UK's Conservatives face leadership "bloodbath" as party seeks new direction

General election in Britain

By Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) -The recriminations and jostling for top positions among Britain's Conservative lawmakers began long before Thursday's crushing election defeat to Labour that some party figures said left the party facing the prospect of a decade out of power.

After 14 years in government - the last eight marked by chaos and divisions following the Brexit vote - the Conservatives are now confronted by an internal struggle among lawmakers, grassroots members and donors over whether to move further to the right or turn back to the centre.

Keir Starmer's Labour Party won Thursday's election by a landslide, achieving a massive majority in parliament. The Conservatives suffered the worst performance in the party's long history, amid anger over a drop in living standards and a resurgence of the right-wing Reform UK party.

Rishi Sunak promptly announced his resignation as prime minister on Friday and said he would step aside as Conservative leader once arrangements were made to select his successor, as the party sought to rebuild.

Reuters spoke to 20 politicians, party members and strategists who said that Sunak's widely expected departure would trigger a battle among the institutions that underpin the party - with the right-wing media, financial backers, think tanks and vocal members all jostling to influence its direction.

The outcome will help determine whether a party that has governed Britain alone or in coalition for around 100 years since it was formed in 1834 can rebuild from a much-diminished state.

One veteran Conservative former lawmaker predicted a "bloodbath" as the party set about charting its way back to power.

"The party will suffer a kind of nervous breakdown, which will continue for a wee while," said the former lawmaker, who declined to be identified. "And it's then going to be necessary to find a way forward."

Several lawmakers are expected to compete to replace Sunak, the party sources said, with the right wing likely to promote two former interior ministers known for a tough line on immigration - Priti Patel and Suella Braverman - as well as former trade minister Kemi Badenoch, named minister of the year by the website ConservativeHome in 2023 after she took a robust position on trans issues.

Braverman was quick to promise change to voters. "I'm sorry that my party didn't listen to you," she said in a speech after winning reelection. "I will do everything in my power to rebuild trust. We need to listen to you, you have spoken to us very clearly."

The party sources said centrist candidates were also preparing campaigns, with James Cleverly and Tom Tugendhat, interior and security ministers under Sunak respectively, named as possible contenders.

Indicating the likely arguments ahead, three Conservatives questioned the right-wing credentials of Robert Jenrick, a former immigration minister who has been working hard to shore up his support, after he previously voiced more centrist positions.

Penny Mordaunt, a prominent centrist who was Sunak's Leader of the House of Commons, had also been consulting colleagues on her chances, but lost her seat to Labour. Accepting defeat, she warned Conservatives against talking to "an ever smaller slice of ourselves" as they sought to renew the party.

Veteran party adviser Peter Botting described the battle for the leadership as being between those who became Conservative because of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher - a staunch free-marketeer - and those who followed the moderniser David Cameron, with his more paternalistic 'one nation conservativism'.

"People will want big personalities: big, easily identifiable personalities," Botting said. "There are a lot of eminently forgettable people but they all think that they can be a prime minister."


The former lawmaker said the Conservative Party should move to the right, to meet the challenge posed by Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage's Reform UK party. Farage won a seat in parliament at the eighth time of trying.

While Labour's roughly 34% share of the vote nationwide was far lower than its showing at its 1997 landslide victory, the resurgence of Reform UK split the right-wing vote and handed Starmer a massive majority under Britain's first-past-the-post system.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, warned that a move to the right would go against "the case that elections are won in the centre of British politics".

"What we've seen since Brexit is the silent majority of more centrist MPs allow the party to slip towards the right, due to a much more vocal minority of more populist politicians on that side of the Conservative Party," he told Reuters.

By 1110 GMT and with 648 seats counted, Labour had 412 of the 650 seats in parliament, compared with 121 for the Conservatives, according to broadcaster BBC.

Reform only won four seats so far, but it picked up more than 4 million votes - around 14% of the total ballot.

The performance of Reform UK scared many Conservatives, with leader Farage - a seasoned campaigner - promising to hound the Conservative Party and become the main voice of opposition.

His success might spur Conservative grassroots members into pushing for a more populist radical right strategy to restore its fortunes - something that the party's more centrist wing finds unpalatable.

Several Conservatives who spoke to Reuters said the grassroots membership felt increasingly marginalised since Sunak's appointment in 2022 without their votes, and want the party to reclaim what they see as its traditional values of a small state and free markets.

Comparing the situation to 1997, when it had to rebuild after Labour swept away 18 years of Conservative government, adviser Botting said the party's future depended on where the energy, ideas and finance needed to reset it came from.

"When, or if, the party decides what and who it is for, rather than against, we will know whether the party has a future," said Botting, a coach to hundreds of Conservative candidates over many years.


It's a far cry from 2010 when Cameron ended the dominance of so-called 'new Labour' under former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which had governed for 13 years.

Despite winning three more elections, the Conservative Party become increasingly unmanageable, buffeted by ructions and rancour stemming from the vote to leave the European Union.

The Conservatives have had four prime ministers since Cameron, three brought down by their own party, including one - Liz Truss - who lasted just over 40 days in power. Truss lost her seat in parliament in Thursday's vote.

Almost all of those interviewed agree the party has sunk so low that it may struggle to mount a strong electoral challenge at the end of Labour's scheduled five-year term.

The party has become increasingly hollowed out - more than 70 lawmakers stood down before the election, including former prime minister Theresa May and several other ministers. Dozens of advisers and researchers jumped ship to look for new jobs, and 12 senior ministers lost their seats at the election, a record number.

Some Conservatives doubt the party will be able to run an effective opposition for some time.

"What you'll be left with is a very small, very inexperienced ... Conservative parliamentary party," the Conservative lawmaker, who stood down at the election, said.

"It basically means that for a couple of years, at least, the Labour Party will have a free run. We're not going to be any opposition."

While election results show it will have a vocal wing on the right of the party, the party still has a solid centre.

The lawmaker said the Conservatives had to change, acknowledging that the party's centre and right wing had failed to function in tandem for the last seven or eight years.

"We have to acknowledge that the current state of affairs is unsustainable," the lawmaker, on the right of the party, said.

Others think that with numbers reduced, the parliamentary party might try to unite in Westminster, with Botting saying the party might "get bigger together rather than squabble about the 'left' or the 'right'".

Ryan Shorthouse, chair of the independent centre-right think tank Bright Blue, said the party had arrived at "an electoral and economic dead end".

"There's going to be a big battle of ideas within and around the Conservative Party," said Shorthouse, whose think tank advocates for centre-right policies but is not affiliated to the Conservative Party.

His organisation is undertaking a strategic review to position itself as a cross-party organization able to influence the Labour government too, Shorthouse said.

"We want to ... basically forge a new centre-right."

(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Kate Holton and Daniel Flynn)