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Who killed the Tory party?

With a third successive election defeat still ringing in the ears of Tory MPs, a 38-year-old David Cameron delivered a speech which was to mark the beginning of the Conservatives’ long journey back to power.

Addressing an audience at the Policy Exchange think-tank in June 2005 – 19 years ago this week – entitled “We’re all in it together”, the then shadow education secretary warned his party needed to set out a long-term vision for the best interests of the country, rather than focusing on the short-term political tactics that satisfied Conservative rank and file.

That speech thrust him to the front of the Tory leadership contest and became part of his ultimately successful prescription for convincing voters to trust the Conservatives with power once again.

Nearly two decades later, and in the wake of an election defeat that fell only just short of 1997’s catastrophe, the outgoing Foreign Secretary may be forgiven for recalling that moment as the party wrestles over who is to blame for the Conservatives’ downfall.

Was it a failure by successive Tory prime ministers to lose sight of the country’s best interests, just as he had warned?

Should the finger be pointed at Brexit, partygate, Liz Truss’s mini-Budget, Lord Cameron’s own austerity agenda, or a combination of the above?

And who are the men and women who need to shoulder responsibility for the Tories’ downfall? Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, Truss, Nigel Farage or Cameron himself? Here i asks the question: Who Killed the Tories?

David Cameron and the legacy of austerity

After winning the Tory leadership in December 2005, Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne mapped a route back to power that would be built on a vision of hope and a “big society” pulling together for the greater good. But the financial crash of 2008 meant they had to change their plans and impose a tough diet for the public finances to bring the deficit under control.

The 2010-2015 coalition government oversaw an austerity agenda which cut deep into non-protected budgets such as local government, social care, the justice system and welfare. Cameron and Osborne have long argued that this regime was necessary after the financial crash to bring government spending under control, and that schools and hospitals were protected. But opponents claim that it left a legacy of under-funding in public services which has contributed to voters’ dissatisfaction today with how Britain works.

The government did put record funding into the NHS, whose current problems were fuelled by the Covid backlog, staff shortages and pay failing to keep pace with inflation. But thanks to austerity, a failure to sufficiently fund social care – which has left hospitals unable to discharge elderly patients – has compounded the problems of the NHS.

Yet a Tory former cabinet minister says Cameron’s first term administration delivered real reform that helped the party win an outright majority in 2015: “If you look back to 2016 onwards you start to struggle to think about what we have delivered. The central focus was on Brexit, then Covid and the war in Ukraine. Between 2010 and 2015 there was a lot of reform going on in health, education, work and pensions, local government. That progress was stalled. It is now a case of ‘What has the government done for me lately?’”

However in 2016, Cameron made a decision which divided the country, his party and ultimately cost him his job: calling a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Another ex-minister says Cameron’s decision to stand down the morning after the referendum result in June 2016 “created a vacuum” and that the prime minister needed his former director of strategy Steve Hilton to say “Pull yourself together, stay as PM, you are going to do this.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 13: David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street with Samantha and the children on July 13, 2016 in London, England. David Cameron leaves Downing Street today having been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom since May 2010 and Leader of the Conservative Party since December 2005. He is succeeded by former Home Secretary Theresa May and will remain as Member of Parliament for Witney in Oxfordshire. (Photo by Karwai Tang/Getty Images)
David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street with Samantha and the children on July 13, 2016 (Photo by Karwai Tang/Getty Images)

Theresa May and the botched Brexit

When she took over from Cameron in July 2016, Theresa May inherited a divided country and party thanks to the referendum result. Her pitch in the leadership contest was public service and unity. But due to the withdrawal of other candidates, May was elected Tory leader without a vote of the party membership, which left lingering doubts in the party over her legitimacy and mandate.

Her critics say it was a mistake to sack Osborne and Michael Gove from her first Cabinet – arguing the former could have provided continuity from the Cameron era and the latter would have been a powerful pro-Brexit voice inside government to handle both Brussels and the Conservative party. But she did appoint two strident Leavers to senior posts: Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary and David Davis as Brexit Secretary.

A former cabinet minister says: “There is a ‘What If? moment’ – what if David Cameron didn’t resign in 2016? That would have been quite interesting. If he had said ‘It is a result I respect’ and appointed Michael Gove as chief Brexit negotiator, the government may have got a softer Brexit settlement, rather than those dreadful Theresa May years. It may have come together better. The distance that we fell may have been shorter. Theresa May couldn’t rule properly because she didn’t have a majority. She wasn’t temperamentally suited to do a deal with the EU.”

