict saw two of the party’s founding principles clash: allegiance to the monarchy, and allegiance to the established Church of England. The status quo was not clear, so the Tories chose King and inheritance.

The Tories defeated the exclusion bill, but James II lasted three years before the Whiggish Glorious Revolution swept him from power. In came William of Orange; his wife, Mary; and the beginnings of constitutional monarchy. Soon Catholics would be formally banned from the throne for good (they still are). Toryism had lost and the Whiggish Parliament had won—a pattern that would continue for much of the next 50 years.

Toryism, then, began life in practically permanent opposition—representing a traditional world of the landed class, but almost always out of power. It was only in the 19th century that the Tories got serious, developing into today’s Conservative Party.

The spark was the Great Reform Act of 1832, which extended the franchise to the new metropolises of industrial Britain—a measure long fought by Tories in Parliament. The act changed Britain, and the Tory party. “After 1832 the old land-owning aristocracy steadily lost power,” George Orwell wrote in his essay on England, “The Lion and the Unicorn.” “But instead of disappearing or becoming a fossil they simply intermarried with the merchants, manufacturers and financiers who had replaced them, and soon turned them into accurate copies of themselves.”

Although they suffered heavy losses in the first election with an extended franchise, the Tories bounced back just three years later. Robert Peel became the first “Conservative” prime minister, and displayed true Tory elasticity—adapting to the Great Reform Act by accepting it. It was, he said, the “final and irrevocable settlement of a great constitutional question.”

But even as the Tories became the Conservative Party, the cautious instincts of Toryism remained. In his “Tamworth Manifesto,” Peel declared that while he respected the Great Reform Act as a “careful review of institutions,” he would not support it if it meant living in “a perpetual vortex of agitation.” He did not want the government “adopting every popular impression of the day.” He was a true Tory, but also one with an eye to power—a combination that has held to this day.

Why does Toryism endure if it is so often unsuccessful? How does it oppose the extension of the franchise for years, only to win the second election after its successful passage? The Tory answer is that while circumstances change, its temperament remains: skeptical, traditional, patriotic, conservative.

Conservatives hold that while they may be shunned by the intellectual elite, they are more in line with the personalities and instincts of ordinary men and women. They might lose touch from time to time, missing the stifled desires for change that bubble up from those who cannot access the benefits of society, but they always find a way to return to the real England (or, across the Atlantic, the real America).

“Britain and Twitter: They are not the same thing,” David Cameron quipped after his electoral triumph in 2015. Substitute Twitter with the talking shop of the day and it could have been said at any time in the previous 300 years. In Jonathan Swift’s The Conduct of the Allies, published in 1711, he noted: “It is the folly of too many, to mistake the echo of a London coffee-house for the voice of the kingdom.” The sentiment appears again and again, and not just in Britain. Richard Nixon referred to “the silent majority” of Americans ignored by coastal liberals. For Australia’s conservative leader Scott Morrison, following his surprise win this year, it was the “quiet Australians.” Silent, shy, quiet—but enduring.

Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron stand outside Number 10 Downing Street.
Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron stand outside Number 10 Downing Street. (Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters)

To the Tories, here lies the nobility of their cause: They are the quiet defenders of the little man from those seeking to impose a different way of life upon him without his consent. The little man is rooted in country and custom. This seam links apparently unconnected concerns, from gay marriage to immigration to the European Union. In contrast to its image today, for much of its history Toryism “represented the creed of the Country against the Court, the ‘outs’ against the ‘ins’, the squires against the moneyed men and the metropolis,” Harris writes. The word Tory itself even hints at this self-image of the outsider: derived from the Irish toraighe, meaning “a pursuer,” referring to the dispossessed Catholic Irish.

History suggests this Tory instinct falls in and out of line with the country it seeks to govern, adopting a rhythm of defeat and acquiescence that held in the 17th century as much as in the 20th and 21st: opposing the supremacy of the House of Commons and Irish Home Rule, the end of empire and nationalization, the devolution of power from London to Scotland and Wales, the minimum wage. All were rejected, then accepted—and throughout, the Tories endured.

Cameron’s 2016 referendum on EU membership was an attempt to stick with this tradition, to get his party to finally accept Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community in 1972. Cameron hoped a referendum would settle the question, allowing party—and country—to move on. Instead Conservatives have to adapt to an altogether different revolution: Brexit.

