A brief history of the Conservative Party
From the Brexit saga to the Tory leadership contest, the Conservative Party has dominated headlines in recent years. But how much do you know about the history of the party? When was it first established, who was the first Conservative prime minister, and why is it known as the Tory party?
Here, Professor Stuart Ball, an expert in Conservative Party history, explains…
The origins of the Conservative Party can be traced to the ‘Tory’ group in parliament which emerged in the last quarter of the 17th century and, led by Robert Harley and Lord Bolingbroke, held power during the final years of Queen Anne’s reign. However, they were eclipsed by their Whig rivals after the succession of the house of Hanover in 1714, and further tainted first by Bolingbroke’s flight to France and his involvement in the Jacobite rising of 1715; and second by the Atterbury Plot, led by the Tory Bishop of Rochester, to organise a rising in conjunction with an invasion from France in 1722.
Tories were excluded from office during the reigns of George I and George II, but following the long period of Whig dominance the name ‘Tory’ re-emerged in the late-18th century. This ‘Tory Party’ established a secure hold on government between 1783 and 1830, first under William Pitt the Younger (prime minister 1783–1801 and 1804–06) and then Lord Liverpool (prime minister 1812–27). However, after Liverpool’s retirement the unity of the party was destroyed in 1829 when his successors, the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, were forced to concede full political emancipation to the Roman Catholic majority in Ireland and minority in England.
Tory divisions opened the way for a return of the Whigs in the 1830s, and a series of measures including the Great Reform Act of 1832 changed the political scene; in the general election which followed reform the Tories were reduced to only 179 MPs. It was in the wake of these upheavals that the name ‘Conservative’ began to be used, although ‘Tory’ and ‘Tories’ have remained as shorthand terms to the present day.
Robert Peel and the Corn Laws
From the mid-1830s, Peel sought to rally the opponents of further reforms, particularly in municipal government and the position of the Church of England. After gaining ground in the 1837 election, Peel eventually won a substantial majority in 1841. However, his decision in 1846 to reverse course and repeal the protectionist Corn Laws outraged many of his followers and the party was split from top to bottom; in the crucial division only 112 Conservative MPs supported repeal whilst 231 voted against.
The minority of ‘Peelites’ included nearly all of the leading figures; after occupying a detached position, they eventually merged into the Liberal Party in the 1860s. The majority protectionist section consisted mainly of backbench MPs and retained the name Conservative; it was led from the House of Lords by the 14th Earl of Derby (1799–1869), who formed two short-lived minority governments during intervals of Whig disunity in 1852 and 1858–59. The Conservatives suffered from a lack of debating talent in the House of Commons, and it was for this reason that the previously derided figure of Benjamin Disraeli emerged as the party’s leader in the Commons in the early 1850s.
The age of Disraeli
The defeat of the Whig ministry’s parliamentary reform bill led to a third minority Conservative government in 1866–68, led first by Derby and then by Disraeli during its final months of February to December 1868. Shaped by Disraeli’s adroit tactics in the Commons, the Second Reform Act of 1867 was a bold stroke which sought to protect Conservative interests and restore their credibility as a governing party. Most of the new voters were in the industrial towns and cities, and it was with the aim of improving Conservative prospects here that Disraeli founded the two complementary institutions of the party.
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The National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations was formed in 1867 and the Conservative Central Office established in 1870; their names have been amended at various times, but their roles have remained constant. The National Union is the representative body of the party membership and local constituency associations are affiliated to it – its best-known function is the holding of the annual party conference. Central Office (now Conservative Campaign Headquarters) is the base for the party’s paid officials and organisers – it is under the direct authority of the party leader and has always been located near to parliament.
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The Conservatives were defeated in the election of 1868 by the Liberal Party, now led by William Gladstone, but his government became increasingly unpopular and in 1874 Disraeli won 350 seats and the first Conservative majority in the House of Commons since 1841. His government of 1874–80 was a landmark in Conservative fortunes, and its domestic measures widened its appeal to the urban middle and working classes. At the same time, Disraeli forged the crucial link between the Conservative Party and patriotic pride in nation and empire.
