Conservative Party (UK)

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Template:Infobox British Political Party

The Conservative Party is the largest political party on the centre-right in the United Kingdom. It is descended from the Tory Party and its members are still commonly referred to as Tories. It is a member of the International Democrat Union worldwide, and the European Democrats on the European level. In the European Parliament, its MEPs sit in the EPP-ED group. Its current leader is Michael Howard, who as Leader of the Opposition heads the Shadow Cabinet.

The Conservatives were the governing party in the United Kingdom on many occasions from 1834 until 1997. Since losing the 1997 election to the Labour Party under Tony Blair, they have been in opposition.


Conservative Party today

The current Leader,
The current Leader, Michael Howard

Currently, the Conservative Party is the largest party in opposition to the British government, run by the Labour Party. Although there are nine political parties represented in the House of Commons, three dominate the house. As of 7 May 2005, Labour holds a 66 member majority in the house with 356 Members of Parliament. The Conservatives come in second with 197 Members of Parliament and the Liberal Democrats follow with 62 Members of Parliament.

Conservative leaders since 1997 have faced difficulties in returning the party to being a serious contender for government. Major's successor, William Hague, resigned after a second landslide defeat in 2001. Iain Duncan Smith, the leader after 2001, was deposed in a vote of no confidence in 2003, to be followed by Michael Howard. Howard reduced the Labour majority at the 2005 general election but the day after the poll announced that he would resign "sooner rather than later", citing his age as the principal reason for his resignation. The party had only marginally increased its share of the vote to 32.3%.

The Party's current formal name, registered with the UK Electoral Commission but rarely used outside Scotland and Northern Ireland, is The Conservative and Unionist Party. The formal name is a vestige from the 1912 merger with the Liberal Unionist Party, and an echo of the party's defence (1886-1921) of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland and subsequent insistence on British sovereignty in Northern Ireland in opposition to Irish nationalist and republican aspirations. The electoral symbol of the Conservative party is a hand holding a torch.


Conservative Party policies are in favour of slightly smaller government than Labour. They are also noted for their Eurosceptic stance. However, it is widely held that their present weakened position in UK politics is at least partly the result of continued internal tension between supporters of the European Union and Eurosceptics.

Tory image


A number of political scandals in the 1980s and 1990s created the impression of what is described in the British press as "sleaze": a perception that the Conservatives were associated with political corruption and hypocrisy. In particular the successful entrapment of Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick in the "cash for questions" scandal, the contemporaneous misconduct as a minister by Neil Hamilton (who lost a consequent libel action against The Guardian), and the convictions of former Cabinet member Jonathan Aitken and former party deputy chairman Jeffrey Archer for perjury in two separate cases leading to custodial sentences damaged the Conservatives' public reputation. Persistent unsubstantiated rumours about the activities of the party treasurer Michael Ashcroft did not help this impression.

At the same time a series of revelations about the private lives of various Conservative politicians also grabbed the headlines and both the media and the party's opponents made little attempt to clarify the distinction between financial conduct and private lives.

John Major's "Back to Basics" morality campaign back-fired on him by providing an excuse for the British media to expose "sleaze" within the Conservative Party and, most damagingly, within the Cabinet itself. A number of ministers were then revealed to have committed sexual indiscretions, and Major was forced by media pressure to dismiss them. In September 2002 it was revealed that, prior to his promotion to the cabinet, Major had himself had a longstanding extramarital affair with a fellow MP, Edwina Currie.

Economic competence

For virtually the entire twentieth century, the Tory party has been seen as the "natural party of government", a position founded above all on its reputation for economic competence, as well as its pragmatism. The contrast with Labour's twentieth century record, from the 1967 devaluation of the pound to the 1979 winter of discontent, remained strong, even as the 1980s saw economic growth (in the latter half) alongside mass unemployment on a scale (3 million unemployed) which it was once thought would certainly bring down a government. The party's reputation in this area of traditional strength was dealt a fatal blow by the 1992 Black Wednesday affair, in which billions of pounds were wasted trying to keep the pound within the European ERM system of exchange rates at an overvalued rate. Coming on the heels of the 1991 recession (albeit this was largely due to global influences), the groundwork was laid for New Labour's embrace of big business and "modernisation" (marketisation and gradual privatisation) of public services to steal what was left of the Conservative Party's economic clothes. As a result, Conservative election campaigns have focussed much more than they once would have done on social or cultural issues, such as crime. The Party has even felt it necessary to commit to matching Labour spending plans - a reverse of the situation in 1997.

Social policy

Following the loss of the key advantage of a superior reputation on the economy, the Conservatives have had to focus on issues of social policy to differentiate themselves from New Labour. Since the Conservatives cannot, in the main, outflank Labour on the left, they can either seek to occupy a similar position in the political spectrum (mostly centre-right, with less prominent elements of leftwing policy), or move further to the right than much of the electoral will bear. The Conservative party grass roots has pushed in this direction, but in age and political preference differs substantially from the centre ground where floating voters may be found. The result has been a series of internal battles in the party between the "modernising" wing which seeks to stress, for example, that homosexuality is no longer an issue, against a right wing seeking to focus on crime, asylum and immigration. The right wing so far has won most of these battles, resulting in William Hague's and Michael Howard's swing to the right, and the election of the stop-Ken-Clarke candidate Iain Duncan Smith. Teresa May famously remarked that the result of all this was that the Conservatives were perceived as "the nasty party".

