A gulf divides the Tory leadership race from the public

  • Insight
  • 16 July 2022

by Luke Tryl

While those vying to be our next prime minister were laying out their positions on gender, corporation tax and the European Court of Human Rights last week, I was busy talking to voters about very different concerns. These can best be summarised as: how they could afford to get through the winter.

That the public think politicians speak a different language to them isn’t new.

But the contrast between the issues dominating the Tory contest and what participants in our focus groups in the constituencies of Altrincham in Cheshire and Rother Valley in South Yorkshire wanted to talk about could not have been more stark.

The very different conversations reflect the different electorates.

At the moment, contenders are making their pitch to 358 Tory MPs, who, frankly, aren’t that normal. They are both more politically engaged by niche topics and, as research by Alan Wager and others shows, far more economically rightwing than the average voter. Just 5 per cent of Tory MPs agree there is one law for the rich and one for the poor — compared with an overwhelming 72 per cent of voters.

The race will soon move to the membership to choose from the final two contenders. Will we then see a conversation better reflecting the country’s concerns? Well, don’t hold your breath. As a snapshot of Britain, Conservative members are certainly not representative — as research by Tim Bale has found, they are 86 per cent middle class, 97 per cent white and 71 per cent male, with an average age of 57.

Perhaps, then, once the new leader has managed to get elected by this unrepresentative group, they can make a unifying pitch to the electorate? Again, our research shows that it won’t be easy.

The electoral coalition that gave the Conservatives their 80-seat majority in 2019 is made up of four different voter blocks. We have dubbed the one most akin to Tory members Backbone Conservatives: they are in the bag. Seventy-nine per cent supported the Conservatives in 2019 and 76 per cent would again. The second group, christened Disengaged Traditionalists, are unlikely to switch to Labour but may not vote at all.

Then comes the tricky bit — balancing the two parts of the Tory coalition that often looks in opposite directions. Established Liberals are the only Remain-voting segment of the Tory coalition, and have been drifting away from 49 per cent support for the Conservatives in 2017 to just 37 per cent today. Economically rightwing and socially liberal, they find culture wars alienating and don’t like, for example, the Rwanda policy for asylum seekers.

On the other side are Loyal Nationals, who moved dramatically to the Conservatives in 2019 with 56 per cent support. After “partygate”, just 38 per cent are staying. Socially conservative and economically statist, 75 per cent strongly agree that the world is becoming more dangerous. Refugee channel crossings are a top issue for them. These two groups are not, then, ideological bed fellows.

Three things gelled Conservative voters together in 2019 — exhaustion with Brexit debates, the threat of Jeremy Corbyn, and, yes, Boris Johnson’s personal appeal. None apply now.

But some threads do bring the Tory base together. First, all rank cost of living as the top issue facing the country. Second, the Tory-voting segments like the idea of a patriotic national mission both at home and abroad — from levelling up to supporting Ukraine. And then there’s climate change — 73 per cent of Established Liberals and Loyal Nationals want to see the UK achieve net zero emissions. Backing that target isn’t just good science, it’s smart politics.

The next Tory leader will face a daunting balancing act if they are to keep the Conservative coalition together. The red meat of the past week was the easy bit — the challenge now is finding a pitch that the whole Tory family can get behind.

First published: Financial Times, 16th July 2022