Britain’s Conservative Party punished for years of scandal

Britain’s Conservative Party punished for years of scandal
  • PublishedJuly 6, 2024

Liz Truss had been British prime minister for less than two months when she was asked in parliament why she was still there.

“I’m a fighter, not a quitter,” she said. The next day, she resigned.

It was October 2022, and the Conservative Party — which had been in power for 12 years — were feasting on themselves.

Truss’s tenure, which lasted just 49 days, was a disaster.

“But she didn’t come out of nowhere,” says veteran political journalist and broadcaster Ian Dunt.

“She came out of a party that had been completely lost.”

Liz Truss closes her eyes as she announces her resignation outside a black door with the number 10 on it.
Liz Truss was undone by her “bold plan” to try and stimulate economic growth.  (Reuters: Henry Nicholls)

If they were lost two years ago, the Conservatives — known colloquially as the Tories — are now on life support.

The party suffered a crushing defeat, losing 250 seats compared to 2019.

They will sit in opposition with just 121 seats, while Labour commands a huge majority with 412.

Plenty of high profile MPs, including Liz Truss, lost their seats.

“I think we need to keep in mind the Conservative Party is the single most successful political organisation in the history of Western civilisation,” Dunt says.

“It tends to mock anyone’s predictions as to its demise. However, many things have changed.”

Opinion polls in the lead-up to Thursday’s election indicated the party was less popular than Labour among voters in every age group, except for over 70s.

Those numbers were reflected in the election, as the party’s overall share of the vote was decimated, falling almost 20 per cent to 23.7 per cent.

The big winners of that move away from the Conservatives was Reform UK, led by populist leader Nigel Farrage.

Reform captured almost 15 per cent of the national vote, and secured five seats, posing a serious threat to the Conservatives moving forward.

During 14 turbulent years in office, the Conservatives endured chaos like the UK has never seen.

Some of it was out of their control. Much was of their own making.

What are the issues that are important to UK voters?(Elias Clure)

A broad church and changing congregation

While Truss is not solely responsible for the Tories’ electoral wipe-out, she represents fundamental changes in the party.

When the Conservatives came to power in 2010, then-prime minister David Cameron promised some tough love in the form of fiscal austerity to repair a black hole in Britain’s budget.

By the time Truss took over — four leaders later — she was blaming something she referred to as “the deep state” for blocking her economic blueprint.

While the rhetoric from its leaders mutated, so too did the party’s voting base.

“Traditionally, the Conservatives have been the party of the middle class, the kind of relatively affluent parts of Britain, and also of the more educated parts of Britain,” says Jonathan Mellon, a co-director at the British Election Study.

That demographic was true at the time they first formed government. It’s very different now.

Colourful Brexit supporters stand outside Westminister waving flags and banners.
On polling day, 52 per cent of people in the UK voted to leave the EU — 48 per cent voted to stay.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

When the UK decided to leave the European Union, after a closely fought 2016 referendum, it put the Conservatives in a bind.

Of the 30 constituencies with the fewest university graduates, 28 voted to leave.

The country’s poorest households, with annual incomes of less than £20,000 ($38,800 at the time of the referendum), were much more likely to support Brexit.

“The Brexit period of politics was very unusual in how much volatility there was and how much it shook off the standard alignments of British politics,” Mellon says.

The UK turning its back on the EU cost the Tories two prime ministers.

A composite image of David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson
Brexit brought down David Cameron and Theresa May but helped propel Boris Johnson to a landslide election win.(Reuters: Toby Melville/Hannah McKay/Henry Nicholls)

Cameron, who campaigned against leaving, resigned shortly after the referendum.

His successor Theresa May — who won a party leadership ballot unopposed — eventually walked too, after the parliament repeatedly voted down her proposed deals to manage the exit from the EU.

The high-profile former London mayor Boris Johnson became PM in July 2019 — the culmination of a selection process that lasted more than six weeks.

Without a parliamentary majority — the Tories were, by this time, governing in minority — the ardent Brexiteer couldn’t get his plans through either, and called a snap general election for December 2019.

His landslide victory delivered a majority of 80 seats and again underscored the shifting voter demographics leaving the EU gave the Tories.

“We have these Tory MPs in places in the north of England that have never elected the Conservative MP before,” says Sophie Stowers, from the academic think tank UK in a Changing Europe.

“That’s a very different type of politician. You had such a broad church, it was always going to be difficult to maintain.”

COVID controversies

Despite the chaos surrounding Brexit, the Tories popularity remained high after a decade in government.

While Johnson was criticised for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — which brought multiple lockdowns and put a catastrophic strain on Britain’s health system — polls showed he remained the preferred prime minister over newly minted Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

But everything changed.

Reports multiple Tory staffers and MPs had been flouting social-distancing restrictions and gathering at the prime minister’s official residence, among other locations, first emerged in November 2021.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson toasting during an event held in Downing Street.
Mr Johnson was photographed giving a toast at a farewell party for a departing member of staff at a time when strict COVID lockdown rules were in place.(UK Cabinet Office)

The public was enraged about what the press dubbed Partygate.

