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Conservative Party (UK)

Related subjects UK Politics & government

Conservative and Unionist Party
Conservative Party logo
Leader David Cameron
Founded Historical 1678, Modern 1830
Headquarters 30 Millbank, London SW1
Political Ideology Conservatism, Liberal Conservatism
Political Position Centre-right
International Affiliation International Democrat Union
European Affiliation Movement for European Reform, European Democrat Union
European Parliament Group ED, within EPP-ED
Colours Blue, Green
Website www.conservatives.com
See also Politics of the UK

Political parties

The Conservative and Unionist Party more commonly known as the Conservative Party is currently the second largest political party in the United Kingdom in terms of sitting Members of Parliament (MPs), the largest in terms of public membership, and the oldest political party in the United Kingdom. It is the most successful political party in British history in terms of election victories, and is considered by some to be the most successful political party in the world. The current leader is David Cameron, who as Her Majesty's Loyal Leader of the Opposition heads the Shadow Cabinet.

The Conservative Party is descended from the Tory Party of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth Centuries. Its members are still commonly referred to as Tories and the party is still often referred to as the Tory Party. Although the Conservative Party was in government for two-thirds of the twentieth century, it has been in opposition in Parliament since losing the 1997 election to the Labour Party under Tony Blair.


The Party's rarely used, more official name is The Conservative and Unionist Party. The name has its origins in the 1912 merger with the Liberal Unionist Party and is an echo of the party's 1886-1921 policy of maintaining the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in opposition to Irish nationalist and republican aspirations. Scotland's allied Unionist Party was independent of the Conservatives until 1965. Similarly the Ulster Unionist Party supported the Conservatives for many decades in the House of Commons and traditionally took the Conservative whip. In contrast to Scotland this arrangement broke down in the aftermath of the Ulster Unionists' opposition to the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. The Conservative Party is now formally organised in Northern Ireland separately from the Ulster Unionist Party.

Organisation and membership

The internal organisation of the Conservative Party is a contrast between the grassroots groups who dominate in the election of party leaders and selection of local candidates, and the members of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters who lead in financing, the organising of elections, and drafting of policy. The leader of the Parliamentary party provides the core of daily political activity and forms policy in consultation with his cabinet and administration. This decentralised structure is unusual.

As with the Labour Party, membership has long been declining and despite an initial boost shortly after Cameron's election as leader, membership resumed its fall in 2006 and is now actually lower than when David Cameron was elected in December 2005. However, the Conservative Party still has more members (about 290,000) than the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats combined (around 200,000 and 70,000 respectively). But the party does not publicly provide verifiable membership figures, making this difficult to confirm.

The membership fee for the Conservative party is £25, or £5 if the member is under the age of 23.

According to accounts filed with the Electoral Commission it had income in the year ending 31 December 2004 of about £20 million and expenditure of about £26 million.

The electoral symbol of the Conservative party is a stylised oak tree, replacing the freedom torch. The present motto, adopted by the Party on 6 October 2007, is "It's Time For Change". Before David Cameron, the official party colours were red, white and blue, though blue is most generally associated with the party, in contrast to the red of the Labour Party. The position has become more ambiguous since the logo change in 2006, and the party website is now blue and green. (In the Cumbrian constituencies of Penrith and the Border and Westmorland and Lonsdale the party adopts yellow as its colour after the coat of arms of the Earls of Lonsdale).


Image:1st Earl of Beaconsfield.jpg
Benjamin Disraeli
Prime Minister 1868, 1874-80

The Conservative Party traces its origins back to a political faction, rooted in the 18th century Whig Party, that coalesced around the person of William Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister of Great Britain 1783-1801 and 1804-1806). Originally known as "Independent Whigs", "Friends of Mr. Pitt", or "Pittites", after Pitt's death the term "Tory" came into use. This was an allusion to the then-extinct Tory Party, a political grouping that had existed from 1678 to 1760, but which had no organisational continuity with the Pittite party. From about 1812 on the name "Tory" was commonly used for the newer party.

