The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Conservative Party (UK)

The Conservative Party is the largest political party on the 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.

The current formal name, registered with the UK Electoral Commission but rarely used outside of 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.

The current Conservative leader,
The current Conservative leader, Michael Howard


Brief overview of the party

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 17 January 2005, Labour holds a majority in the house with 408 Members of Parliament and a 161 member majority. The Conservatives come in second with 162 Members of Parliament and the Liberal Democrats follow with 55 Members of Parliament.

The origins of the Conservative Party go back to the Tory faction of 1688 which opposed the exclusion of the Duke of York, later King James 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.' The Tories more often than not formed the government from the accession of King George III 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. This government's support for appeasement rebounded after World War II when the party was blamed for the outbreak of War.

After the end of the 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, towards the end of the 1980's, 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 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.

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. There are high hopes for Michael Howard’s leadership among conservative supporters; many party members see him as the party’s chance to regain power in the upcoming 2005 general election.

Conservative Party policies are in favour of small government. 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.


The modern Conservative Party arose in the 1830s, but has as an ancestor the Tory Party of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Political alignments in those centuries were much looser than now, with many individual groupings. From the 1780s until the 1820s the dominant grouping was that following William Pitt the Younger and his successors, who gradually came to be called Tories. In the late 1820s disputes over political reform broke up this grouping. A government led by the Duke of Wellington collapsed admidst dire election results. Following this disaster Robert Peel set about assembling a new coalition of forces. Peel issued the Tamworth Manifesto in 1834 which set out the basic principles of Conservatism and that year he formed a temporary government. Later in 1841 he formed a longer lasting administration. The Conservative Party was now fully established as a political force.

The crisis over the Corn Laws

However in 1846 disaster struck when the party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Peel and many of the party's leaders, including a young William Gladstone, found themselves adrift from the rank and file of the party. The Peelites never again were a part of the party.

Recovery and triumph under Derby and Disraeli

However the Conservatives survived, even though they would not form another majority government until the 1870s. Under the leadership of the Earl of Derby and Benjamin Disraeli they consolidated their position and presented themselves as a viable alternative. Although Derby managed to lead several minority governments in the 1850s and 1860s, the party was never able to achieve a majority until after the passage of the Reform Act of 1867, which broadened the franchise. Disraeli's mixture of jingoistic nationalism and promises of social reforms managed to win him enough working-class support to win a majority in 1874, but the Conservative hold remained tenuous, and Disraeli was defeated in the election of 1880. It wasn't until the split in the Liberal Party over Irish home rule in 1886 that the Conservatives were able to achieve truly secure majorities through the defection of the Liberal Unionists.

The Unionist Ascendancy

The Conservatives, now led by Lord Salisbury, remained in power for most of the next twenty years, at first passively supported by the Liberal Unionists and then, after 1895, in active coalition with them. From 1895, unofficially, and after 1912 officially, the Conservative-Liberal Unionist coalition was often simply called the "Unionists". In 1903-1905, following Salisbury's resignation in favor of his nephew, Arthur Balfour, internal disputes over Liberal Unionist Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain's advocacy of imperial preference tariffs led to a severe defeat to the Liberals in the General Election of 1906.

The slow return to power

The Unionists strongly opposed many of the proposed reforms of the new Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. In 1910, the Unionist dominated House of Lords rejected the budget, leading to a long conflict over reform of the House of Lords. The Conservatives managed to make up much of their losses in both the January and December elections of 1910 - forcing the Liberals to rely on Irish Nationalist votes to maintain their majority. Although the Liberals were able to force through the Lords reform with the Parliament Act of 1911, their advocacy once again cost them support, so that by the time of the outbreak of World War I, a Unionist victory in the next elections looked imminent. Liberal mismanagement of the early phases World War I led to the return of the Unionists to power - first in coalition with Asquith's Liberals, and then, with the split and then the collapse of the Liberals, the Unionists under Andrew Bonar Law were able to become the dominant party in Lloyd George's coalition government.

