Change UK have had a torrid time of it. Having quickly gained traction in February with the promise of a new, different kind of politics, a very familiar set of problems has marked them, perhaps irreversibly, as just another part of the same old establishment.
Confusion around their name, message, audience and logo; accusations of nepotism in a number of their internal appointments; and a lackadaisical approach to the vetting of candidates – quite the list of political misdemeanours to rack up in the three months since their inception. Throw into the mix some truly cringe-inducing speeches, Change UK risk not only being seen as a failing party, but infinitely more damaging than that, as a joke of a party too. No wonder its leader, Heidi Allen, suggested yesterday morning that it might not even be in existence come the next general election, strongly hinting at an alliance with the Lib Dems.
Polling well behind Farage’s Brexit Party – who, by comparison, appear to be running a frighteningly slick operation – a no-show in this week’s European Parliament elections could well consign them to the history books. This now not so bouncy band of TIGers have one last hope: a Tory exodus.
For there is a fear swelling across the moderate Conservative ranks that in just a few months’ time they could be led by either Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab, a fate, for many MPs on the socially liberal wing of the Tory party, worse than hell.
Whilst strenuous efforts by the recently formed One Nation caucus are being made to block either candidate from ever making it on to the final ballot paper, both Johnson and Raab remain in a very strong position to seize the keys to No 10 given the considerable support they enjoy amongst the Conservative Party’s wider membership. Indeed, some of those ministers currently flexing their leadership muscles are touting themselves in private meetings with potential parliamentary supporters as the anti-Johnson/Raab candidate. Being neither of them is, in itself, a very strong selling point.
Many moderate Tory MPs will simply vote in the upcoming leadership race for whoever they think is best placed to challenge those hopefuls from the right of the party. For some, Raab is seen as the worse of the two. As one Tory MP told me last week: ‘Boris is at least politically malleable. Raab is the real danger. He actually believes in the rubbish he comes out with.’ Others have already made clear that they could not stay in the party were Johnson to lead it.
In Brexit, Conservative MPs face an existential crisis that risks splitting their party. At such times, whoever picks up the mantle from the flames will set the tone, and quite possibly, define the party for a generation. David Cameron’s overhaul of the Tory brand following its prolonged stretch in opposition under Hague, IDS and Howard is a case in point.
That is why, in effect, the upcoming leadership contest will be a battle for the future of the Conservative Party. Members of the losing side – whichever that is – will, quite conceivably, seek to lick their wounds elsewhere, outside the party. Whilst diehard brexiteer MPs may find refuge in the Brexit Party – and some are reportedly already flirting with the idea of defection – for those on the other side of the divide, Change UK could offer a solution.
For a party that has nothing else to offer, presenting itself as an alternative for pragmatists who are willing to compromise and fight for the centre ground – rather than as a movement that seeks wholesale changes to the political system – could just be enough to woo teetering Tory moderates, and Change UK’s best hope of survival.