Not all members of the party were content with the "Tory" name. George Canning first used the term 'Conservative' in the 1820s and it was suggested as a title for the party by John Wilson Croker in the 1830s. It was later officially adopted under the aegis of Sir Robert Peel around 1834. Peel is acknowledged as the founder of the Conservative party which he created with the announcement of the Tamworth Manifesto.

The widening of the franchise in the nineteenth century forced the Conservative Party to popularise its approach under Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, who carried through their own expansion of the franchise with the Reform Act of 1867. In 1886 the party formed an alliance with Lord Hartington (later the 8th Duke of Devonshire) and Joseph Chamberlain's new Liberal Unionists, and under the statesmen Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour the party held power for all but three of the following twenty years. However, the party suffered a landslide election defeat in 1706 when it split over the issue of free trade.

The Conservatives served with the Liberals in the all-party coalition government during World War I, and the coalition continued under Liberal PM David Lloyd George (with half of the Liberals) until 1922. Eventually, Bonar Law and Stanley Baldwin led the breakup of the Coalition and the Conservatives came again to dominate the political scene in the inter-war period, albeit from 1931 in another coalition, the National Government. It was this wartime coalition government under the leadership of Winston Churchill that saw the United Kingdom through World War II. However, the party lost the 1945 general election in a landslide to the resurgent Labour Party.

Upon their election victory in the 1951 general election, the Conservatives accepted the reality of Labour's 'welfare state' and its industry nationalisation programme, though Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Douglas-Home continued to promote relatively liberal trade regulations and less State involvement throughout the 1950s and early 1960s.

Edward Heath's 1970-1974 government was most noted for its attempt and failure in battling the increasingly militant trade unions, and its success in taking Britain into the European Economic Community; Macmillan's earlier bid to join the EC in early 1963 had been blocked by French President Charles de Gaulle. As an example of the Conservatives' divided stance on the issue, Churchill at one point argued strongly for a 'United States of Europe', although he was against British membership of any federal European state and specifically the EEC. Since accession, British membership in the EU has been a source of significant and heated debate over the decades within the Conservative party.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher won her party's leadership election in 1975. Following victory in the 1979 general election, the Conservatives briefly pursued a monetarist economic programme. More generally, the party adopted a free-market approach to government services and focused on the privatisation of industries and utilities nationalised under Labour in the 1940s and 1960s. Thatcher after her initial election led the Conservatives to two landslide election victories in 1983 and 1987. However, she was also deeply unpopular in certain sections of society, in part due to the high unemployment following her economic reforms and also for what was seen as a heavy-handed response to issues such as the miners' strike. Yet it was Thatcher's introduction of the Community Charge (known by its opponents as the poll tax) which most contributed to her political downfall. Her increasing unpopularity and unwillingness to compromise on policies perceived as vote losers saw internal party tensions lead to a leadership challenge by the Conservative MP Michael Heseltine, after which she was forced to stand down from the premiership in 1990.

Conservatives after Thatcher

John Major won the ensuing party leadership contest in 1990, and also won an unexpected general election victory in his own right in 1992. Major's government experienced only a brief honeymoon as the pound sterling was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on 16 September 1992, a day thereafter referred to as " Black Wednesday". Soon after, approximately one million householders faced repossession of their homes during a recession that saw a sharp rise in unemployment. The party subsequently lost much of its reputation for good financial stewardship despite the ensuing economic recovery, and was also increasingly accused in the media of sleaze. An effective opposition campaign by the Labour Party culminated in a landslide defeat for the Conservatives in 1997. It was Labour's largest ever parliamentary victory. One significant feature of the result of the 1997 election was that it left the Conservative Party with MPs in just England, with all remaining seats in Scotland and Wales being lost.

