2022 marked the year that the Conservative Party fell apart. Again. Not only did the party oust two prime ministers, but blue-on-blue infighting intensified over both personality and policy.
Conservative MPs like Nadine Dorries and Jake Berry have been openly speaking out against their new party leader, and MPs have banded together to force U-turns on government housing targets and onshore wind in debates on the levelling up bill.
The consequences of a year of infighting are stark. Even with Rishi Sunak in No 10 for nearly two months, the party has not recovered in the polls, and is on track for a historically bad general election.
New factions, new battles
What’s more, several new Conservative factions have emerged with new ideas to renew the party and survive the upcoming election.
One new campaign group – Next Gen Tories – seeks to improve the party’s image among the young by tackling crises in the cost of living, housing, and childcare. Having gained seven ‘parliamentary champions’ in the week since it launched, including former levelling up secretary Simon Clarke, and former health secretary Matt Hancock, the group is quickly gathering momentum.
Meanwhile, the cultural right wing of the party is also organising. Earlier this week, 40 MPs signed a letter from the campaign group Conservative Way Forward to Jeremy Hunt. The letter highlighted the group’s report calling on the government to defund equality, diversity, and inclusivity schemes, charities which oppose the government, and quangos engaging in ‘anti-British’ activity.
Meanwhile, former home secretary Priti Patel and major donor Lord Cruddas have launched the Conservative Democracy Organisation, seeking to revitalise the Tories’ internal democracy.
This is not the first time that the party has devolved into various campaign groups. In the closing days of 2020, a similar phenomenon happened with the emergency of Jake Berry’s Northern Research Group (NRG), Mark Harper’s Covid Recovery Group (CRG), and John Hayes’ Common Sense Group (CSG).
This happened in a similar context, where Labour was on the verge of overtaking the Conservatives in the polls, Dominic Cummings had been sacked, and an end appeared in sight to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving an opportunity to push forward a new policy agenda.
The legacy of the 2020 factions
The proactive policy impact of these groups was unclear. The NRG failed to save the levelling up agenda in any substantial way, and the CSG did little to reignite the culture wars.
They did, however, achieve two main feats. The first was to collect big enough caucuses of MPs who could force government U-turns on sufficiently sizeable issues, most notably when a potential CRG rebellion led to watered down anti-Covid measures in December 2021.
Moreover, assembling blocs of MPs gave these groups a degree of power, and made their leadership more influential within the party. Both Berry and Harper won subsequent promotions from the prime ministers they backed, with Berry becoming Truss’s party chair, and Harper, Sunak’s transport secretary.
Whether these groups serve to elevate their leaders’ ambitions or to push for new policies, they are an unmistakeable sign that the Tories’ internal troubles are far from over. While the Sunak government seems eager to rock the boat as little as possible, his lack of a clear agenda creates a vacancy for backbench groups old and new to define the soul of the Conservative Party (the existence of which many readers may doubt).
Should the party seek practical solutions to the problems of the day? Should it seek a repeat of the 2019 playbook with a revival of grievance politics? Should it revitalise the levelling up agenda which helped to win so many red wall seats?
Many of these battles may well not get resolved until after Sunak leaves Downing Street. But the movements of these groups are well worth watching as the Conservatives search for their next policy agenda.