Although economic problems and Gladstone’s revival of Liberal morale led to defeat in 1880, the position of the Conservative Party became much stronger in the last quarter of the 19th century and this enabled them to capitalise on Liberal divisions.
Irish Home Rule and tariff reform
In the crisis of 1886 – caused by Gladstone’s proposal to establish a devolved parliament for Ireland (known as ‘Home Rule’) – Disraeli’s successor, the 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, moved rapidly to entrench the Conservatives as the defenders of the Union. A substantial section of the Liberal Party, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, could not accept Gladstone’s policy and broke away. These ‘Liberal Unionists’ first gave informal support to Salisbury’s government of 1886–1892, and then took office as a coalition partner when Salisbury returned to power in 1895. The relationship became increasingly close, and from the 1890s to the 1920s ‘Unionist’ displaced Conservative as the commonly-used name for the party. In 1912 the Liberal Unionists formally merged with the Conservatives, creating the official name of ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ which still remains.
The Irish question and Liberal disunity led to a substantial victory for the Unionist coalition of 411 MPs in 1895, and this was maintained with 402 MPs at the next election in 1900, held during patriotic fervour at the height of the Second Boer War (when Dutch-speaking settlers and soldiers from the British empire fought battles in South Africa between 1899 and 1902).
When Salisbury retired from the premiership in 1902, the outlook for the Conservatives seemed very favourable. However, their fortunes swiftly declined under his nephew and successor, Arthur Balfour, and the period from 1902 to 1914 was one of the most difficult and disunited in the party’s history. The problems were principally caused by the programme of ‘tariff reform’ launched by Joseph Chamberlain in 1903. This proposed a return to protectionism combined with lower duties on trade within the British empire, with the aim of fostering greater imperial unity. It was soon supported by most Conservatives, but was strongly opposed by a small group of free traders. More seriously, working-class fears that duties on food imports would raise the cost of living made it an electoral liability. This was the main factor in the party’s worst-ever defeat in 1906, when it was reduced to 156 MPs, and it contributed to the narrower reverses in the elections of January and December 1910, when 272 Conservatives were returned on both occasions.
Following the latter, the party was bitterly divided over how far to resist the Liberal government’s reform of the House of Lords in 1911, which led to Balfour’s resignation. His unexpected successor, Andrew Bonar Law (party leader 1911–21 and 1922–23), restored morale with a series of vigorous attacks on the Liberal government, but there were further divisions over the tariff reform policy in 1913 and the Conservatives lacked any constructive response to the Liberals’ social reform measures. During the passage of the third Irish Home Rule Bill in 1912–14 Law moved to an extreme position in support of Ulster, and appeared willing to back potentially violent paramilitary resistance.
The Conservatives return to dominance, 1914–45
The Conservatives gained popularity during the First World War as the party of patriotism and supporters of measures for the vigorous prosecution of the war, particularly the introduction of military conscription. In May 1915 they joined a coalition under the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith (prime minister 1908–16), but a lack of progress led the Conservative leaders to support his replacement in December 1916 by the more energetic David Lloyd George – an event which split the Liberal Party and led to its post-war decline. The Lloyd George coalition continued into peacetime with 382 Conservative MPs amongst its landslide victory of 529 seats in December 1918.
However, after 1920, economic depression and policy failures made the coalition increasingly unpopular with Conservative MPs and a revolt swelled up from the lower ranks of the party. Austen Chamberlain, the party leader since March 1921, wanted to continue the coalition but was heavily defeated by 185 to 88 at the meeting of Conservative MPs which he summoned at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922. Chamberlain immediately resigned as party leader and Lloyd George did so as prime minister, while Bonar Law returned from retirement to take both posts and lead the Conservative Party to victory on its own in the election which he immediately called, winning 344 seats.