William Hague assumed the leadership after the party's electoral collapse in 1997. Though a strong debater in the House of Commons, a Gallup poll for the Daily Telegraph found that two-thirds of voters regarded him as "a bit of a wally", mocked as he was for headlines such as his claim that he drank 14 pints of beer in a single day in his youth. He was also criticised for attending the Notting Hill Carnival and for wearing a baseball cap in public, in what were seen as poor attempts to appeal to ethnic minority voters. Shortly before the 2001 election, Hague was much maligned by some Labour and Tory supporters for a speech in which he predicted that a re-elected Labour government would turn Britain into a "foreign land". The BBC also reported that Conservative peer Lord Taylor criticised Hague for not removing the whip from Conservative MP John Townend, after the latter made a speech in which he termed the British "a mongrel race", although Hague did reject Townsend's views. The 2001 election resulted in a net gain of just one seat for the Conservative Party and William Hague resigned soon after, having privately set himself a target of 209 seats – Labour's performance in 1983 – a target which he missed by 43.

Iain Duncan Smith (2001-2003) (often known as IDS) was a strong Eurosceptic. But Euroscepticism did not define Duncan Smith's leadership—indeed it was during his tenure that Europe ceased to be an issue of division in the party as it united behind calls for a referendum on the proposed European Union Constitution. However, before ever facing the public at a general election, Duncan Smith lost a vote of no confidence to MPs who felt he was unelectable. Michael Howard then stood for the leadership unopposed on 6 November 2003.

Under Howard in the 2005 general election, the Conservative Party increased their total vote share by around 0.6% (up to 32.3%) and – more significantly – their number of parliamentary seats by 33 (up to 198 seats). This gain accompanied a large fall in the Labour vote, and the election reduced Labour's majority from 167 to 66. The Conservative party actually won the largest share of the vote in England, though not the largest number of seats. The campaign - based around the slogan,"Are you thinking what we're thinking?" - was designed by Australian pollster Lynton Crosby. The day after the election, on May 6, Howard announced that he did not feel it was right to continue as leader after defeat in the general election, also saying that he would be too old to lead the party into another campaign and would therefore step down, while first allowing time for the party to amend its leadership election rules.

David Cameron

David Cameron
David Cameron

David Cameron won the subsequent leadership campaign. Cameron beat his closest rival, David Davis, by a margin of more than two to one, taking 134,446 votes to 64,398. He then announced his intention to reform and realign the Conservatives, saying they needed to change the way they looked, felt, thought and behaved. For most of 2006 and the first half of 2007, polls showed leads over Labour for the Conservatives. Polls have become more volatile since the accession of Gordon Brown as Prime Minister although once again a Conservative lead has become apparent since October 2007, with a lead of thirteen points occurring in December, the highest in fifteen years.

In May and June of 2007, Cameron faced his first major policy challenge within his own Party, in a high-profile public debate on the future of Grammar Schools

The Conservative Party today

A graph showing the percentage of the popular vote received by major parties in general elections, 1832-2005. The Conservatives have remained a dominant force in British politics since their founding as the Tories.
A graph showing the percentage of the popular vote received by major parties in general elections, 1832-2005. The Conservatives have remained a dominant force in British politics since their founding as the Tories.

The Conservative Party, as the largest in the UK Parliament after the Labour Party, provides Her Majesty's Official Opposition to the Labour Government of Gordon Brown. Labour currently holds a majority of 66 in a House of Commons of 646 Members of Parliament. The Conservatives now number 195 MPs.

Current policies

As with all political parties, the Conservatives' policies are characterised by the tensions between opposing poles within the party. A basic expression of these tensions can be found in the opposing values of individual liberty and cultural conformity, both of which inform Conservative policy-making: the former expressed through their economic liberalism and in post-2005 attitudes towards gay couples; the latter through, for example, tax incentives for co-habiting couples to marry and policies towards immigrant communities.

On Europe many commentators believe that their failures in UK politics from 1997 were partly as a result of continued internal tension between Europhiles (such as Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine) and Eurosceptics (such as John Redwood and William Hague). However, the Conservative party has in recent years largely come to terms with these issues, or has at least ceased to argue quite as publicly over what remains a contentious internal issue.

Since the election of David Cameron as leader, party policy has increasingly focused on such "quality of life" issues as the environment, the improvement of government services (most prominently the National Health Service and the Home Office), and schools.

