The Conservative Party, always a broad church, has become increasingly atomized in recent years, a rupture rarely greater than at this week’s conference in Birmingham. Here’s a snapshot of five tribes covering MPs and the broader Tory faithful. Many of them inevitably overlap.
The IEA/TPA ultras for the open market
These are the people – MPs and party members – who propelled Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng to the top, with the power behind the throne being the think tanks that helped hatch the Prime Minister’s and Chancellor’s ideologies.
The Institute for Economic Affairs and the Taxpayers’ Alliance are longtime advocates of what some call the Singapore-on-Thames model of cutting taxes and regulations, and have been instrumental in influencing modern conservatism, although who funds them is unclear . They now have the perhaps uncomfortable experience of watching their theories being tested in real time.
Such views are particularly popular with many Conservative members who elected Truss as leader. They’re more of a minority pursuit among MPs, which explains the pressure on Truss to reverse their abolition of the top 45p tax rate. However, she has other true believers around her, including die-hard free market trader Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Red wall extras
This group has some notable overlaps with another internal tribe – what one might call the Continuity Johnsonites – but in the Truss era they are notable for their ideological contrast to the IEA/TPA Brigade.
Alongside Brexit, an interventionist approach to public projects dubbed “leveling” was a key pillar of Johnson’s electoral appeal, which helped elect many of the new Tory MPs in Labor’s former heartlands in 2019 .
Skeptics have argued whether a new bypass or cinema would reverse decades of decline based on much broader structural factors, but the sense that a government is taking care of them has been and remains strong.
This does not apply exclusively to the “Red Wall” or within it. Michael Gove, a Surrey MP, was perhaps the conference’s most vocal supporter of approximation, while Jake Berry, a pioneering Tory from the North, as party leader, argued vigorously for Truss’s approach.
There are also supporters outside of Parliament – one of the leading supporters of upgrading is Ben Houchen, Mayor of Tees Valley.
The Land Set/Green Tories
Some of these MPs and Members are a particularly broad grouping and broadly support agricultural interests that may conflict with environmental concerns. But they often coincide and are a strong voice.
Much of this faction’s effort has been linked to skepticism about Truss’s push for renewed fossil fuel extraction and, in particular, the return of fracking in England, which is particularly unpopular with many MPs.
Truss has clearly expressed his concern at what is seen as opposition to green issues and net zero, appointing Chris Skidmore, a leading green Tory MP, to lead a review of net zero policy.
On the fringes of this tribe, but still with many Tory members, are formal environmental groups like the RSPB, which has opposed efforts under Truss to reverse environmental regulations.
The malcontents/backbenchers of big beasts/sunakites
Once again a tribe that is something of an amalgam and whose circle in the Venn diagram overlaps with several others, but perhaps the most dangerous of all for Truss.
Ever since the Prime Minister won the Tory leadership election and put together a cabinet made up of more or less loyalists, rejected former ministers and other veterans who might have been hoping for a job have largely retired to the back benches to bid their time .
Many – not least former Chancellor Rishi Sunak – stayed away from the conference. But others, including Gove and the spurned former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, were out and about in Birmingham reportedly supporting Truss but making it clear they oppose their economic priorities.
The culture fighters
This might feel like a dwindling tribe as Truss was just an amateur in the field and somewhat tamed her rivals from that faction, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, by giving them cabinet posts. But don’t underestimate its appeal.
One of the defining characteristics of this year’s conference was the sheer number of side events discussing issues such as freedom of expression and “awakened” beliefs, with panellists and viewers seeming convinced that progressive politics among younger people poses a threat to the West on par with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Some Tory MPs are also believers. At a fringe meeting, backbencher Miriam Cates argued that reducing the number of young people going to university – another recurring theme was “Mickey Mouse degrees” – would not only save money but also prevent more teenagers from entering be indoctrinated into a liberal purgatory. The audience seemed to agree.