A brief history of the Conservative Party

From the ongoing Brexit saga to the Tory leadership contest, the Conservative Party has dominated headlines in recent months. 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?

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.

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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.

Austen Chamberlain, c1900. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Austen Chamberlain, c1900. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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.

Winston Churchill making a speech during the 1945 election tour. (Photo by Ian Smith/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Winston Churchill making a speech during the 1945 election tour. (Photo by Ian Smith/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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.

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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.