Conservatives hold a varying record of opposition and support on parliamentary devolution to the nations and English regions of the UK. They opposed devolution to Wales and Scotland in the 1997 referendums, whilst supporting it for Northern Ireland. They also opposed the government's unsuccessful attempt at devolution of power to North East England in 2004. However, with a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly now in existence, the Conservatives have pledged not to reverse these reforms. Recently the Conservatives have begun to take a stance on the difficult West Lothian Question, supporting - as a proposal but not yet as a policy - the idea that only English MPs should vote on policies that affect only England. (See the article on the 'West Lothian Question' for fuller explanation of the issues involved).

Economic policy

Though Margaret Thatcher's reforms of the 1980s are often credited with breaking Britain's cycle of long-term decline even while substantially increasing unemployment, the party's reputation for economic stewardship was dealt a blow by Black Wednesday in 1992, in which billions of pounds were spent in an effort to keep the pound within the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) system at an overvalued rate. Combined with the recession of the early 1990s 'Black Wednesday' allowed Tony Blair and then- Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to claim from the Conservatives the mantle of economic competence. Many on both the left and right have since argued that New Labour's embrace of market forces and public sector modernisation amounted to little more than stealing the Conservative Party's economic clothes.

Following Labour's victory in the 1997 general election, the Conservative Party opposed Labour's decision to grant the Bank of England independent control of interest rates. Economists had long advocated independent central banks as a means of depoliticising monetary policy and overcoming the problem of time inconsistency (a situation in game theory which shows how a policymaker who cares about both low unemployment and low inflation will achieve neither). Moreover, in the 1990s a number of countries (e.g. New Zealand) pursued such reforms. However, the Conservatives initially opposed independence for the Bank of England on the grounds that it would be a prelude to the abolition of the pound sterling and acceptance of the European single currency, and also expressed concern over the removal of monetary policy from democratic control. However, Bank independence was popular amongst the financial community as it helped to keep inflation low. The Conservatives accepted Labour's policy in early 2000.

The Conservative Party under David Cameron has redirected its stance on taxation, still committed to the general principle of reducing direct taxation whilst arguing that the country needs a "dynamic and competitive economy", with the proceeds of any growth shared between both "tax reduction and extra public investment".

Perhaps the most notable Conservative economic policy of recent years has been opposition to the European single currency. Anticipating the growing Euroscepticism within his party, John Major negotiated a British opt-out from the single currency in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, although several members of Major's cabinet ( Kenneth Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Stephen Dorrell) were personally supportive of EMU participation. Following Major's resignation after the 1997 defeat, each of the four successive Conservative leaders ( William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron) have positioned the party firmly against the abolition of the pound. This policy is broadly popular with the British electorate, although voters typically rank Europe as an issue of low importance compared to education, healthcare, immigration and crime. In a study by the European Parliament in 2004, only 9% of voters questioned agreed that the EU was an important issue for the country. This may partly explain why the Conservatives were unable to convert their most popular policy into election victories between 1997 and 2005.

Social policy

Scarborough Conservative Club.
Scarborough Conservative Club.

In recent years, 'modernisers' in the party have claimed that the association between social conservatism and the Conservatives (manifest in policies such as tax incentives for married couples, the removal of the link between pensions and earnings, and criticism of public financial support for those who do not work) have played a role in the electoral decline of the party in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, David Willetts has criticised what he termed "the war on single parents", whilst former Conservative Party Chairman Brian Mawhinney observed that the party had "created the impression that if you weren't in a traditional nuclear family, then we weren't interested in you". Since 1997 a debate has continued within the party between 'modernisers' such as Michael Portillo, who believe that the Conservatives should modify their public stances on social issues, and 'traditionalists' such as William Hague and David Davis, who believe that the party should remain faithful to its traditional conservative platform. This may have resulted in William Hague's and Michael Howard's pre-election swings to the right in 2001 and 2005, as well as the election of the stop- Kenneth Clarke candidate Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. Theresa May famously remarked that the result of all this was that the Conservatives were perceived as "the nasty party". Since the election of Cameron the 'modernisers' appear to have been given more of a voice on social policy.