One area in which the battle for the soul of the party can be seen is in the party's non-position over ID cards. Terrified of opposing a popular measure allegedly of value in the fight against crime and terrorism (even though the more the public hears about ID cards the less they approve), the Tories have given up the chance to defend old-fashioned liberal values that were once core to their party, which today could help differentiate them against New Labour's authoritarian instincts.

The 2005 election saw the first black Conservative MP, Adam Afriyie, elected in Windsor.


Main articles: History of the Conservative Party and Leaders of the Conservative Party

The origins of the Conservative Party go back to the Tory faction of 1678-1681 which opposed the exclusion of the Duke of York, later King James VII&II, from the order of succession to the throne. The name 'Conservative' was suggested by John Wilson Croker in the 1830s and later officially adopted, but the party is still often referred to as the 'Tory Party' (not least because newspaper editors find it a convenient shorthand when space is limited). The Tories more often than not formed the government from the accession of King George III (in 1760) until the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Widening of the franchise in the 19th century led the party to popularise its approach, especially under Benjamin Disraeli who carried through his own Reform Act in 1868. After 1886 the Conservatives allied with Liberals who opposed their party's support for Irish Home Rule and held office for all but three of the following twenty years, but when it split over tariff reform, the party suffered a landslide election defeat.

World War I saw an all-party coalition and the Conservatives then stayed in Coalition with half of the Liberals for four years after the armistice. Eventually, grassroots pressure forced the breakup of the Coalition and the party regained power on its own. It again dominated the political scene in the inter-war period, from 1931 in a 'National Government' coalition. However in the 1945 general election the party lost power in a landslide to the Labour Party.

After the end of the Second World War, the Conservatives accepted the reality of the Labour government's nationalisation programme and creation of the 'welfare state', but when it returned to power promoted an economic boom which led back to prosperity in the 1950s. In 1975 Margaret Thatcher became leader and converted it to support a monetarist economic programme; after her election victory in 1979 her government became known for a free-market approach and privatisation of public utilities. Here, the Conservatives experienced a high-point, Thatcher leading the Conservatives to two landslide election victories in 1983 and 1987. However, she was deeply unpopular in some sections of society, initially for the massive unemployment caused by the economic reforms, and later for what was seen as a heavy-handed response to the Miners' strike, and for her introduction of the poll tax (repealed within a year or two in favour of the council tax, essentially the previous rates system by another name).

However, towards the end of the 1980s, Thatcher's increasing unpopularity and unwillingness to change policies perceived as vote-losing led to her being deposed in 1990 and replaced by John Major who won an unexpected election victory in 1992. Major's government suffered a political blow when the Pound Sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism later that year, which lost the party much of its reputation for good financial stewardship. An effective opposition campaign by the Labour Party led to a landslide defeat in 1997.

Recent history (1997 - )

William Hague (1997 - 2001) portrayed himself at first as a moderniser with a common touch. However by the time the 2001 general election came he concentrated on Europe, asylum seekers and tax cuts whilst declaring that only the Conservative Party could "Save the Pound". He was seen as a political lightweight by many, and was widely mocked for his claim that he drank 14 imperial pints (8 l) of beer in a day in his youth. Despite a low turnout, the election resulted in a net gain of a single seat for the Conservative Party and William Hague's resignation as party leader.

Iain Duncan Smith (2001-2003) (often known as IDS) was a strong Eurosceptic but this did not define his leadership - indeed it was during his tenure that Europe ceased to be an issue of division in the party as it united behind calls for a referendum on the proposed European Union Constitution. Duncan Smith's Shadow Cabinet contained many new and unfamiliar faces but despite predictions by some that the party would lurch to the right the team instead followed a pragmatic moderate approach to policy. After losing a vote of confidence, Duncan Smith remained as caretaker leader until Michael Howard, MP for Folkestone and Hythe, was elected to the post of leader (as the only candidate) on 6 November 2003.

Howard announced radical changes to the way the Shadow Cabinet would work. He slashed the number of members by half, with Theresa May and Tim Yeo each shadowing two government departments. Minor departments still have shadows but have been removed from the cabinet, and the post of Shadow Leader of the House of Commons was abolished. The role of party chairman was also split into two, with Lord Saatchi responsible for the party machine, and Liam Fox handling publicity. Michael Portillo was offered a position but refused, due to his plans to step down from Parliament at the next election.

In the 2005 general election, the Conservative Party made a partial recovery, making a net gain of 31, cutting the Labour majority to 66. The day after, on May 6, Howard announced that he believed himself too old to lead the party into another election campaign, and he would therefore be stepping down to allow a new leader the time to prepare for the next election. Howard said that he believed that the party needed to amend the rules governing the election of the Party leader, and that he would allow time for that to happen before resigning. See Conservative Party (UK) leadership election, 2005

The campaign has received criticism (,,19809-1604717,00.html) from its main financial backer, Michael Spencer. In an interview with The Times Tim Collins claims the reasons the party won more seats will not or may not be repeated in the next general election:

  • Unpopularity of Tony Blair which helped the Liberal Democrats and hence the Conservative Party in close fights. Blair will not be Prime Minister at the next election.
  • The left-of-Labour policies of the Liberal Democrats helped Conservatives in Tory/LibDem marginals.
  • Labour's campaign in their marginal seats was poor.

Associated groups

Full list is at: List of organisations associated with the British Conservative Party

See also

Further reading

  • Geoffrey Wheatcroft (2005), The Strange Death of Tory England

External links

Official Party sites

Internal party policy groups


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