Its 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 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.
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.
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 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 SecretaryJoseph Chamberlain's advocacy of imperial preference tariffs led to a severe defeat to the Liberals in the General Election of 1906.
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 the two general 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 against 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 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.
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 became extremely unpopular among the electorate but due to the Falklands War and the perceived "loony left" nature of the Labour Party, won the 1983 general election with a landslide, gaining a majority of 144.
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.
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 entirely vanished. 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 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.
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 he used to drink 14 imperial pints (8 L) of beer a day. Despite a low turnout (usually a good sign for the party), 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 (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.
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.
A number of political scandalss 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 Source | Copyright