Changes in official Conservative Party attitudes on certain issues have not been universally welcomed. The prominent conservative journalist Peter Hitchens has described the party as "useless", for what he sees as their persistent acquiescence to prevailing left wing orthodoxy. He has also been critical of David Cameron.

Foreign policy

For much of the twentieth century the Conservative party took a broadly Atlanticist stance in relations with the United States, favouring close ties with the United States and similarly aligned nations such as Canada, Australia and Japan. The Conservatives have generally favoured a diverse range of international alliances, ranging from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the Commonwealth of Nations.

Close US-British relations have been an element of Conservative foreign policy since World War II. Winston Churchill during his 1951-1955 post-war premiership built up a strong relationship with the Eisenhower Administration in the United States. Harold Macmillan demonstrated a similarly close relationship with the Democratic administration of J.F. Kennedy. Though the US-British relationship in foreign affairs has often been termed a 'Special Relationship', a term coined by Sir Winston Churchill, this has often been observed most clearly where leaders in each country are of a similar political stripe. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher built a close relationship with American President Ronald Reagan in his opposition to the former Soviet Union, but John Major was less successful in his personal contacts with former Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Out of power and perceived as largely irrelevant by American politicians, Conservative leaders Hague, Duncan-Smith, and Howard each struggled to forge personal relationships with presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush.

David Cameron has recently sought to distance himself from President Bush and his neoconservative foreign policy, and has called for a "rebalancing" of US-UK ties. Potential Republican 2008 presidential candidate John McCain spoke at the 2006 Conservative Party Conference.

On the European Union

No subject has more divided the Conservative Party in recent history than the UK's relations with the European Union (EU). Though the principal architect of Britain's entry into the then- Common Market (later European Community and European Union) was Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath, and both Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan favoured some form of European union, the bulk of contemporary Conservative opinion is opposed to closer economic and particularly political union with the EU. This is a noticeable shift in British politics, as in the 1960s and 1970s the Conservatives were more pro EU than the Labour Party. Divisions on Europe came to the fore under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) and were cited by several ministers resigning, including Deputy Prime Minister Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation triggered the challenge that ended Thatcher's leadership, although other factors such as the poll tax also played a role. Under Thatcher's successor, John Major (1990-1997), the slow process of integration within the EU forced party tensions to the surface. A core of Eurosceptic MPs under Major used the small Conservative majority in Parliament to oppose Government policy on the Maastricht Treaty. By doing so they undermined Major's ability to govern.

In recent years the Conservative Party has become more clearly Eurosceptic, as the Labour Government has found itself unwilling to make a positive case for further integration, and Eurosceptic or pro-withdrawal parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party have made showings in UK elections. But under current EU practices, the degree to which a Conservative Government could implement policy change regarding the EU would depend directly on the willingness of other EU member states to agree to such policies.

The Conservatives are a member of the International Democrat Union and its European Democrat Union. In the summer of 2006 the Conservatives became founding members of the Movement for European Reform, following Cameron's pledge to end the fourteen-year-old partnership between the largely Eurosceptic Conservatives and the more Euro-integrationist, European People's Party (EPP). Within the European Parliament, however, the Conservatives remain members of an informal bloc called the European Democrats (ED), which is committed to sit in a coalition arrangement with the EPP as the EPP-ED group until 2009.

Beyond relations with the United States, the Commonwealth and the EU, the Conservative Party has generally supported a pro free-trade foreign policy within the mainstream of international affairs. The degree to which Conservative Governments have supported interventionist or non-interventionist Presidents in the US has often varied with the personal relations between a US President and the British Prime Minister.

