Conservative Party Factions

Party faction  An organised group of politicians or supporters who share a political viewpoint, set of ideas or loyalty to an individual or group. Factions compete with others for power and influence within a party.

Before there were political parties in the UK there were factions. These were much looser groupings than modern parties, and lacked the level of discipline, unity, structure and organisation that they have today. Political parties developed as the vote was extended to the masses in the nineteenth century and there was a growing need to campaign to win votes from the new electorate. Political parties today are tightly organised and try to appear unified, however within all parties there are still groupings of politicians and/or party members — in other words factions.

The main Conservative factions are the ‘Thatcherites’, who want to return to the economic liberalism, social authoritarianism and constitutional conservatism of Margaret Thatcher. There are also the ‘Pre-Thatcherites’ who support an older form of conservatism going back to Disraeli and ‘One-Nation’ and tend to be pro-Europe. 

What are party factions for?

Within parties there will always be a range of ideas about the direction the party should be going in and the ideas it should be following. This is the case even in small parties. There are also ambitious individuals within all parties, and factions may group around them, hoping that these individuals will gain influence. There are several examples of this below.

Factions may be focused on controlling the party machinery and administration in addition to pushing their ideas forward. They are important and useful for parties as they can help establish a sense of unity. Even if you don’t agree with all that your party is doing, within the party you can be part of a smaller grouping of like-minded individuals. This will help you to feel that your voice is heard and stop you from leaving or losing interest and commitment. They can also help parties come up with new ideas and solve problems.

'Conservative factions are nothing new, as Theresa May learned to her cost with Brexit and Boris Johnson saw in a mass rebellion on Covid rules. But Johnson is facing significant pressure from well over 100 of his MPs to change course on a number of fronts including green policies.

Conservative backbenchers say an ever-growing number of factions – most with their own acronym, and with significant crossover when it comes to their members – hold sway within the party, a process helped by WhatsApp-based organising and a perception the prime minister’s authority has eroded.' 

Peter Walker The Guardian 8-Jan 2022

Some blocs, such as the Northern Research Group (NRG), are more geographic than ideological. But others, such as Blue Collar Conservatism and the culture war-focused Common Sense Group, have beliefs that include opposition to current elements of tax-and-spend. The Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), seeking an end to VAT and green levies on fuel bills, looks set to become increasingly influential in coming months as Johnson faces pressure over the cost of living. 

Covid Recovery Group

Led by the former chief whip Mark Harper and the former Brexit minister Steve Baker, the CRG’s size and opposition to new Covid rules is essentially the reason why England has notably fewer restrictions than other UK nations. While informal in structure, the CRG has organised and disciplined messaging, employing an external PR consultant. Support estimated at 80 to 100 MPs.

Net Zero Scrutiny Group 

Set up in the lead-up to the Cop26 climate summit, its members insist they are not climate emergency sceptics but believe policies such as emissions targets and the phasing out of conventional cars have not been fully thought out and will adversely affect poorer Britons. The NZSG has 18 MPs as public supporters and claims “many” more.

Common Sense Group

Partly based around culture war issues, and what its chair, the Tory backbencher John Hayes, terms a struggle against “subversives” such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, its 136-page policy booklet sets out ideas on everything from immigration to the legal system and family life. Sixteen MPs contributed to the booklet.

Blue Collar Conservatism

Originally launched by Esther McVey in parallel with her brief leadership bid to succeed Theresa May, with policies including redirecting foreign aid to domestic priorities, it boasts 159 MPs as official supporters including several cabinet ministers. However, it is less active in terms of openly agitating for policy change.

Led by the former Northern Powerhouse minister Jake Berry, this is a geographical faction aimed at boosting spending and investment in the north of England, north Wales and Scottish borders. More than 50 members.

All-party group on fair fuel

Very low key, and not officially a party faction, as it has two Labour members and one from the DUP. But it is Tory-dominated, and is arguably the most financially significant pressure group anywhere in the UK. It has been central to parliamentary and media efforts to keep fuel duty frozen for 11 years and counting, a policy that has cost the Treasury somewhere north of £100bn.

European Research Group

The model for the other factions. Set up in 1993, gradually moving from being the voice of Euroscepticism to that of hardline Brexiters. Hugely influential in the Commons revolts that saw off May’s limited Brexit compromises, and then ejected her from Downing Street. Largely quiet now, in part as many members have moved on to other pressure groups.

The New Conservatives

The newest and one of the most vocal groupings, it was created in May and includes the party’s deputy chair Lee Anderson, as well as Tories gaining more prominence such as Miriam Cates, although many are in marginal “red wall” seats.

Its MPs, who are thought to number about 25 and are predominantly from the party’s 2019 intake, have been tightlipped on Sunak’s latest proposals but the group’s co-chair Danny Kruger has pressed the PM to deliver the Rwanda deportation plan by “unpicking” Britain from a range of international obligations.

The Popular Conservatives (LOL!):  launched by Liz Truss and Jacob Rees Mogg in February 2024. Rees-Mogg declared that the “age of Davos man is over” and Truss urged her colleagues to stop worrying about getting a job in Sunak’s government and take the fight to “left-wing extremists” running UK institutions instead.  The message was social conservatism (anti-woke) and libertarian economics- with the view that the Conservative Party was no longer conservative.

Do they help or hinder political parties?

Thirty years of Conservative factional wars over Europe have already forced three Conservative prime ministers out of office, Factional Politics: How Dominant Parties Implode or Stabilize. Even where a government apparently has a large majority, intra-party factionalism can become destabilising and dangerous if factions wield a veto. In the Westminster system, the burden of sustaining party discipline ultimately falls on the leader. This requires good socialising and leadership skills to foster loyalty and keep the peace within the parliamentary party’s ranks. 

Factions compete for power within parties. This can sometimes be quite brutal and damaging. In 1981 four senior MPs split from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party, arguing that the party had become too left wing.  Another example is John Major, prime minister from 1991 to 1994, who was seriously weakened by factional fighting within the Conservative Party over its attitude towards the European Union.

Factions fluctuate in influence depending on party leadership, organising ability, public opinion and external events. They also come in a range of guises including think tanks, pressure groups or loose groupings of MPs. Finally, factions don’t just represent the views of politicians, they can also represent the views of ordinary voters. Momentum is a good example of this. It is often linked to certain think tanks (organisations that carry out research on economic or political issues and provide advice and ideas) or pressure groups.

In recent years factions have often been focused on Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Tory Reform Group  Established in 1975, this group describes itself as One Nation Tories and is seen as on the left of the party. It was opposed to Brexit.

Conservative Voice  Aims to represent the grassroots of the party including party members and local councillors, it describes itself as ‘centre-right’.

The Bruges Group  A right-wing think tank which strongly supports Brexit.

ResPublica  Created by Philip Blond. Described as the ‘Red Tories’, they reject the Thatcherite individualist approach and call for more state intervention and focus on the common good.

Bright Blue  Newcomers continuing Cameron style social liberalism with a concern for the environment.

Free Enterprise Group  Keen on deregulation, this group was formed by some MPs after the 2008 financial crisis.