The current struggle to lead the Conservative Party and become the next Prime Minister is a fascinating example of what exactly:

  • Machiavellian guile?
  • Vaunting ambition over humility and self-knowledge?
  • self-interest over national-interest?

or some combination of all of the above?

Strange as it may sound, let’s leave Brexit and politics in general aside for one moment. What can we learn by looking not at the candidates and their respective promises but rather the behaviour and psychological state of their target electorate? For now, that electorate is the group of 313 Conservative members Parliament as it is only after they have whittled the field down to 2 that the wider Conservative party gets to vote.

The MPs have some decisions to make. Looking at their behaviour through the lens of group dynamics sheds light on both the outcome and the current fundamental dysfunctionality in British politics.

I want to apply the work of Wilfrid Bion to illuminate what is going on.

From his groundbreaking work with groups, one of Bion’s great insights was to distinguish between what he called the “Work Group” as opposed to the “Basic Assumption Group”.

To Bion, the Work Group is the group when it is engaged in what he called the Primary Task i.e. when the group is focused on and doing what the group was set up to do. Incidentally, Bion’s thinking on Primary Task is the fundamental thinking behind much of the more recent work in business on Corporate Mission and Purpose statements.

In the case of the Conservative Party in government you could argue that its Primary Task should be running the country and ensuring the security and well-being of its citizens. Observation would suggest that, right now, it is not particularly focused on this task.

BUT, Bion also observed that groups flip in and out of focus on their Primary Task and that, when not focused on Primary Task, groups fail. Not only that, but Bion by observing many groups in action also noticed that when they fail groups tend to do so in one of a small number of standard ways. They do this by adopting, at an unconscious level, a false “basic assumption” about the world, the way it operates and the group’s place in it.

These basic assumptions tend to occur when the group is subject to “uncontrollable anxiety”. Once the group is in the grip of a basic assumption it acts as a closed system in which reality is ignored and a collective group view of the world reigns supreme. Basically, the ability of individuals in the group to think rationally and independently about the problems the group exists to solve goes out the window. The group becomes so driven by its collective unconscious processes that individuals are not even aware that the group has been pulled away from its original purpose. Any of this sounding at all familiar?

This is what is happening in the Conservative party at the moment. Some of Bion’s Basic Assumptions are at play right now. Two in particular are clearly being adopted by MPs:

Dependency: For Bion this is a state in which the group blindly seeks a leader who will relieve them of all their anxieties (thus absolving the group of the need to do anything themselves to help solve the problems). The group expects this leader to be omnipotent and thus able to solve all their problems.

If this “magical leader” does not perform sufficiently well, then they will be attacked and a replacement sought. In this way, a cycle of leader-seeking, idealisation followed by denigration and execution / removal occurs.

This is happening right now. Indeed, there have been articles in the press recently by supporters of Boris Johnson expressing the view that “Boris is the only person who can get us out of this mess”. This does two things:

  • It creates what Bion described as a Messiah dependency, locating all the power in one individual (Boris) who, it is assumed, will magically solve the group’s problems
  • It absolves all the MPs of their part in helping to solve the problem.


Fight / Flight: Here Bion observed situations where the group acts as if its main task is to fight or flee from some common enemy who may be found either within or outside the group.

Once again, MPs are falling into this trap. How often over the past months have we seen members of the ERG referring to Remainers as Traitors or, conversely, Remainers referring to the ERG as “not Conservatives” and / or Tory MPs in general treating the European Union as the “enemy” who ought to just give them what they want (irrespective of International Treaty Law or previously binding commitments)?  All of these positions are a means of avoiding actually engaging with the realities of the world and the issues faced.


What does this all mean? Well, for a start it suggests that, right now, any election of a new leader is never going to solve the problems faced by the party and the country. Secondly, the level of dependency thinking we currently see going on inside the party suggests that whoever wins will be attacked and replaced in the short to medium term as the party falls out of love with its Messiah and goes in search of a new one.

What does this tell us more generally? Remember this is what happens in ALL groups. It is not behaviour reserved for political parties. Think of organisations you have worked with or in, how often have you observed precisely this kind of behaviour and its fallout.

Take just one example, in recent years CEO tenure has been falling as Boards seek someone to lead them to growth and success only to axe them and seek a replacement. Sometimes that may be justified but, I would argue, that frequently it is a classic example of basic assumption dependency and will serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

Finally, of course it isn’t just the Conservative Party that falls prey to these kinds of bahaviours. I could just as easily look at the Labour Party and draw some interesting conclusions but that, perhaps, is fuel for another article.