Britain’s Conservative Party Is Facing a Historic Defeat

Rishi Sunak’s Tory Party is on a path toward electoral calamity. The Tory meltdown is the culmination of a deep-rooted, long-term crisis that was temporarily staved off by the Brexit referendum but has now returned with a vengeance.

British prime minister Rishi Sunak, soaked in rain, announces July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in London, on May 22, 2024. (Henry Nicholls / AFP via Getty Images)

When Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, stood in the pouring rain last week to announce a general election, there could hardly have been a less auspicious beginning to the Conservative Party’s campaign. In the space of a few days, it has gone downhill from there.

Eighty-five Tory MPs have shown their confidence in their party’s ability to win another term by declaring their retirement. These include the former PM Theresa May, long-serving minister Michael Gove, and erstwhile Tory leadership contender Andrea Leadsom. Twenty-two of these MPs have served in the Commons for fewer than ten years, and ten of them were only elected in 2019.

Finding the Floor

The first policy announcement of the Tory campaign did not go down well either. On May 24, Sunak said he would reintroduce compulsory national service for eighteen-year-olds if reelected. Young people would have to choose between a year-long military placement or “voluntary” work for community groups and charities.

To add to the general sense of chaos, one of Sunak’s ministers had rubbished this very policy three days previously, and Tory messaging over sanctions for noncompliance is all over the place. Sunak has suggested taking up a position would be a condition for a later career working in the public sector, while others have suggested that parents could be fined or even called for the imprisonment of refuseniks.

The haphazard campaign launch and the trumpeting of unpopular policy initiatives mark the shambolic beginnings of the end for a Conservative Party overdue for its reckoning. While there in no popular enthusiasm for Keir Starmer’s “changed” Labour Party, ever since the calamitous forty-nine-day rule of Liz Truss, the main opposition party has maintained a sustained poll lead, usually ranging between fifteen and twenty-five points, depending on the pollster.

Projections on seat share differ only on one detail: how badly the Tories are going to lose. John Major laid the previous floor in 1997 when his party was returned with 165 seats. A lot of forecasters say this year’s result will be worse, with some even suggesting it will drop below 100 seats. That would represent a cataclysm and a defeat that some Tories worry their party would not recover from.

Decline and Decomposition

They are right to be worried. What is happening to the Tories is the culmination of the long-term decline and decomposition of their vote, which was accelerated by Brexit, Boris Johnson, the Truss debacle, and Sunak’s time in office. As I have argued in detail elsewhere, during the 2010s, the party became increasingly dependent on a coalition of propertied interests, with its core mass base provided by elderly voters.

These layers of the electorate were shielded from the direct consequences of the 2010–15 Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government through protection of pensioners’ incomes via the “triple lock” — a guarantee the state pension would rise in tandem with average earnings, inflation, or a baseline figure of 2.5 percent (whichever is the highest).

Deft manoeuvring around the “need” for cuts and judicious scapegoating helped ensure the Tories then escaped the political consequences of systematic cuts to public services, especially the National Health Service, that this demographic cohort depends on. But there was more to this loyalty than the consequences of Tory policy from 2010 onward.

First of all, there is the social location of being a pensioner. Because the incomes of pensioners tend to be fixed and cannot be made good in an emergency by reentering employment, their experience is analogous to that of the petty bourgeoisie. As many Marxists have observed, dependence on one’s own modest capital and ability to labor produces a political disposition toward stability and a hostility to real and imagined threats.

This is an echo of their propensity to be buffeted by forces larger than themselves: from the whims of the market and the competition of other businesses to the mass movements and collective consciousness of workers. Parties offering authoritarian programs emphasizing law and order and victimizing scapegoats (often racialized ones) therefore tend to attract disproportionate petty bourgeois support and, in more recent years, a mass base of pensioners, too.

The second factor, which you might call the “strong force,” comes from the tendency to acquire property over time. In Britain, as in many parts of Western Europe and North America, higher real wages and cheap credit, combined with schemes like Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy, in which public housing was sold off at a generous discount to tenants, saw millions become owner-occupiers throughout the 1970s and ’80s.

