Britain’s Conservative Party won a landslide in 2019. Now the Tories and their elite are the butt of jokes overseas as polls point to possible humiliation.
10 Downing Street, the official residence and office of the British Prime Minister, in London, 20 October 2022 (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Britain’s Conservatives have been described as the most successful political party in the world. In the last election in 2019, the Tories won their biggest parliamentary victory in 30 years.
Yet opinion polls suggest the Tories, beset by chaos verging on farce and riven by factional divisions, could be crushed in an opposition landslide in the next election in two years’ time.
The reasons for this shockingly rapid decline shine a light not only on the two centuries-old Tory party, but on British society, which has been badly divided since the 2016 referendum that voted to withdraw the country from the European Union.
What is more, the chaos since 2016 could endanger the United Kingdom.
Both Scotland and the British province of Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the EU, and Brexit problems have increased pressure for Scottish independence and possibly for the island of Ireland to be united under the Dublin government after a century of division.
Extraordinarily, a country once known for political stability has had three prime ministers and four finance ministers since July.
The last premier, Liz Truss, was ejected after 44 disastrous days, the shortest term ever. Truss failed to outlast a head of lettuce displayed by the Daily Star newspaper as a joke about her calamitous tenure.
The state of Britain has caused mockery and perplexity abroad.
I covered politics in Rome for many years, writing about instability and revolving door governments. For most of that time, Italian friends would laud the gentility of the British system and the readiness of politicians to throw themselves on their swords for matters of principle.
No longer. Now Britain is being compared to Italy, and the Economist magazine ran a cover story on “BrItaly.”
Italians smile sympathetically at the mention of scandal-mired former premier Boris Johnson in the same way I found it incredible that Silvio Berlusconi — the former Italian premier, media magnate and now at 86 a monument to plastic surgery — was so popular. The tussle-headed, scruffy Johnson has even been dubbed “Borisconi” because of his clownish behaviour.
Britain has fallen so far that Italian commentators took offence at the comparison and said Italy was in fact more stable and economically resilient. Federico Fubini, a columnist for Corriere della Sera newspaper, wrote scathingly of Britain’s “profound cultural and civil confusion.”
Economy sunk by Truss.
Truss and her Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) Kwasi Kwarteng, dubbed “KamiKwasi,” caused a run on the pound, which sunk to its lowest level for 37 years. Their unfunded tax cuts spooked financial markets, pushing up interest rates, and created a hole in public finances estimated at $35 billion.
The central bank says Britain has begun a two-year recession. It has the highest inflation among members of the Group of Seven industrialised nations, and it is the only member whose gross domestic product has not risen back to pre-COVID-19 levels. In the Group of 20 nations, only sanctions-hit Russia is predicted to have lower levels of growth than Britain in 2023.
Kwarteng’s replacement, Jeremy Hunt, is expected this week to make the Conservatives even more unpopular with painful tax rises and reduced government spending during a severe cost-of-living crisis.
Truss was replaced by Rishi Sunak, Britain’s first prime minister of colour and one of its richest men, who was intended to steady the ship. But he has already hit problems. A political ally, Gavin Williamson, resigned from the cabinet after two weeks following multiple accusations that he bullied colleagues and civil servants.
A former fireplace salesman who kept a pet tarantula to intimidate Conservative MPs when he was in charge of party discipline, Williamson was said to have been key to Sunak’s election as party leader.
Most now think Brexit was a mistake.
Although Britain’s economy has been weak for a decade, the road to this chaos leads directly back to the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, which critics describe as a monumental act of self-harm.
It is increasingly difficult for Brexit’s most ardent supporters to list significant benefits from breaking links with Britain’s closest trading partner. The impact of COVID-19 and the Ukraine war appear to have been compounded by Brexit, which the independent Office for Budget Responsibility estimates will reduce GDP by 4%, or $117 billion a year.
Surveys show around 60% of the public now believe Brexit was a mistake.
Is Eton an elitist curse?
Decline and turmoil have also drawn attention to glaring inequalities in a country where privileged, privately-educated figures dominate, comprising around 65% of judges, 60% of senior civil servants and more than 50% of diplomats.
A study in 2017 said there had been little change in the roughly 45% of privately-educated people in Britain’s elite since the 1960s. This despite a period in the last century when sociologists speak of a golden age of upward mobility.
There were more than 30 years of state-educated prime ministers up until 1997. But the process then went into reverse, leaving social mobility lagging many other developed nations. Education failures during the pandemic will deepen social divides, according to a recent report.
This backward momentum is epitomised by the return of prime ministers from Britain’s most exclusive school, Eton College, which has produced 20 of the country’s 57 prime ministers since the 18th century despite a performance in office that can best be described as patchy.
Both David Cameron, who called a referendum on EU membership in 2016 primarily to silence the party’s fiercely anti-European right wing and resigned when he lost it, and Boris Johnson, the face of the leave-EU campaign, are alumni of the school. So is Kwarteng.
Francis Green, professor of Work and Education Economics at University College London, told News Decoder: “Britain has been drawn into withdrawal from Europe and apparent decline under the leadership of two prime ministers from Eton and always a privately-educated elite at the top. And there is no sign of government help for social mobility in the next generation.”
He added: “Only 6.5% of pupils in Britain attend a private, fee-paying school, but 61% of the current cabinet … are part of the privately educated elite. Nothing has changed yet.”
Green and historian David Kynaston, authors of the 2019 book “Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem,” said dominance by the privately educated had created a “democratic deficit,” with an elite that had “only limited and partial understanding of, and empathy with, the realities of everyday life.”
From triumph to humiliation
When Johnson became Conservative Party leader in 2019, he already had reputation as a philanderer and chancer with a casual relationship with the truth.
He called an election after his advice to the late Queen Elizabeth to suspend parliament as part of Brexit manoeuvres was ruled illegal. His landslide victory made him a party hero.
Three years later, Johnson had to be dragged from office.
His own ministers had staged a mass walkout after a series of scandals involving errors during the COVID-19 pandemic that cost thousands of lives. These included alleged corruption in the awarding of hugely lucrative contracts to party cronies for protective medical equipment and a failed test-and-trace system that cost $43 billion but, according to a parliamentary enquiry, made no real contribution to slowing the spread of the virus.
What finally led 57 members of his government to resign was lies about a sex scandal involving a senior party official. But it was still other revelations that destroyed his popularity: repeated parties in his Downing Street office during COVID-19 lockdowns while the population were obeying orders to stay at home, even missing the funerals of loved ones.
He is believed to be the only prime minister found to have broken the law in office when he was fined for attending one of the parties.
Johnson could end up being responsible both for one of his party’s greatest triumphs and biggest defeat if opinion polls are correct — a far cry from his childhood dream of being “king of the world.” A current inquiry into whether he lied to parliament could even result in Johnson being suspended as a lawmaker.
Three questions to consider:
- Why has the British Conservative Party declined?
- Why did Boris Johnson have to resign?
- What causes Britain’s lack of social mobility?
Barry Moody was a correspondent and editor for Reuters for more than 40 years, reporting from most parts of the world while based in Italy, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, the United States, Hong Kong and Australasia. He was Africa Editor for 10 years and Middle East editor for seven, during which time he led coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. He ran editorial operations in Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal at the height of the European Union's debt crisis. His assignments took him from covering global tours by Pope John Paul and mafia gangs in Italy to head-hunters in Papua New Guinea and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa as well as U.S. politics, plus three football World Cups and three Olympics.