The Conservative Party (in Scotland Conservative and Unionist Party) is the largest right-wing political party in the United Kingdom. It was formerly called the Tory Party, and its members are still commonly referred to as "Tories".
Its current formal name, rarely used outside of Scotland, as registered with the UK Electoral Commission, is the Conservative and Unionist Party, a relic of 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.
For most of the 20th century, the Conservative party was viewed as the "natural party of government" in the UK, effectively keeping the Labour Party from holding power for more than one term at a time.
After suffering two consecutive and humiliating general election defeats at the hand of the Labour Party in 1997 and 2001 the Conservative Party looks as if it faces a daunting task to become electable as a party of government (a party that can credibly run the country). In the last demographic survey of Conservative Party members the average age was found to be 65.
The party remains heavily influenced by the ideological legacy (Thatcherism) of Margaret Thatcher, party leader from February 1975 until her resignation on November 22, 1990. She radicalised the party, taking firm control, promoting Euroscepticism and introducing Monetarism as a key element of her financial ideology. After winning three general successive general elections (1979, 1983 and 1987) she lost the confidence of colleagues before she could fight her fourth.
In her place John Major took over her role as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. However the instability resulting from Thatcher's removal and the significantly reduced Conservative majority from the 1992 UK general election, which most commentators expected him to lose, proved to be overwhelming.
During that time Eurosceptic rebels such as Iain Duncan Smith undermined Major as he sought to find a balance between the factions of his party that were waring over Europe. At times he was forced to rely on Ulster Unionist Party MPs to help him pass legislation through parliament.
At one point John Major actually resigned as Prime Minister and party leader in an attempt to bring his party under some sort of control. The 1997 UK general election saw the Labour Party sweep the Conservatives out of power after eighteen years of government, in a landslide victory that resulted in John Major resigning for the final time as leader of the Conservatives.
In his place William Hague was elected leader, defeating Kenneth Clarke. 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". 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.
A new leadership electoral system designed by Hague resulted in five candidates competing for the job; Michael Portillo, Iain Duncan Smith, Ken Clarke, David Davis[?] and Michael Ancram. The drawn out and at times acrimonious election saw Conservative MPs select Iain Duncan Smith and Ken Clarke to be put forward for a vote by party members. As Conservative Party members are characteristically Eurosceptic, Iain Duncan Smith was elected, even though opinion polls showed that the public preferred Ken Clarke, a member of the Tory Reform Group[?].
Iain Duncan Smith is a strong eurosceptic; although he supports continued membership in the European Union, he opposes the UK ever joining the Euro, unlike his predecessor William Hague, who opposed joining the Euro for the term of the next parliament, without absolutely ruling out joining it in the future.
He since has filled his shadow cabinet with similarly unknown Eurosceptics, generally pushed the party further to the right, and alienated many Europhile and moderate Tories. Some believe that the party has turned so far right that they are now destined for political oblivion.
Others noted however, that people were saying similar things about the Labour Party in the 1980s being destined for oblivion because it was so far left, and that the dynamics of the two-party system can create surprising comebacks. However it must be noted that while Labour lost a third of their support to the SDP and that no major group has defected from the Conservatives. Whether or not the U.K has a two party system is debatable, certainly the gap between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories, tends now to be smaller than between Labour and the Tories. Also half the Shadow Cabinet's seats are under threat from the Liberal Democrats who are growing at a rapid rate in former Tory strongholds in the South West and South East.
A number of political scandals have created the impression of what is described in the British press as "sleaze": a perception that the Conservatives are associated with political corruption and hypocrisy. In particular the involvement of Neil Hamilton and others in the "cash for questions" scandal and the convictions of former Cabinet member Jonathan Aitken[?] and former party deputy chairman Jeffrey Archer for perjury in two separate cases have damaged the Conservatives' public reputation. Persistent false rumours about the activities of the party treasurer Michael Ashcroft[?] have not helped this impression.
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 his own policies to sack them. In September 2002 it was revealed that, prior to his promotion to the cabinet, Major himself had himself had a longstanding extramarital affair with a fellow MP, Edwina Currie.