In Britain, this layer kept hold of their — often quite modest — properties through to retirement and old age and were caught in a dynamic where they had a material interest in the inflation of property values. With successive governments of all parties refusing to build enough houses to meet demand or replace the public housing stock already sold off, rising generations of younger people have been locked out of property acquisition.

This has had two significant political consequences. For the elderly property owner, it has strengthened the tendency to right-wing, authoritarian politics that was already latent in the social location of pensioners. In contrast, for younger people — today’s under-fifties — the housing shortage has severed the link between aging and the propensity to vote for the Right which, in the British case, means the Conservatives. Not being able to acquire property has delayed or prevented other conservatizing processes, such as starting a family.

Brexit and Beyond

These developments help explain why the UK’s European Union (EU) membership referendum and the results of the last three general elections saw such a stark divergence of political preferences between generations. The elderly won the referendum for Leave because of their greater propensity to turn out in support of a campaign that touched all their concerns.

For such voters, leaving the EU meant returning to an imagined past of security and national assertiveness, embracing “British values,” and keeping out obvious markers of discomfiting social change — above all, immigrants and refugees. The fact that leaving the EU has not led to greater stability — anything but — doesn’t matter for a layer of people who are relatively insulated from its effects.

When the 2017 and 2019 elections came round, May and Johnson respectively mobilized this same support base by using similar tropes and arguments. May’s gamble to win a renewed majority failed because the opposition largely cohered around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. This was not the case in 2019, when Johnson increased the Tory vote by only 300,000, but Labour crashed to defeat as its voter coalition was pulled apart.

However, the character of Johnson’s mandate made it clear, even on election night, that he had maximized the strength of a coalition based on mass pensioner support. Unless the Tories did something to reach beyond that layer, the party faced a crisis of political reproduction that would make it progressively harder to win elections. As its elderly supporters passed away, they were not being replaced on a like-for-like basis by a new generation of conservatives.

Far from meeting the challenge, the Tories and their three prime ministers since 2019 have only accelerated the crisis. Things initially went Johnson’s way for about two years. This period stretched from his superlative approval ratings during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic to the electoral high point of the 2021 local elections, where Labour councils fell like dominoes to the Tory onslaught and Labour lost the formerly safe seat of Hartlepool to the Tories in a parliamentary by-election.

What undid Johnson from this point on was a series of attempts to shield key allies and the prime minister himself from the consequences of wrongdoing, above all the celebrated “party gate” allegations, in which it transpired that those working at Downing Street had egregiously ignored social distancing and quarantine rules while the rest of the country was in lockdown.

Since many people had been barred from seeing gravely ill loved ones and attending funerals while the Downing Street parties were going on, this scandal was the first hammer blow against the Tories. Johnson’s promise to “level up” the country by using money saved from EU membership did not see the light of day. The idea that the Tories would use their newfound love for state-directed projects to rebuild infrastructure and kick-start a new generation of home building turned out to be as characteristically empty as all of Johnson’s other rhetoric.

Trussed Up

When Liz Truss was campaigning to become Johnson’s successor, her prospectus didn’t just fail to address the problems facing the Tories — it ignored them completely. Her view — which coincidentally was shared by the hedge fund interests that backed her leadership bid — was that if her government slashed taxes for the rich, British capital and foreign investors would pour money into new ventures and create new jobs.

In practice, ever-diminishing corporate tax rates and the whittling away of higher tax bands had not led to a commensurate rise in investment. But this didn’t stop Truss and her supporters from arguing that it was in everyone’s interest to hand more money to the rich. By extension, they assumed that if the economy was booming, it would magic away the wider problems afflicting working-age people.

The result of this short-lived experiment was a run on the pound, a near collapse of pension funds, and an emergency hike in interest rates over and above what was due anyway. Far from helping anyone, Truss’s experiment in flat-tax capitalism sent mortgage rates soaring. It exacerbated the cost-of-living crisis and destroyed the ill-deserved Conservative reputation for economic competence.