To the Conservative Party’s critics, internal and external, what is so different about the current moment is that the party is leading a revolution, not resisting it, junking skepticism for wide-eyed idealism. Its pursuit of Brexit, they say, is a break from its long tradition as a restraining, pragmatic force. Instead of leading Britain out of the EU without an exit agreement, tearing up the legal basis of 40 years of economic and political integration in one fell swoop, the party, this view goes, should have tried to contain Brexit’s excesses. According to many of the moderate members of Parliament whom Johnson ejected from the party, the hard-liners have embraced the very “perpetual vortex of agitation” that Peel opposed. The party is no longer Tory, they say. (The irony is that to Peel’s critics, he too was no Tory, abandoning the party’s traditional protectionism, which ensured high prices for the landed class, in favor of free trade. Peel’s decision to repeal the protectionist Corn Laws split the Conservative Party, costing it—and him—power.)

Much of the venom directed at Johnson’s key adviser, Dominic Cummings, stems from a supposed lack of Toryism. Cummings led the Vote Leave campaign before joining the prime minister in 10 Downing Street, yet has never been a member of the Conservative Party and openly disparages many of its elected representatives. Michael Gove, one of the leading Brexiteers in government and Cummings’s former boss, invites similar philosophical suspicions. Cameron, a former close friend, described Gove as a “Maoist,” not a Tory.

But Toryism is more complex than conservation. It reflects a series of instincts that can—and do—conflict: authority and freedom, Church and monarchy, and ultimately, the reflexive desire for stability and the long-standing allegiances to country and custom, to provincial England rather than the London coffeehouse.

Mark Wallace, the executive editor of Conservative Home, an influential website for Conservative activists, told me the party has always been a combination of “instinct and alliance,” mixing its habitual caution with a difficult-to-assess judgment about when it’s okay to move on. “When those tipping points come is very hard to judge,” he said.

Brexit sits uneasily for Britain’s main political parties, the Conservatives and Labour, because it does not fit into easy categories of left or right. There is a Tory case for leaving: While Brexit involves change, it also means leaving a multinational structure that is a different source of change (and one, Brexiteers argue, that they can less easily control).

The 2016 referendum means the status quo is not an option. To many Conservatives, that vote marked the constitutional turning point, and the Tories are simply doing what they have always done: trying to adapt. “There can be moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf,” Orwell wrote. This does not describe Brexit Britain—divided and radicalized since the referendum. But it might describe the Tories.

When a majority of the country voted to leave the EU, Britain’s political landscape changed forever, setting in motion a fundamental reshaping of British politics that continues to this day, further splitting the country the longer it remains unresolved.

Brexit, according to this argument, is more akin to the Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s, which united Tory traditionalists and radicals in a program to overhaul the postwar economic consensus. While that moment was not conservative in its literal sense, it was nevertheless Tory, appealing to provincial England’s instincts of self-reliance, patriotism, property, and authority, just as a similar argument did in the United States under Ronald Reagan.

In the ’70s, the Conservative leader Edward Heath had asked voters, “Who runs the country?” but had been unable to force an answer. Margaret Thatcher decided it was “people like us” and set about winning them back. In 2016, voters were asked to “take back control.” Both Thatcher’s and the Brexiteer’s were radical messages, but Toryism runs throughout.

In 2017, the Conservative Party under Theresa May, Johnson’s immediate predecessor, lost control of Parliament; since then, its grasp on the political situation has only gotten worse. In Parliament, the Conservatives are now down to 288 MPs, having lost nine anti-Brexit MPs in defections to other parties and factions, and a further 21 in a mass expulsion over their support for a parliamentary rebellion to stop a “no deal” exit on October 31.

Pollsters I spoke with suggested that, given the rapid polarization of the country along Remain and Leave lines in the two years since the 2017 vote, with the Tories having embraced Brexit and the opposition parties now largely united against it, any future election is likely to see the governing party fall even further behind in areas of the country that voted Remain—losing seats to the Scottish National Party in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats in parts of England.

The dilemma for the Conservatives is that the harder they go on Brexit, the more they risk losing seats elsewhere: They might win votes in Leave-heavy areas of northern England, but lose them in the wealthy, Remain-supporting south. “What you gain on the swings you lose on the roundabouts,” John Curtice, Britain’s leading pollster, said in describing the conundrum to me. The more territory the Tories lose in Remain-ia, the more they need to take in Brexit-land.

Andrew Cooper, Cameron’s former pollster, told me his models suggested that were an election held imminently, the Tories were likely to lose as many as a dozen seats in Scotland and up to 25 in England. “The strong polarization of attitudes on either side of the Brexit debate has altered the dynamics of the electoral battleground,” he said. “Seats that are strongly anti-Brexit could come into play even though they ostensibly have fairly big Tory majorities.” In Cooper’s view, at least 30 Tory seats are vulnerable, including those held by the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith and even, potentially, Johnson’s in West London.