May’s administration was hampered by parliamentary divisions over Brexit votes and the biggest mistake of her premiership: calling a snap election for June 2017, in which the Conservatives lost their majority. While this was remedied at the ballot box by Johnson in 2019, the 2017 election was one of many unforced errors by successive Tory prime ministers that has added to voters’ ill-feeling.

Theresa May (L), accompanied by husband Philip May, makes a final speech outside 10 Downing Street before visiting Queen Elizabeth II to officially resign as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on 24 July, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Theresa May accompanied by husband Philip May, makes a final speech outside 10 Downing Street before visiting Queen Elizabeth II to officially resign as Prime Minister on 24 July, 2019 (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson and parties in Downing Street

Having disrupted May’s premiership and Brexit talks by resigning as Foreign Secretary in July 2018, Johnson returned to frontline politics to rescue, as he claimed, Brexit for the nation. When he won the Tory leadership in July 2019, he inherited the parliamentary chaos of Brexit and a month later prorogued parliament from September – an act that was seen as stifling Commons dissent and that the Supreme Court ruled unlawful. Johnson’s critics say this has added to a sense among some voters of a Conservative premier not following normal democratic rules.

In calling a snap election for December 2019, Johnson did break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit, and won the first outright majority for the party in four years. This gave him a mandate to pursue his flagship policies such as levelling up, as well as seal the deal on Brexit, which was much harder than many MPs wanted. Yet weeks after winning that landslide, the Covid pandemic struck, putting unprecedented strain on the NHS, the economy and, eventually, public trust in politicians.

The Tories’ poll ratings crested the 50 per cent mark in April 2020, while Labour debated over its new leader. But a month later, it emerged that Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules to drive from London to County Durham. In November 2021, the first reports of Partygate emerged – detailing how staff in Johnson’s Downing Street held parties the previous year while the country was under covid restrictions. A former No10 adviser says: “If it hadn’t been for Partygate I think we would have had a similar result to ‘92 [when the Tories won a narrow majority under John Major]. Starmer wasn’t doing well in the polls at that point.”

A Tory activist who knocked doors during this campaign says: “It tells you something that nearly three, four years on from Partygate it still came up on the doorstep. It really hurt us. The ‘one rule for them’ argument is hard to turn around.” Some also believe that Johnson has to take some blame for failing to hold together the coalition that voted Conservative in 2019. An ex-MP says: “It was a broad coalition of voters but it wasn’t very deep. We have squandered that.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 06: Boris Johnson addresses the media from outside number 10 before formally resigning as Prime Minister, at Downing Street on September 06, 2022 in London, England. Boris Johnson is stepping down following the election of Liz Truss, the former foreign secretary, as Conservative Party leader. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson addresses the media from outside number 10 before formally resigning as Prime Minister, at Downing Street on September 06, 2022 (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Liz Truss and the crashed economy

Johnson’s behaviour over Partygate and his failure to tackle other sleaze in the party contributed to him being ousted by his own MPs and Cabinet ministers in July 2022. In the leadership contest that followed, Truss came second to Sunak in the final run-off of Conservative MPs but won amongst the party membership – underscoring the difficulty of her trying to unite the parliamentary party in the weeks that followed.

Against a backdrop of the cost of living crisis, worsened by the price of energy due to the war in Ukraine, Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng unveiled a mini-budget containing massive tax cuts funded by additional borrowing and which had not been signed off by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. This triggered a crisis of confidence in the markets and sterling fell to its lowest-ever level against the dollar. After a warning by the Bank of England that they would have to put up interest rates in response, several lenders increased the cost of their mortgages.

Gavin Barwell, chief of staff under Theresa May, says there were two moments which hit the Tories hard in the polls – Partygate and Truss’s mini budget. He adds: “The latter in my opinion was a bigger factor than the former. It was an act that fundamentally broke our economic competence, one of the pillars on which the whole [Conservative] edifice is built.” A former cabinet minister says: “When the party elected Liz Truss it struck an iceberg and it is very hard for anyone to turn it around from that point… For a chunk of voters that was a point of no return for them.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 20: Liz Truss speaks in Downing Street, with husband Hugh O'Leary, as she resigns as Prime Minister Of The United Kingdom on October 20, 2022 in London, England. Liz Truss has been the UK Prime Minister for just 44 days and has had a tumultuous time in office. Her mini-budget saw the GBP fall to its lowest-ever level against the dollar, increasing mortgage interest rates and deepening the cost-of-living crisis. She responded by sacking her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, whose replacement announced a near total reversal of the previous policies. Yesterday saw the departure of Home Secretary Suella Braverman and a chaotic vote in the House of Commons chamber. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Liz Truss speaks in Downing Street, with husband Hugh O’Leary, as she resigns as Prime Minister on October 20, 2022
(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Rishi Sunak and a divided, chaotic party

Many Conservative figures have a lot of sympathy for Sunak – given he inherited a party that was more than 20 points behind Labour in the polls following the Truss administration, inflation which peaked at 11.1 per cent the month he entered Downing Street, and an NHS buckling under the Covid backlog.