The era of Baldwin

The party reached a new height in the inter-war years under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin. His mixture of strong social reforms with steady government proved a powerful election combination, with the result that the Conservatives governed Britain either by themselves or as the leading component of the National Government for most of the interwar years. But during the Second World War attitudes in Britain changed and the party failed to adapt. In the 1945 General Election the Conservatives were soundly defeated.

Post war recovery

The party responded to this by accepting many of the Labour government's social reforms whilst also offering a distinctive Conservative edge, and returning to government in 1951. These years were seen as the height of "consensus politics". However in the 1970s many traditional methods of running the economy, managing relations with trade unions and so on began to fail. At the same time the Labour Party was increasingly dominant, ruling for nearly twelve out of the fifteen years between 1964 and 1979. Many in the Conservative Party were left wondering how to proceed.

The Thatcher Years, 1975-1990

Conservative Prime Minister 1979-1990,
Conservative Prime Minister 1979-1990, Margaret Thatcher

In 1975 the monetarists, led by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher started to challenge leader Edward Heath's authority, and Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975, becoming leader of the opposition. The Tories capitalised on the Winter of Discontent and the growing inflation rate, not to mention the humiliating bailout of the UK economy by the IMF in 1976, and won the 1979 general election with a majority of 43, Thatcher becoming the UK's first woman Prime Minister.

Thatcher, due to successful economic reforms after decades of economic decline, the Falklands War, the perceived "loony left" nature of the Labour Party, and the intervention of the centrist SDP-Liberal Alliance won the 1983 general election with a landslide, gaining a majority of 144. Again due to the perceived "loony left" nature of the Labour Party, and the intervention of the SDP-Liberal Alliance Thatcher won the 1987 general election with a large majority of 102.

The second and third terms were dominated by privatisations of Britain's many state-owned industries including British Telecom in 1984, the bus companies in 1985, British Gas in 1986, British Airways in 1987, British Leyland, British Steel in 1988.

In 1989, the Community Charge (frequently referred to as the poll tax) was introduced to replace the ancient system of rates (based on property values) which funded local government. This new charge was a flat rate per adult no matter what their circumstances, and was very unpopular as it seemed to be shifting the tax burden onto poor people. Once again Thatcher became very unpopular, but this time the Conservatives thought it might cost them the election. Michael Heseltine, a former cabinet member challenged her for the leadership in 1990. She won the first round, but unconvincingly, and after taking soundings from cabinet members, resigned. In the ensuing leadership election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Major beat Heseltine and Douglas Hurd.

The Major years: 1990-1997

Conservative Prime Minister 1990-1997,
Conservative Prime Minister 1990-1997, John Major

Major introduced a replacement for the Community Charge, the Council Tax and continued with the privatisations, and went on to narrowly win the 1992 election, with a majority of 21.

However, his first full term was beset with scandals. Many of these were purely about the personal lives of politicians which the media attempted to construe as hypocrisy, but the Cash for Questions affair and the divisions over EU were substantive. In 1995, Major resigned as Leader of the Conservative Party in order to trigger a leadership election which he hoped would give him a renewed mandate, and quieten the Maastricht rebels (people such as Iain Duncan Smith, Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin).

As the term went on, with by-elections being consistently lost by the Conservatives, their majority reduced and eventually vanished entirely. Getting every vote out became increasingly important to both sides, and on several occasions ill MPs were wheeled into the Commons to vote. Eventually, the Government became a technical minority.

As predicted, the general election of May 1997 was a win for the Labour Party, but perhaps the magnitude of the victory surprised everyone. There was a swing of about 20% in some places, and Labour got a majority of 177. The Conservatives lost all their seats outside of England, and prominent members such as Michael Portillo and Malcolm Rifkind lost their seats. Major resigned within 24 hours.

It is often said that the Conservatives lost the 1997 election due to party divisions in policy towards the EU. However, it is likely that the European question played only a small or insignificant part in the result. Accusations of "Tory Sleaze", apathy towards a government that had been in power for nearly two decades, plus a rebranded "New" Labour Party with a dynamic and charismatic leader (Tony Blair) are the probable factors that led to the Conservative defeat.