Were the Tories to suffer anything like this number of losses, they would need to win about 65 seats in other parts of the country, largely from Labour, to secure a working majority in Parliament. This would amount to something like a 25 percent increase in the number of parliamentary seats they currently hold. For that to happen, Curtice calculates, the Conservatives would need a lead in the polls of about eight percentage points—the very top end of some recent polling.

A protester holds up a placard that reads, "Brexit, Is It Worth It?"
(Toby Melville / Reuters)

To win an election, the Tories must unite the Brexit vote as much as possible and hope the Remain opposition splits among the two national center-left parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Here looms Farage, the anti-EU campaigner who created the single-issue Brexit Party this year, which is advocating for a no-deal break from Brussels and now sits on 10 to 15 percent support in the polls. The Tory challenge is simple. They must squeeze the Brexit Party to eke out enough of a lead to secure a majority. Matthew Goodwin, another pollster, has calculated that if Johnson can cut support for the Brexit Party by five percentage points, he could win a healthy majority. But that’s a big if—since his elevation to the premiership, the Brexit Party’s numbers have stayed rock solid. Farage is offering Johnson a pact: Support a no-deal Brexit, and he will step aside in favor of the Conservatives. But for Johnson to do so means adopting a policy that may be too radical for the country and his party in Parliament to stomach—and that might only lead to further losses in areas of the country that voted Remain.

The nightmare for Johnson is a repeat of 2017, when early polls suggested the Tories were going to sweep into old Labour territory. Instead, Labour’s traditional heartland stuck with the party—just. “Brexit on its own was not enough to get a lot of cultural conservatives,” Cooper said. What’s more, old Labour seats were harder for the Tories to reach than old Tory seats were for Labour. The result was the Tories went forward across the north, but not enough to capture the territory, while letting Labour swoop in to win Conservative seats in the south. The party had gone forward and backward at the same time—and ended up with fewer seats than before.

There are, however, historical examples in which territory suddenly flips—just look at the United States.

Until 1964, no Republican candidate for president had won a single state in the Deep South since Reconstruction. Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, the heart of the Confederacy, could not vote for the party of Lincoln, and the Democrats were the party of white segregationists. Even in Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 Republican landslide, the South stayed blue.

In 1964, that all changed. Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which transformed the lives of millions of Americans—and remade the country’s political map. Also that year, the Deep South voted Republican, and in the 13 presidential elections since, it has stayed solidly Republican, only once voting as a bloc for a Democratic candidate—in 1976, for Georgia’s Jimmy Carter.* From 1972 to 2016, the Republican Party swept the board in the five Deep South states eight times out of 12, and won four out of five states three times.

The Grand Old Party of the Yankee North—which had ended slavery, won the Civil War, and overseen Reconstruction—was now the South’s party. In 1964, Strom Thurmond, the racist, pro-segregation southern Democrat, became a Republican. Four years later, Democrats won less than 10 percent of the white southern vote. But while the Republicans gained the South, they lost everywhere else. They had chosen a radical conservative, Barry Goldwater, as their candidate for the 1964 campaign, and he proved too much for the country. States that had voted for Nixon four years earlier—Maine and Oregon, California and Indiana—now voted Democrat. Johnson gave up his southern flank, and his party made the jump in enough of the rest of the country to compensate.

Some historians and pollsters in Britain now predict Brexit could have the same effect here, redrawing the map in a manner that opens up opportunities and dangers for both of the main political parties: for Labour in its northern heartlands, which voted for Brexit, and the Conservatives in metropolitan centers across the country, who backed Remain.

The lessons from history, however, are not simple. American politics before 1964 was not divided on simple ideological grounds. A conservative alliance united southern Democrats and midwestern Republicans, holding back issues like civil rights. Both parties contained social liberals as well. But in 1964, a new divide opened up that was more closely aligned to political philosophy: conservative and liberal.

The Democrats were the first to win in this new world, but they would soon be drowned by its long-term reality. “Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers,” writes Rick Perlstein in Before the Storm, which recounts America’s conservative revolution.

As the Civil Rights Act and Goldwater changed the American political divide, might Brexit do the same? Curtice’s research shows that 77 percent of voters say they define their political viewpoint either very strongly or strongly by whether they are Leave or Remain—and only 37 percent by political party. The long-term consequences of this are likely to outlast the immediate Tory struggle to stay in power after the next election, just as it did in the United States.

At the moment, Britain’s electoral divide is largely based on wealth, diversity, and location. The richer and more rural the area (which is closely linked to how diverse it is), the more likely it is to vote Conservative; the poorer and more urban, the higher the chances it will vote Labour. Plotted on a table, with diversity as the X axis (running left to right, from most diverse to least) and wealth as the Y axis (running bottom to top, poor to rich), safe Tory seats sit in the top-right quadrant—rich and white—and safe Labour seats in the bottom left, poor and diverse. A similar divide used to hold in the United States.