A number of Conservative MPs who entered parliament in that election formed a group to learn more about parliamentary business, and during the next four years this ‘1922 Committee’ expanded to include all backbench MPs. Retaining its original name, it became the recognised forum for backbench opinion and a permanent part of the party’s organisation; since 1965 it has been responsible for the conduct of leadership elections.
A few months after taking charge of the party, Bonar Law’s health declined and in May 1923 he was succeeded as party leader and prime minister by Stanley Baldwin. Despite leading the Conservatives into an unnecessary defeat on a protectionist programme in December 1923 and an attempt by the newspaper owners Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere to remove him when the party was in opposition in 1929–31, Baldwin remained party leader until 1937. Standing for honesty, moderation and traditional English values, he attracted widespread popular support.
This, coupled with Liberal decline and fears about the rise of the Labour Party, meant the Conservatives dominated the inter-war decades: between 1918 and 1945 they were the largest party in the House of Commons for all but the brief term of the second Labour government in 1929–31. From 1931 to 1940 the Conservatives provided the overwhelming majority of MPs in the coalition National Government, which was led by the former Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in 1931–35; then by Baldwin in 1935–37 and finally by Neville Chamberlain in 1937–40.
Winston Churchill and the post-war ‘consensus’
The failure of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards Germany and his uninspiring leadership after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 led to a revolt of Conservative MPs in May 1940 and his replacement by Winston Churchill, who formed a new broader coalition with the Labour Party. Churchill’s vigour and oratory rallied the nation, but even his prestige could not shelter the Conservative Party from popular blame for the economic and foreign policy failures of the 1930s. This led to its second major electoral defeat of the century in the general election of 1945, when it was reduced to 210 MPs.
The Conservatives adapted to this setback whilst in opposition during the 1945–51 Labour governments, with a reappraisal of the party’s organisation and programme. As a result, between the late-1940s and mid-1970s the Conservatives accepted the pillars of the post-war ‘consensus’: the Welfare State; the nationalisation of some industries; a greater role for trade unions; and the use of Keynes’s economic theories to avoid economic depressions and high unemployment. Together with the unpopular austerity measures of the Labour government, these policies enabled Churchill to regain power in 1951 with a narrow overall majority of 17. The party then remained in office continuously until 1964, increasing its majority under Sir Anthony Eden in 1955 and then further under Harold Macmillan in 1959.
For much of the 1950s there was full employment and a feeling of affluence in Britain, but in the early 1960s there were increasing problems of economic stagnation, inflation and industrial disputes. Macmillan resigned suddenly as prime minister and party leader due to illness in October 1963, and a controversial informal process resulted in the choice of the 14th Earl of Home, who repudiated his peerage and as Sir Alec Douglas-Home returned to the House of Commons in a by-election. He was prime minister for almost exactly a year before losing narrowly to the Labour Party in the 1964 election.
Douglas-Home remained party leader until the beginning of August 1965, and during this time he oversaw the introduction of a formal system for electing the party leader. At first this was by a secret ballot of Conservative MPs, but since 2001 the procedure has been that the MPs reduce the field to two candidates and the final choice is made by a ballot of the party membership. The first leadership election in 1965 was won by Edward Heath, who recovered from the loss of further seats to Labour in 1966 and secured an unexpected victory in the 1970 election. However, the troubled record of his government led to a change in the party’s leadership and a rejection of the post-war ‘consensus’. After losing the two elections of February and October 1974, Heath was forced to hold a leadership ballot in February 1975 in which he was defeated by Margaret Thatcher.
From Thatcher to May
In opposition during 1975–79 Thatcher developed a radical agenda founded upon the ‘free market’, reducing the role of government and restoring an enterprise-based economy – this was the core of ‘Thatcherism’. Concern over economic decline, inflation and the power of the trade unions created a receptive public mood, and Thatcher led the Conservatives to three successive victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. She was the dominant political personality throughout the 1980s, especially after victory in the Falklands War of 1982 and the defeating of the coalminers’ strike of 1984–85. However, at the end of the decade an economic recession, Thatcher’s inflexible commitment to the unpopular ‘poll tax’ and internal disputes over European policy led to her resignation after failing to win a leadership ballot in November 1990.