William Hague: 1997-2001

The ensuing (1997) leadership election was contested by five candidates. The electorate for the contest consisted solely of the 165 Conservative MPs who had been returned to the House of Commons. The candidates were Kenneth Clarke, William Hague, John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Michael Howard. Clarke was the favoured candidate of the Pro-European left of the party, while the three latter candidates divided right wing support roughly equally. Hague, who had initially supported Howard, emerged second as a compromise candidate and won the final ballot after Redwood and Clarke negotiated a joint ticket which was derided as an Instability Pact by their opponents (punning on the economic Stability Pact of the European Community).

At first William Hague portrayed himself 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 used to drink 14 imperial pints (8 L) of beer a day. 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

A new leadership electoral system designed by Hague resulted in five candidates competing for the job: Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith, Kenneth Clarke, David Davis and Michael Ancram. The drawn out and at times acrimonious election saw Conservative MPs select Iain Duncan Smith and Ken Clarke to be put forward for a vote by party members. As Conservative Party members are characteristically Eurosceptic, Iain Duncan Smith was elected, even though opinion polls showed that the public preferred Ken Clarke, a member of the Tory Reform Group. Main article: 2001 Conservative leadership election.

Iain Duncan Smith (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.

In October 2003 (week beginning October 27) there were strong calls for Iain Duncan Smith to resign as leader or face a vote of confidence. Under the rules of the Conservative party, the back bench Conservative 1922 Committee will review the leadership, and in order for this to take place the chairman of the committee, Sir Michael Spicer must be presented with 25 letters proposing a vote.

On 28 October sufficient letters were presented to the chairman of the 1922 Committee to initiate a vote of confidence in Iain Duncan Smith. The vote was conducted on 29 October, and IDS lost 90 to 75.

Michael Howard: 2003 to present

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 abolished. The role of party chairman has also been split into two, with Maurice 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.

Also, a panel of 'grandees', including John Major, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague and notably Kenneth Clarke has been set up to advise the leadership as they see fit.

On 2 January 2004, influenced by Saatchi, Howard has defined a personal credo and list of core beliefs of the party. At the party conference of October 2004, the Tories presented their "Timetable For Action" that a Conservative government would follow.

Tory "sleaze"

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 have damaged the Conservatives' public reputation. Persistent unsubstantiated rumours about the activities of the party treasurer Michael Ashcroft have not helped 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.

Since this time, the Conservative Party has worked hard to try to regain the moral high ground.

Leaders of the Conservative Party since 1834

Until 1922 there was no formal "Leader of the Conservative Party". The leaders of Conservative MPs and Conservative peers were regarded as coequal unless one of them was either the Prime Minister or a former Prime Minister, or if a particular crisis (as in 1846-1847 or 1916) had resulted in one clearly asserting authority over the other. In the periods when this was not the case (1881 - 1885, 1911 - 1916, 1921 - 1922) there was no clear "Leader of the Conservative Party" - this contributed to some of the internal party conflict at the time.

In 1911 the Parliament Act reduced the power of the Lords and it seemed likely that the leader in the Commons would be preeminent, however this was not formally recognised for another eleven years (and there were several occasions when members of the Lords were strongly considered for the leadership of the whole party after this time). From 1922 an overall leader has been formally elected by a joint meeting of MPs, Peers and prospective parliamentary candidates, even when the party is in opposition. Initially until 1965 this election consisted of the individual who had been already asked by the monarch to form a government being ratified by the meeting (the leadership did not fall vacant at any time when the party was in opposition in this period), however more recently a succession of ballots have been held in order to chose between competing candidates.

The distinction of the leaders is often overlooked by many and there are lists in circulation that assume the eventual single leader who emerged after a period of coequal leadership was the leader from the outset. However this was not always the case - for example in 1881 it was widely expected that the Commons leader Sir Stafford Northcote would be the next Conservative Prime Minister but by the time the party had returned to government in 1885 political developments had resulted in the Lords leader Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury having the stronger claimant for the premiership.

Leaders in the House of Lords 1834-1922

Those asterisked considered the overall leader of the party.

Leaders in the House of Commons 1834-1922

Leader of the Conservative Party 1922-present

Other famous Conservative politicians

Associated groups

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

See also

External links

Official Party sites

Internal party policy groups

Unofficial sites

Last updated: 06-02-2005 14:04:31
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