Internal groupings

There are three main political traditions within the modern Conservative Party:

One Nation Conservatives

One Nation Conservatism was the party's dominant ideology in the 20th century until the rise of Thatcherism in the 1970s, and included in its ranks Conservative Prime Ministers such as Stanley Baldwin, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath. The name itself comes from a famous phrase of Benjamin Disraeli. The basis of One-Nation Conservatism is a belief in social cohesion, and its adherents support social institutions that maintain harmony between different interest groups, classes, and—more recently—different races or religions. These institutions have typically included the welfare state, the BBC, and local government. Some are also supporters of the European Union, perhaps stemming from an extension of the cohesion principle to the international level, though others are strongly against the EU (such as Sir Peter Tapsell). Prominent One-Nation Conservatives in the contemporary party include Kenneth Clarke, Malcolm Rifkind and Damian Green; they are often associated with the Tory Reform Group and the Bow Group. One Nation Conservatives often invoke Edmund Burke and his emphasis on civil society ("little platoons") as the foundations of society, as well as his opposition to radical politics of all hues.

Free-Market Conservatives

The second main tradition in the Conservative party is the free market, or Thatcherite wing. Economic liberals achieved dominance after the election of Margaret Thatcher as party leader in 1975. Their political goal was to reduce the role of the government in the economy, and to this end they supported cuts in direct taxation, the privatisation of public services, the ending of nationalised industry, and a reduction in the size and scope of the welfare state. Matters of social policy are not so clear cut. Although Thatcher herself was socially conservative and a practising Methodist, her supporters harbour a range of social opinions from the libertarian views of Michael Portillo to the traditional conservatism of William Hague and David Davis. Many are also Eurosceptic, since they perceive most EU regulations as an an unwelcome interference in the free market and/or a threat to British sovereignty. Rare Thatcherite Europhiles include Leon Brittan.

Many take inspiration from Thatcher's anti-EU Bruges speech in 1988, in which she declared that "we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level". Thatcherites also tend to be Atlanticist, dating back to the close friendship between Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher herself claimed philosophical inspiration from the works of Burke and Friedrich Hayek for their defence of liberal economics. Groups associated with this tradition include the No Turning Back Group and Conservative Way Forward.

Traditionalist Conservatives

This right-wing grouping is currently associated with The Cornerstone Group (or Faith, Flag and Family), and is the third main tradition within the Conservative Party. The name stems from its support for three British social institutions: the Church of England, the unitary British state and the family. To this end, they emphasise the country's Anglican heritage, oppose any transfer of power away from the United Kingdom—either downwards to the nations and regions or upwards to the European Union—and seek to place greater emphasis on traditional family structures to repair what they see as a broken society in Britain. Most oppose high levels of immigration into the UK, and some members have in the past professed controversial opinions on issues of race and ethnicity in modern Britain. Some members also support capital punishment. Prominent MPs from this wing of the party include Nadine Dorries, Andrew Rosindell, Ann Widdecombe and Edward Leigh—the last two prominent Roman Catholics, notable in a faction marked out by its support for the established Church of England. Homosexual Conservative MP Alan Duncan once referred to this wing as a " Taliban tendency" within the party. The conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton is a representative of the intellectual wing of the Cornerstone group: his writings rarely touch on economics and instead focus on conservative perspectives concerning political, social, cultural and moral issues.

Sometimes two groupings have united to oppose the third. Both Thatcherite and Traditionalist Conservatives rebelled over Europe (and in particular Maastricht) during John Major's premiership; and Traditionalist and One Nation MPs united to inflict Margaret Thatcher's only defeat in parliament, over Sunday trading.

Not all Conservative MPs can be easily placed within one of the above groupings. For example, John Major was the ostensibly "Thatcherite" candidate during the 1990 leadership election, but he consistently promoted One-Nation Conservatives to the higher reaches of his cabinet during his time as Prime Minister. These included Kenneth Clarke as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Michael Heseltine as Deputy Prime Minister.

Associated groups

  • Bow Group
  • Bruges Group
  • Cchange
  • Centre for Policy Studies
  • Conservative Christian Fellowship
  • Conservative Future (England and Wales)
  • Conservative Future (Scotland)
  • Conservative Way Forward
  • Conservative Muslim Forum
  • Cornerstone Group
  • European Foundation
  • The Freedom Association
  • Tory Reform Group
  • Conservative Mainstream
  • Selsdon Group
  • Conservative Research Department
  • Conservative Party Archive

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