Thatcher’s successor was the relatively unknown figure of John Major, who after abandoning the ‘poll tax’ and following more moderate policies was able to hold on to a narrow majority of 21 in the 1992 election. This left the government vulnerable to backbench rebellions on the increasingly divisive issue of Europe, and together with economic problems and a series of personal and financial scandals, the party saw its third severe defeat of the 20th century in 1997, when it was reduced to 165 MPs.
Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ now dominated the centre ground of politics and Major’s successor, William Hague, was only able to recover one seat in the 2001 election. The Conservatives gained a little ground under the next two leaders, Ian Duncan Smith (2001–03) and Michael Howard (2003–05), winning 198 seats under the latter in Blair’s third election victory of 2005.
David Cameron, elected party leader later that year, advocated a “compassionate conservatism” with a greener and more socially liberal agenda, and he sought to contain the divisions within the party over membership of the European Union. The Conservatives gained ground on Labour after Gordon Brown became prime minister in 2007 and the financial crisis of 2008–09. In the 2010 election the Conservatives became the largest party with 306 seats but did not have an overall majority, and so formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats until 2015.
The Cameron government introduced an austerity programme of spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit, with partial success. Pressure from within the Conservative Party and the electoral threat of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led Cameron to promise a referendum on Europe in the party’s manifesto for the 2015 election. After winning 330 seats and a small overall majority, he formed a purely Conservative government, but defeat in the European referendum in June 2016 led to his resignation and replacement as party leader and prime minister by Theresa May.
From May to Johnson
May’s government was dominated by the issue of ‘Brexit’ – negotiating the agreement for Britain’s departure from the European Union. In the spring of 2017 the Conservatives had a large lead in the opinion polls and a general election was called for June in the expectation of gaining a large majority. Instead, miscalculations during the long campaign resulted in a hung parliament and the support of the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland was necessary to remain in office. May’s proposed withdrawal agreement was defeated in the House of Commons on three occasions between January and March 2019 due to the opposition of a section of Conservative MPs who felt it made too many concessions. Although May won a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs in December 2018 by 200 to 117, after the party’s poor performance in the European elections she was forced to resign the leadership on 7 June 2019.
Boris Johnson was then elected party leader and took office as prime minister on 24 July. He negotiated a withdrawal agreement in October and then called a general election, which was held in December, campaigning under the slogan ‘Get Brexit done’. The result was a majority of 80, winning seats in the midlands and north that been held by the Labour Party for decades.
Johnson sought to embark on a programme of ‘levelling up’ the less prosperous regions, but coping with the Covid-19 pandemic consumed most of the government’s attention and resources during 2020 and 2021. The successful development of a vaccine and the mass immunisation programme in 2021 raised the government’s popularity, but from November 2021 a series of scandals eroded both party and public confidence in Johnson personally. In June 2022 he survived a vote of confidence by Conservative MPs by 211 to 148, but a further scandal led to a wave of ministerial resignations and on 7 July Johnson announced he was stepping down as Conservative leader.
After a sometimes acrimonious contest, the result of the final ballot of the 172,437 party members declared on 5 September was 81,326 votes for Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, to 60,399 for Rishi Sunak, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose resignation on 5 July had played a key part in Johnson’s departure. On 6 September, Johnson formally resigned as Prime Minister and Truss was appointed to succeed him.
Stuart Ball CBE is Emeritus Professor of Modern British History at the University of Leicester and author of Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918–1945 (Oxford University Press, 2013). His other publications include Conservative Century: The Conservative Party since 1900 (Oxford University Press, 1994) and Recovering Power: The Conservatives in Opposition since 1867 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), both co-edited with Anthony Seldon.
This content was first published in April 2019 and most recently updated in September 2022
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