“Everyone else was being asked to stay at home and isolate and stay six feet apart,” says Stowers.

“That’s when this downfall in the polls really started for the government.

“It’s just been followed by one scandal after another.”

A group of people, all faces blurred but Johnson, stand with drinks around a conference table
Boris Johnson became the first British PM to be interviewed under caution by police as part of the probe into Partygate.(UK Committees Parliament)

The UK’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, stepped down from his role of leading a probe into the illegal gatherings after claims surfaced he had hosted one.

Health secretary Matt Hancock resigned as a minister after it was revealed he breached social-distancing rules by kissing an aide. 

He was eventually suspended as an MP for joining the cast of a reality TV show.

Johnson was personally implicated in Partygate, too. Police eventually issued more than 120 penalty notices.

“It’s the kind of thing you would write in a children’s book to describe what a classic political scandal looked like,” Dunt says.

“It breaks this fundamental contract between the governed and the government.”

Johnson, who despite an immensely privileged upbringing had managed to style himself as a scruffy and relatable larrikin, never recovered.

A look at Boris Johnson’s rise and fall in politics.

After Partygate, many Brits lost patience with their eccentric, gaff-prone PM. Labour pulled ahead in the polls. 

By the summer of 2022, things had become untenable. He resigned in July.

Still, if Johnson was returned as leader, he would probably be more popular than the subsequent two Tory prime ministers.

Truss’s turbulent tenure

Liz Truss won a leadership ballot in early September and in her first address as PM, promised a “bold plan” for Britain’s economy. It was unveiled later that month.

“In the space of half an hour on a Friday morning she managed to shred any remaining reputation the Conservatives had for fiscal credibility,” says Jill Rutter, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government, who’s previously worked for the country’s treasury.

The blueprint was supposed to stimulate growth and contained a suite of tax cuts, including abolishing the highest bracket.

close up of liz truss speaking, wearing a green suit, ion front of the door of number 10
The tax cuts which Liz Truss championed eventually brought her time as PM to an end.(Reuters: Hannah McKay)

International fiscal authorities were dismayed, as was the UK’s central bank. US President Joe Biden said it was a “mistake”. The pound crashed.

Despite walking back the proposed policies over subsequent weeks, Truss’s “mini-budget” had done irreparable damage.

A newspaper began a continuous online video of an iceberg lettuce on a table next to a photo of the besieged PM, asking its audience which would last longer. 

The lettuce did.

A screenshot from a Daily Star broadcast shows a lettuce with googly eyes next to portrait of Liz Truss
The Daily Star’s humiliating live feed.(Twitter: Daily Star)

Truss resigned, sensationally, after just 49 days in office — Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister.

“She imploded,” Rutter says.

By this point the UK was years deep in a cost-of-living crisis, with the price of energy bills, housing and groceries ballooning.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was partly to blame, policy was also behind it. Inflation reached its peak of 11.1 per cent under Truss’s watch.

Rishi Sunak, who had fought Truss for the leadership, took over.

Rishi Sunak stands behind a wooden lectern in the street speaking in the rain
Rishi Sunak announced the snap election outside 10 Downing Street in the rain in May.(Reuters: Toby Melville)

“He’s never been massively popular,” says Stowers. “And he’s certainly not increased his popularity in the last year and a half.”

His signature policy was limiting immigration: an issue that the party’s most strident right-wingers are deeply interested in but that — according to multiple surveys — does not rank in the top three for most voters.

Some wins amid several scandals

Losing 250 seats on Thursday was the exclamation point at the end of a story of unprecedented chaos.

“The Tory party, having been really, for much of its sort of life, an efficient, pragmatic, election-winning machine has sort of dissolved,” Rutter says.

When the Conservatives came to office in 2010, Britain’s most senior treasury bureaucrat famously left a note warning “there’s no money left”.

The Tories were supposed to be a fresh start, albeit in difficult circumstances.

In Cameron’s first speech as PM, he said he wanted to build the economy and create stronger communities.

“And, I want a political system that people can trust and look up to once again,” he said.

Fourteen years later, Britain has gone backwards in all those metrics.

“The Conservative Party has to come to terms with the manner of its behaviour over the past few years,” says Dunt.

“Not just the rank incompetence, but also the moral degeneration around Partygate, and becoming obsessed with cultural issues during a cost-of-living crisis.”

The Tories do, after 14 years, have achievements to hold up. 

Despite churning through 10 different education secretaries in that time, and cutting the budget, reading levels among students at primary level in England are now the best in the Western world.

Among its five prime ministers were two women, and the country’s first British Asian leader.

It’s unclear whether Brexit was the catalyst to change the Conservatives, or whether it just accelerated something that was already coming.

But once the shift happened, Dunt says there’s no doubting what tore the Tories apart.


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