It was to Sunak’s credit that he had warned of the dire consequences Truss’s plan would have during the 2022 leadership contest. But after he was appointed by a cabal of Tory MPs who ensured there would be no competitive election, the new leader’s chosen remedy was to do nothing. In fact, he made a virtue of pushing a prospectus that promised little.

Widely blamed (or praised, depending on one’s perspective) for derailing Johnson’s state-led investment schemes, Sunak oversaw the scrapping of major infrastructure projects such as the high-speed rail links between London and other major cities (apart from the line to Birmingham). He made a virtue of provoking strikes by rail and hospital workers, making sure employers received enough money and political backing to ride out the disputes. In line with the practice of previous Tory administrations, he ensured that public-service funding did not meet demand.

Consistent with his record as Johnson’s chancellor, Sunak evinced a desire to reduce the state’s capacity to do things. He hoped that this would temper the electorate’s expectations of what a government should and should not deliver and allow for private provision to fill the gap for those able to pay for it. In other words, his do-nothing program did not come from a place of inexperience or incompetence. It was rooted in a class-conscious form of politics.

Search for Scapegoats

Unsurprisingly, as there have been no marked improvements since Sunak came to office, the brief polling rally that the Conservatives experienced upon his elevation has since deteriorated, leaving the party in the same position Truss bequeathed them. With no material successes to shout about, Sunak’s time in office has been preoccupied with substitutionist activity in the form of a search for new scapegoats.

For example, having noted that the Leave victory in the Brexit referendum was largely founded on anti-immigrant posturing, and that the same positioning helped cohere a large coalition of Tory voters in 2017 and 2019, the Conservatives have ramped up the antirefugee discourse with their cruel and absurd Rwanda scheme.

After Paul Kagame’s authoritarian government received a series of incentives, it agreed to take a few hundred asylum seekers. For Sunak, the cost of the plan was no barrier. He argued that if people who came to British shores “illegally” knew in advance that they would end up in Central Africa, this would deter them from making the journey in the first place. As a gimmick, all the Rwanda scheme has accomplished in practice is to underline Sunak’s inability to stem the flow of boats across the English Channel.

Sticking with the theme of racism, his hard-right former home secretary Suella Braverman spent the latter part of her time in office attacking Palestinian solidarity demonstrations as “hate marches” and claiming that Islamists and antisemites now controlled the country’s streets. Although Braverman was sacked after inciting a far-right mob who attacked the police at the Cenotaph in London on the day before Remembrance Sunday, Sunak and several of his ministers subsequently adopted the language that she had used.

The Tories have also jumped on the anti-trans bandwagon, which has slowly been gaining ground among Labour MPs and prominent media commentators. Their appropriation of “feminist” arguments that victimize and dehumanize trans men and trans women forms part of an effort to frighten core Tory supporters, offering the same diet of authoritarianism dressed up as stability and a stand against frightening and unfamiliar manifestations of social change.

It is in this wider context that we must see Sunak’s farcical national service proposal. It is an attempt to exploit spite and antipathy toward young people who are assumed to “have it too easy.” Just consider the following words from an article in the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph supporting the idea:

National service should not just be confined to those turning 18. Those young adults who benefited so much from lockdown and furlough — their health and jobs preserved by an enormous national effort — should be given an opportunity to thank their elders for their sacrifices.

Sunak’s election campaign is the last gasp of a historically exhausted party. The task of trying to turn the situation around by appealing to working-age people is difficult, because his own political outlook (and that of the Tories in general) seeks to undercut any demands made on the state.

Steps to addressing the housing shortage would cut against the interest that the existing Tory coalition has in keeping property values high and maintaining the private rental sector. A move away from a politics of scapegoating would deprive the Tories of a tried-and-tested method of binding their supporters together.

As a result of Johnson’s stupidity, Truss’s recklessness, and Sunak’s do-nothing attitude, the age at which someone is more likely to vote Tory has more than doubled since 2019, from thirty-nine to seventy. To prevent complete disintegration at this hour, all the Tories can do is double down and hope there will be a viable enough rump left from which to fight back after the election. Even such a limited measure of success could well prove to be out of their reach.