Opinion | Britain’s Conservative Party Is Being Held Captive by Bad People

At 3 a.m. one day last December, a 78-year-old volunteer for the British Conservative Party was reportedly woken by a call from Mark Menzies, the Conservative lawmaker she worked for. He said that he was being held somewhere by “bad people” who demanded £5,000, or $6,300, to release him. The volunteer, a former campaign manager for Mr. Menzies, paid the sum out of her own savings. She was later reimbursed out of party funds.

Mr. Menzies, who was suspended from the party last month, denies that allegation and others, which include using £14,000 from party funds for personal medical bills. The ins and outs of his improprieties are neither here nor there, though he is no stranger to scandal. Yet the affair epitomizes a Conservative Party in crisis. The Tories have been up to some very strange antics, and you could say that the party itself has been held captive by bad people. After 14 checkered years in government, it looks to be finally getting its comeuppance.

For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, defeat seems inevitable. Local elections last Thursday were almost uniformly disastrous for his party: Across England and Wales, the Conservatives lost 474 council seats and were defeated in every mayoral election but one. The results confirmed polls that for many months have given the opposition Labour Party a lead of 10 to 20 points, suggesting something like a wipeout in the general election that must be held by January of next year.

Before the elections, there were the usual mutterings in the Tory ranks about deposing Mr. Sunak. But the rebels have drawn back, maybe feeling some rare sense of the ridiculous. Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party for more or less 15 years. By comparison, we have already had five Tory leaders — and prime ministers — in the past eight years. One more, months before an election, would only confirm the view that this historic party is now, like some of its lawmakers, lamentable, lurid and ludicrous.

There has been something called a Tory party for 350 years, even if there’s very little in common between the royalist Cavaliers of the reign of King Charles II and the motley crew of the reign of King Charles III. Rebranded as the Conservatives by Sir Robert Peel in the 1830s, the party has often known internal ruptures and in the past century suffered three disastrous electoral defeats, at the hands of the Liberals in 1906 and Labour in 1945 and 1997.

But the Tories always managed to recover and return to office. The Conservative Party is not only the longest-lasting political party in European history but also the most successful. On their own or in coalition, the Tories have held office for 98 of the past 150 years, endlessly adapting themselves to new circumstances and confounding so many hopes or fears that the 20th century in Britain would belong to the left. They’ve won a plurality of the vote in the past four general elections, culminating in 2019, when they won the largest parliamentary majority in 30 years.

Now they’re in complete disarray, as symbolized by their increasingly disreputable personnel. One lawmaker was imprisoned for sexually assaulting a minor; another departed because a fellow lawmaker noticed that he was looking at pornography on his cellphone while sitting in the House of Commons. It’s almost refreshing to see a case of old-fashioned corruption: Scott Benton, who represented Blackpool South, was found offering his services in Parliament for cash and had to resign. The Tories duly lost the contest to replace him last week.

All the while, like some drumbeat in the background, can be heard “Brexit” and “Boris,” the two key terms of the party’s recent implosion. For much of the past 70 years, the Conservatives were the Europhile party. In 1963 one Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan, tried and failed to join the European Economic Community; 10 years later, another, Edward Heath, succeeded in joining; and in 1986 Mrs. Thatcher helped pass the Single European Act, a crucial step toward European integration.

Gradually from the 1990s, the Tories fostered ever more fanatical so-called Euroskeptics — “Europhobes” would be a better word — within their ranks while they were harried from the right by small anti-Europe parties, the Referendum Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Brexit Party and now Reform U.K. These parties have never had a candidate elected to Parliament, but they have frequently taken away a large slice of the Tory vote.

To placate these zealots, the “bad people” who were still a minority but had acquired a stranglehold over the party, David Cameron promised a referendum on membership of the European Union. He could have said that referendums are “the device of dictators and demagogues” — those were Mrs. Thatcher’s words — but instead he called a vote he expected to win, and then lost.

Defeat came not least through the intervention of Boris Johnson. No one could possibly believe that his support for Brexit was out of sincere conviction, which would have been almost oxymoronic: Everyone knows that he has never seriously believed in anything in his life, apart from self-advancement and self-gratification. He supported Leave only when he realized it was the one way he could gain the party leadership.

Mr. Johnson achieved that ambition and became prime minister in 2019, lasting three years until his colleagues tired of his misconduct and ejected him. Brexit is his legacy, and yet the golden future it was supposed to bring never dawned. Last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast the British economy would be worst performing of Group of 7 countries next year. Not surprisingly, Britons now suffer from Bregret, with polls finding that consistent majorities regret having left the European Union.

Beyond everyday politics and policies, the Conservatives look more and more like a dying party, which indeed they are in statistical terms. In the early 1950s, the party had 2.8 million members and was one of the great popular movements in Europe. There were individual constituencies where the local Conservative Association had more than 10,000 members, and the Young Conservatives was a thriving group, only in part because of its extrapolitical function as a kind of dating app.

By the 1980s, party membership was still 1.3 million. But two years ago, when the last election of a party leader by members was held, just 140,000 votes were cast. Members are much more southern, prosperous, middle class and right wing than most Tory voters, let alone the whole electorate — and simply much older. Polls find startlingly few people under 30 who intend to vote Conservative in the coming election.

At a time when nativist parties of the far right are advancing throughout Europe, respectable traditional conservatism is more important than ever. And yet there are prominent Tories, like Suella Braverman, briefly if bruisingly the home secretary, who say that the party should move still further to the right.

That is a prescription for disaster and an abandonment of the party’s historic character. Conservatism has many vices, but it — and especially English Toryism — has certain redeeming virtues: skepticism, pragmatism, pessimism and a share of common sense. If those virtues have now deserted the Tories, they deserve to pay the price.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a British journalist and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming “Bloody Panico! Or, Whatever Happened to the Tory Party?,” from which this essay is adapted.

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