What has changed in both countries, as well as in France and Germany, is the appeal of parties—and causes—drawing their support from poor whites. Analysis by Cooper’s polling firm, Populus, illustrates this pattern across the West. What unites support for Donald Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and the far-right Alternative for Germany is demographics: They all draw their support from the bottom-right quadrant.

In the U.S., according to Cooper’s analysis, Trump’s victory is not a sudden, dramatic shift, but another step along the demographic path that American politics has been treading since the mid-1990s.  Beginning with Bill Clinton’s victory in 1996, the Democratic Party’s support base has slowly moved up the wealth table, while Republican supporters have become poorer. The one constant is diversity: The more diverse the area, the more Democratic it is, and vice versa.

Brexit has set in motion a similar shift in Britain, in Cooper’s reading. Support for Remain was highest in diverse, prosperous Britain—support for Brexit in white, non-urban areas. In the elections since Brexit, both national and European, Labour has steadily appealed to more university graduates and urban professionals, while retaining support among minorities. The Tory base, meanwhile, has become steadily less wealthy, but just as white. With urban, Remain areas more and more off-limits to the Tories, this trend may soon accelerate as the party focuses its energy on the parts of Britain that voted Brexit—demographically British Trump-land.

The consequences of this pursuit for the Conservative Party—and for the future shape of British politics—are potentially enormous.

David Cameron motions at photographs in a stairwell of his predecessors.
David Cameron motions at photos at his predecessors, including Margaret Thatcher and John Major. (Handout / Reuters)

The reality for Conservatives is, their possible new voter base is not composed of free-market economic liberals in the mold of Boris Johnson and much of the party’s leadership. “The voters the Tories are picking up do not want the economy run in the way the CBI wants it run,” Curtice said, referring to the Confederation of British Industry, the country’s Big Business pressure group. Cooper, equally, said these new voters shared many of the same instincts as Trump’s supporters on social issues. When asked whether the following were a force for good or ill—multiculturalism, social liberalism, immigration, the green movement, feminism, globalization, and the internet—Trump supporters and Brexit supporters had a high level of overlap in their answers, Cooper’s research has found. In his view, that is turning the Tory party into an English Nationalist Party, one that lacks support in the U.K.’s other constituent nations. “It asserts the importance of national ‘sovereignty’ and reactionary protectionism of its view of national culture and values, over everything else,” he said.

For Cooper and other Tory modernizers close to Cameron, who advocated a combination of social liberalism and economic conservatism to appeal to middle-class, urban professionals, this change is profound and regrettable, as well as shortsighted. As Britain becomes steadily more diverse and urban, they believe that this revised conservative offer is one of ever-diminishing returns. In 1987, according to Cooper, only one constituency in the country had a nonwhite population of more than 30 percent. Today there are 80 such constituencies, and only four voted Tory in the most recent election.

Conservative optimists instead argue that with Brexit, whole new tracts of the country have opened up to them: poor, white England, which previously felt no affinity with the Conservative Party, largely seen as the party of the rich. If the Tories can win these voters with conservative social policies and a new economic policy, they may be able to defeat a Labour Party that has moved too far to the left on economic and social issues for many voters.

The danger for the Conservatives today is that history repeats itself; the party might create a new country, but one that is different from the buccaneering, free-trading, outward-looking Global Britain Johnson has advocated. To liberal-minded Tories, this poses an uncomfortable problem: What if the country really wants left-wing economics and right-wing social policies?

The economic liberalization and prosperity of the ’80s and ’90s created the conditions for a revolution in social attitudes that the Conservative Party was not prepared for. The British conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote in 1999, two years after the party had been swept out of power by Tony Blair, that Thatcher and her successor, John Major, had been as “culturally inept as they were economically successful. They created the substance of the new country but they couldn’t articulate it.”

Yet in its long history, Toryism—and its principal political vehicle, the Conservative Party—has been for free trade and protectionism, parliamentary authority and parliamentary subservience, Catholic emancipation and Protestant ascendancy. It has been for bans on the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools and for equal marriage; for appeasement and war; Soviet pacts and the Soviet menace. And it has been for European integration and Brexit.

It has bent and bowed over time, morphed and adapted. But it has endured, so far. Underneath it all, its essential temperamental Toryism has survived—traditional, provincial, conservative—even as its political allegiances have shifted with the mood of the country, or at least the part of the country whose instincts it shares.

If Toryism is to survive, it must adapt again. And again and again. One should not bet against it doing so now.

* This article originally misstated the year in which Jimmy Carter was elected president. It was 1976, not 1974.