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What ideological divisions have there been in the UK Conservative Party?

Although the UK Conservative Party has traditionally been strongly controlled from above, especially by the Leader there have still been internal differences, which from time to time lead to serious conflicts.

During the early part of Margaret Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister there were differences between the ‘Wets’, who saw keeping unemployment low as the priority and wanted the continuation of One Nation social policies and accommodation with the trade unions, and the ‘Drys’, close to Thatcher, who wanted strongly free market economic policy and a reduction in public expenditure and the role of the State.

This battle was won by the ‘Drys’ and the Conservative Party moved to the right on economic and welfare policy.

During Prime Minister John Major’s time, a conflict developed over whether to accept greater European Union integration. This almost brought the Government down when a small group of Conservative MPs refused to support the Government over the Maastricht Treaty.

What are the main divisions?

The main divisions now are:-

Social liberals and social conservatives

Before David Cameron, Conservative leaders had taken a conservative stance against New Labour’s legislation removing Section 28, put in place during the Thatcher Premiership, which made it difficult for schools to deal with issues related to homosexuality, adoption by gay couples and making civil partnerships between people of the same sex possible.

Cameron continued to emphasise the importance of stable families for society but wanted to remove discrimination against same sex couples forming a stable relationship.

As Coalition Prime Minister, he introduced legislation to make gay marriage possible but 136 Conservative MPs voted against, on a free vote.

Modernisers and traditionalists

The divisions over gay issues were part of a broader conflict between Modernisers and Traditionalists.

When he became Leader, after the Conservatives had lost three elections, Cameron wanted to change the image of the Party to one that was not opposed to the changes that had been taking place in society such as the greater role of women in positions of power, an openly gay population, an increase in single parents and an increase in the ethnic minority population.

He also wanted to take up new issues that Conservatives had been seen to ignore such as global warming and gain the support of public sector workers by stressing the importance of public services.

His adviser, Steve Hilton, talked about the need for a bottom up society rather than one controlled from Central Government.

The 2020 Group of Conservative MPs , many of them new in 2010, supported modernisation and the pursuit of new ideas, and the election in 2015 of candidates who had been on Cameron’s A list, designed to produce a more diverse Parliamentary Party, added to the number of Conservative MPs ready to accept change in society.

Modernisation was opposed by those Conservative MPs who held that abandoning the Party’s support for traditional values and traditional institutions would alienate its core voters and lose an important part of what had been Mrs Thatcher’s appeal to the electorate.

In 2010 they were largely in control of the backbench 1922 Committee. The Conservative Party had begun to rapidly lose members and was threatened by the rise of UKIP, which did appeal to traditional values.

Although Cameron held to social liberalism and support for female equality and an end to discrimination against ethnic minority groups, he began to retreat from his support of environmentalism in the face of hostility from Conservative MPs to wind farms and the cost of measures to protect the environment.

The decision to give priority to cutting the deficit meant that public services were reduced. An emphasis on the problems of radical Islam alienated the Muslim population.


The deepest division in the Conservative Party is over Europe, and has been for some time.

Pressure from Eurosceptic Conservatives led David Cameron to commit to an in-out referendum on European Union membership.  Before the referendum Cameron tried to re-negotiate the terms of the UK’s membership. He presented this version as the case for remaining in. The referendum was held on 23 June 2016. The British public voted to leave the European Union. David Cameron , who did not expect this result, resigned.

The Conservative party after this became a party of ‘remainers’ – those who campaigned to stay in the EU  – and ‘Brexiteers’ – those who wanted to leave. After a quick leadership contest amongst Conservative MPs, it did not go out to the party membership, Theresa May was elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party and therefore British Prime Minister.

On becoming leader Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make it work.” Ever since this point, what ‘Brexit’ – the terms and processes for leaving the European Union – has meant has arguably caused the deepest divisions in the Conservative Party’s history.

Since 2016, there have been countless Cabinet resignations, MPs quitting to become independents, a vote of no confidence (defeated) in the Prime Minister, a vote of no confidence in the government (defeated), u-turns on major speeches, unprecedented government defeats in the House of Commons on Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU, a flaring up of tensions in Northern Ireland and Gibraltar caused by an unclear path on how to manage landlocked UK/EU state borders and open hostilities and arguments with the Conservative Speaker of the House of Commons.

The openness of the division is clear for all to see. As one former Cabinet Minister put it, he was ashamed of his party for not respecting Cabinet Collective Responsibility, Ministers not resigning when they publicly and obviously disagreed with the Prime Minister’s policy, conservative colleagues tweeting insults to the Prime Minister and each other depending what side they were on. After a speech at Downing street made by the PM, one Conservative MP tweeted “What was the point of that.” (this is a tame example)