This is the first in a three part series on the decline and fall of the Conservative Party.
The Conservative Party as we know it is dying. Riven by internal divisions and ungovernable, it has a notional majority in parliament, but Liz Truss, who was “in office but not in power”, as Norman Lamont once famously put it, has had to resign. How did we get here and what happens next?
Every administration reaches its zenith – a point at which, either through overconfidence, hubris or other character defect, the regime in question over-reaches. The result is a significant or even total loss of public confidence in the administration’s ability to govern and the seeping into general public conscience that this administration is incompetent, doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the daily issues that the citizens who elected it are now facing, and its popularity drops markedly.
To illustrate what I mean by this, let’s look at some of the moments that eventually undid some of the governments in the past.
‘Tipping points’ for Thatcher and Major
Thinking of the Thatcher government, the obvious example is the poll tax – even at the time of its introduction it was openly speculated that this would be her downfall. (It’s also an interesting aside that Labour was enjoying healthy opinion poll leads as a result during the early 1990s – but the Conservatives still won the 1992 general election. This point is doubtless not lost on Keir Starmer 30 years later.)
John Major was undone partly by ‘Black Wednesday’, when the British pound was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and a core government economic policy of trying to control the value of the pound in relation to other European currencies fell apart. The sheer volume of sleaze scandals implicating members of Major’s government did not help but these were more an ongoing background factor rather than a defining moment of his premiership – although the apparent hypocrisy of Major’s ‘Back To Basics’ campaign certainly influenced public opinion.
The undoing of Blair and Brown and the collapse of the Lib Dems
Tony Blair’s downfall can easily be pinned on the Iraq War. Gordon Brown was undone by ‘the election that never was’ – his reputation for competence and stability was fatally undermined by the introduction of potential indecisiveness and things were never quite the same for him afterwards. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010 to 2015 is harder to pin one single point of failure on, although the Liberal Democrats’ polling numbers collapsed rapidly upon formation of the coalition and they lost the vast majority of their parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election – but about two thirds of these losses (27 seats) were to David Cameron’s Conservatives and only 12 Lib Dem seats were lost to Labour in 2015. This enabled the Conservatives to win the 2015 general election.
Mistakes by individual leaders
After that, the picture admittedly becomes a little less clear because it was largely individual leaders who made political mistakes rather than their governments as a whole.
Cameron’s downfall was obviously losing the EU referendum that he himself had called in a disastrously failed attempt to unite his party. Theresa May became prime minister by succeeding Cameron as Conservative leader without a general election – but her mistakes were firstly her failed gamble on the 2017 general election, resulting in her losing the majority she had inherited from Cameron, and then her inability to get any Brexit withdrawal agreement approved by parliament.
Boris Johnson’s hubris was to try changing the rules retrospectively to protect Owen Paterson from scrutiny by parliamentary standards committees in the light of Paterson’s corrupt lobbying being revealed.
Timelines are growing shorter: a damning indictment
After this analysis of past governments, we come to the present one. Truss had barely got her feet under the table at 10 Downing Street before she colluded with her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng to approve the disastrous mini-budget that set the UK economy reeling with its unfunded tax cuts for the rich. Truss’s popularity with many other world leaders was low even before she became prime minister and her reception by the British public was decidedly cool as she won the Conservative leadership contest.
From the historical appraisal of past UK governments and their mistakes, we can observe a certain trend, namely that the average time between assuming office and the catastrophic misjudgement that fatally undermined a given administration has got shorter with each successive prime minister.
(Yes, I know Major and Brown were both PM for a relatively short time before they messed up, but for Brown in particular I am cheating a bit and counting much of his long tenure as chancellor to be a period of ‘PM-in-waiting’, which the revelation of the long-suspected ‘Blair-Brown deal’ confirmed – the point is that Brown was an extremely experienced top level politician when he tripped up).
With Liz Truss having resigned after a mere 45 days in office, it’s something of a damning indictment of the decline of UK politics and politicians.
An administration undone in record time
We can identify a number of factors that led to the speedy demise of Liz Truss’s premiership.
Firstly, the Conservative Party has split into multiple factions, a situation exacerbated by the leadership election. Not only did Truss not secure the votes of more MPs than her rival leadership contender Rishi Sunak, but the party was further split by the amount of support that Penny Mordaunt gained in her leadership bid and allegations of ‘dirty tricks’ to ensure Mordaunt didn’t make it to the final two candidates presented to party members.
Matters were made worse by the failure by Liz Truss – until it was too late – to include MPs from other wings of the party in her government.
Add to this the fallout from Kwarteng’s mini-budget, thanks to which a further split developed between right-wing free market supporters who wanted Kwarteng to go even further on this radical agenda and more cautious Conservative MPs who felt the chancellor was going too far and too fast, as evidenced by the disastrous reception of the budget by the financial markets. Truss’s cabinet has also been deeply divided over whether state benefits should rise in line with wages or inflation.
A further worry for centrist Conservatives has been the apparent hold right-wing think tanks have over Truss, not to mention their unease with party members having forced a leader on them they didn’t vote for.
Uniting the Conservative Party was never going to be easy but managing to alienate MPs to the extent that she did in record time will go down as Liz Truss’s special achievement.
Part two of this series on the decline and fall of the Conservative Party is available here: the rot sets in.
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