London, United Kingdom – When members of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party gather in Manchester for their annual conference this week, many will be asking: whose party is it anyway?
For the fate of one of the world’s oldest political parties is in the hands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a leader critics brand a Donald Trump-style populist who is trashing traditional conservatism.
Yet many of the party’s activists will see the pain as worth it, if Johnson delivers on the landmark issue of the era, Brexit, by taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union “do or die” on October 31 against the will of parliament, even if there is no deal with Brussels.
“At the grassroots level, Boris is certainly seen as a winner who is going to deliver the goods,” says Councillor Mike Bird, a conservative council leader in Walsall, an area that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in the country’s 2016 referendum that saw the UK voting 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the EU.
Among conservatives, the deep divisions wrenching the UK over Brexit are reflected as a battle between members backing Johnson and those of their MPs who oppose him.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, whose latest book Footsoldiers examines party activism, said Johnson enjoys “the backing of the membership”.
“If there are any divisions within the party, they are much less pronounced at the grassroots than in the parliamentary party, where a substantial minority of MPs are worried about the direction that he is taking the party and the country.”
Like rival political forces, including Labour, the main opposition party, the Conservative Party has been battered by the winds of realignment in British politics whipped up by Brexit.
“Brexit has thrown everything up in the air,” said Anthony Ridge-Newman, a senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University. “British politics has become a single-issue democracy and Brexit has created a context in which the old rulebook has been largely ripped apart.”
This means that the longer-term effect on the conservatives will depend on the Brexit outcome.
David Jeffery, a politics lecturer at the University of Liverpool who has studied the Conservative Party, says: “If once Brexit is done and the issue of Europe fizzles away, it becomes less of a driver of people’s voting behaviour – and we could go back to a system where the conservatives and Labour are back to slugging it out over questions of left and right.”
Much depends, therefore, on Johnson’s strategy and how he fares in an epic parliamentary struggle over Brexit – so far, Johnson has lost every single parliamentary vote since becoming prime minister in late July.
Once seen as the epitome of liberal, paternalistic “one-nation” conservatism characterised by compromise and consensus, Johnson has been accused recently of copying the populist rhetoric of Trump, the president of the United States.
In pressing hard for an election, Johnson aims to portray conservatives as the radical choice on an anti-establishment “people versus parliament” ticket, analysts said, noting there may be method in this “madness” if it strengthens his electoral appeal – especially to voters attracted to the rival Brexit Party.
“Johnson has a kind of political instinct that, for his legacy to have any value and for the Conservative Party to survive the Brexit phenomenon, it really needs to deliver to its core constituents – now largely Brexiteers,” Ridge-Newman said. “He is playing a high-risk game but one that is probably strategically smart.”
Nonetheless, Johnson’s approach has exacerbated strains in his party, exposing a gulf between activists yearning for Brexit of any kind and those Conservative Party MPs determined to block a departure from the bloc without a deal, an outcome that could have potentially devastating effects on the country’s society.
“It would be wrong to assume that Johnson has got the grassroots sewn up completely and forever, but I think for now they have hitched their wagon to his and are content with the way he is playing things,” Bale said.
“In the parliamentary party there are more moderate voices than perhaps there are at the grassroots concerned about the language that is being used and the nationalistic stance that Johnson seems to be taking.”
Matters came to a head in early September, when in a rout that signalled a shift to the right Johnson expelled 21 MPs and barred them from running for the Conservative Party after they backed a motion paving the way for a Brexit delay.
Those expelled have described his government as unrecognisable from the party they joined, while the Conservative Home website for activists announced “the end of the Conservative Party as we have known it”.
Former conservative Prime Minister John Major went as far as to say that Johnson’s approach “is profoundly un-conservative”.
Bale does not foresee the end of “one-nation” conservatism – but adds: “There are a lot of people who are keeping their mouths shut and holding their noses just hoping that this is a phase that will be over once Brexit is done.”
Jeffery agrees that Johnson has changed the party’s character – at least for now.
“The question is whether this is a long-term realignment. There will always be an ‘after-Boris’ era. It might be that the party decides to go back to a ‘one-nation’ conservatism – or they might even go more populist than Johnson.”
Despite the bloodletting, activists remain convinced Johnson is a winner.
“The appeal of the Conservative Party has never been wider – we are now the party of the people,” Bird, the councillor, said.
Another conservative councillor in a northern Labour heartland that backed Brexit – who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity – said that despite accusations of populism, Johnson is a “longstanding liberal”.
“But like Donald Trump he has locked on to the fact that people who read liberal newspapers are not going to vote for us – whereas winding them up makes others more likely to vote for us.
“His comments can be crass and can alienate traditional conservatives – but the party has been approximately for 350 years and he may only be leader for five years.”
Jeffery believes the legacy of Johnson, who has emerged as the poster child for Brexit, will probably be viewed as somewhere between reckless and visionary.
“Boris does have a certain charm, is affable and is popular in the country. On the other hand, his approach seems risky.”
But a key question facing many conservatives in Manchester this week is: will their party ever be the same again?
“Can you put the genie back in the bottle?” Bale asked. “I doubt it.”