UK right-of-centre political party, one of the two historic British parties; the name replaced Tory in general use from 1830 onwards. It has been led since 2016 by Theresa May. Traditionally the party of landed interests (those owning substantial land or property), it broadened its political base under Benjamin Disraeli's leadership in the 19th century.
Between 1979–97, the Conservatives were in power under Margaret Thatcher (1979–90) and John Major (1990–97) and carried out free-market economic reforms that became known as Thatcherism. The party was defeated in the May 1997 general election by the Labour Party led by Tony Blair, who accepted a market-centred approach to the economy. The Conservatives remained out of power until 2010, in part because of internal divisions over the issue of the UK's membership of the European Union (EU). John Major stepped down as party leader and was succeeded, in June 1997, by William Hague. After the Conservatives' defeat in the June 2001 general election Hague resigned. He was replaced in September 2001 by Iain Duncan Smith who was leader for only two years before losing the confidence of colleagues and being replaced by Michael Howard in October 2003. After the party's third successive electoral defeat in the May 2005 general election, Howard stood down and was succeeded as leader in December 2005 by David Cameron, who became prime minister after the May 2010 general election.
The Conservatives fell short of an overall majority at this election and so negotiated a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, the first such coalition since World War II. The coalition came to end after the Conservatives won a narrow majority at the May 2015 general election. Cameron went on to hold in June 2016 a Brexit referendum on UK membership of the EU. Cameron and many of his cabinet colleagues campaigned for a ‘Remain’ vote, but some prominent Conservatives campaigned to ‘Leave’, as did 52% of voters. Following this result, Cameron resigned as party leader and prime minister and was succeeded in July 2016 by Theresa May, his former home secretary, who pledged to implement Brexit.
In the 1980s the party's free-market economic policies and reductions in the rates of income tax boosted the spending power of the majority, but also widened the gap between rich and poor. The Conservatives embarked on a policy of privatization, under which nationalized industries and utilities were sold off; military spending and close alliance with the USA were favoured; and the funding of local government was overhauled with the introduction of the poll tax. Prime minister Major rejected some of the extreme policies of Thatcherism, notably the poll tax, and introduced a new Citizen's Charter, but further privatization or market testing continued. The Cameron government oversaw an austerity programme of cuts to government spending, with civil service numbers falling and stricter welfare rules, in an effort to reduce a high inherited public spending deficit. Cameron also sought to promote a ‘big society’ agenda intended to empower local people and communities.
History Opposed to the laissez-faire of the Liberal manufacturers, the Conservative Party in the 19th century supported, to some extent, the struggle of the working class against the harsh conditions arising from the Industrial Revolution. The split of 1846 over Robert Peel's Corn Law policy led to 20 years out of office, or in office without power, until Disraeli ‘educated’ his party into accepting parliamentary and social change, extended the franchise to the artisan (winning considerable working-class support), launched imperial expansion, and established an alliance with industry and finance. The Irish home rule issue of 1886 drove Radical Imperialists and old-fashioned Whigs into alliance with the Conservatives, so that the party had nearly 20 years of office, but fear that Joseph Chamberlain's protectionism would mean higher prices led to a Liberal landslide in 1906. The Conservative Party fought a rearguard action against the sweeping reforms that followed and only the outbreak of World War I averted a major crisis. Between 1915 and 1945, except briefly in 1924 and 1929–31, the Conservatives were continually in office, whether alone or as part of a coalition, largely thanks to the break-up of the traditional two-party system by the rise of Labour.
Post-war policies Labour swept to power after World War II, but the Conservative Party formulated a new policy in their Industrial Charter of 1947, visualizing an economic and social system in which employers and employed, private enterprise and the state, work to mutual advantage. Antagonism to further nationalization and post-war austerity returned the Conservatives to power in 1951 with a small majority, and prosperity kept them in office throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. The party was narrowly defeated in the general election of 1964 under Alec Douglas-Home. Edward Heath was elected leader in 1965 and became prime minister in 1970. The imposition of wage controls led to confrontation with the unions; when Heath sought a mandate in February 1974, this resulted in a narrow defeat, repeated in a further election in October 1974.
Late-20th-century Conservatism Margaret Thatcher replaced Heath, and under her leadership the Conservative Party returned to power in May 1979. She was re-elected in 1983 and 1987, but was ousted as leader in November 1990 following an intra-party challenge by Michael Heseltine. The Conservative government continued in office under John Major who went on to be re-elected in 1992. By 1995 a clear division had emerged in the party's approach to Europe, with pro-Europeans, including Kenneth Clarke, the chancellor of the Exchequer, mainly to the left, and ‘Eurosceptics’, including Michael Portillo, the defence secretary, and John Redwood, the former Welsh secretary who later challenged John Major's leadership (1995), mainly to the right.
In the 1997 general election, Conservative support fell to 31%, its lowest level since 1832, and the party fell to a landslide defeat, winning no seats in Scotland or Wales. It held the smallest number of seats (165) since 1906. John Major immediately announced his resignation as party leader. He was succeeded by William Hague.
Hague sought to draw a ‘line in the sand’ over the party's European policy, by ruling out United Kingdom membership of the European Monetary Union for at least ten years. He also reformed the party's organization, giving the rank-and-file a say in the election of future leaders. The party was, nevertheless, unable to win back support at the 2001 general election which, despite a low turnout, the Labour Party won comfortably.
Coalition politics Following a further nine years in opposition, under the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, and David Cameron from 2005, the party took power again in May 2010, but only as the senior partner in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron's overriding policy concern was directed at difficulties in the UK economy and national finances in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. He was also confronted with his party's long-standing divisions over integration with the EU, and had to dilute aspects of traditional Conservative dogma in the interests of coalition consensus. To help unite the party for the 2015 general election, Cameron pledged, if re-elected, to negotiate improved terms for the UK in the EU and then hold a referendum on UK membership.
Party membership In 1953, the Conservatives had a reported membership of 2.8 million. But, in common with other UK parties, membership steadily declined. It fell to 400,000 in the mid-1990s, to 273,000 in 2002 and to 150,000 in 2014, with three-fifths being aged 60 and above.
Robert Peel on horseback
Thatcher, Margaret Hilda
A UK political party that grew out of the Tories in the 1830s under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel . His repeal of the Corn Laws ...
(officially Conservative and Unionist Party) The oldest political party in Britain, its origins lie in the transformation of Tory Party into...
(born March 29, 1943, London, Eng.) British politician and prime minister (1990–97). He was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Cons