But there is criticism of his failure to deliver anything beyond a fall in inflation, which was largely out of his control, his decision to call an election months before he needed to, and presiding over a chaotic campaign marked by him leaving D-Day commemorations early and failing to act immediately on the betting scandal.

An ex-minister says that from day one in office Sunak should have realised the party would not be able to win a fifth term in office and used his two years to deliver on policies that could form a stronger Conservative legacy. The former minister adds: “Rishi has done quite well on the economy… But there has been a lot of reticence from him. At least Boris Johnson, for all his faults, had a sense of mission, on things like levelling up, animal welfare, he was trying to push stuff through.”

Another former minister says: “There was a lack of unity in the party – the public do not like betrayal. They did not like it with Margaret Thatcher. Even if you think Boris Johnson did wrong, he had a mandate from the general public. He was removed by a group of MPs and our polling has tanked since Boris went. It was Rishi’s team who did it. The members did not vote for him, they chose Liz. They confirmed what he suspected, that he did in Boris.

“Rishi also went out with five commitments and he has only managed to achieve one, inflation, which was not really in his control. He called an election when he didn’t need to. All that means is that we have lost the right to govern. There is not one silver bullet issue but if there had to be one, it is probably the removal of Boris by ourselves.

“There is something about regicide that doesn’t play well. If you look at the polling, Boris was four to five points behind Labour at the start of the 2019 campaign and he won a landslide of 80. We are now 20 points behind. This is the worst election campaign I have ever seen, and I remember 1997 and 2017. There was no structure, the party handled candidates badly.”

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stands at a lecturn as he delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK's next general election, at 10 Downing Street in central London, on May 22, 2024. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Wednesday set a general election date for July 4, ending months of speculation about when he would go to the country. The vote -- the third since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the first in July since 1945 -- comes as Sunak seeks to capitalise on better economic data to woo voters hit by cost-of-living rises. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak delivers a speech to announce July 4 as the date of the UK’s next general election, at 10 Downing Street
(Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP) (Photo by HENRY)

Nigel Farage and the rise of Reform

There is one person in a line-up of suspects who has not led the Conservative party, although maybe he would like to. The entry of Nigel Farage a week into the campaign was one of the key moments of the election and his popularity helped Reform surge in the polls.

Their result in coming third in terms of the share of the overall vote was a key factor in the scale of the Tory defeat, despite rows over Farage’s comments on the EU and Ukraine and the conduct of several of his candidates and activists. Sunak’s failure to stop the boats – one of his five key pledges early on in his premiership – or get any deportation planes to take off to Rwanda allowed Reform to gain ground on the Tories. Farage, who had earlier ruled out standing for election, knew he could exploit the Conservatives’ weakness on immigration.

A former cabinet minister says: “If Rishi had gone for a November election Farage would have been in America.” And an ex-No10 adviser says: “I think Rishi made a big political misstep in calling an election early. People did have sympathy for Rishi with just two years to turn things round, but if he’d called it for November Farage would have been in America sucking up to Trump and he’s been a big problem for us in this election.”

Britain's Reform UK Party Leader Nigel Farage eats an ice cream, on the day of the general election, in Clacton-on-Sea, Britain, July 4, 2024. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Reform UK Party Leader Nigel Farage eats an ice cream, on the day of the general election, in Clacton-on-Sea Photographer: Clodagh Kilcoyne Provider: REUTERS

…or has the government just reached the end of its shelf-life?

The Conservatives had 14 years in office and no political party has ever won a fifth term – so perhaps the electorate was ready for a change regardless of what mistakes were made? But the scale of the defeat shows something deeper has occurred. Barwell says the magnitude of the result is “way beyond anything we have seen before”, adding: “There is definitely a cyclicality to it but the scale of it suggests it is more than that. I have always believed that the longer you win the harder it is to keep on winning.

“It is worth saying that the electorate had three opportunities in 2015, 2017 and 2019 to kick the Conservative Party out and at each election we received even more votes than we had before. This is the biggest challenge the party has faced in its modern history. It is worse than in 1997.”

Sir Craig Oliver, No10 director of communications under Cameron, says: “What we’ve discovered is: you can’t tell people Brexit will slash migration and see it double; you can’t ask people to be responsible and have wild parties; you can’t be told your financial policies will be a disaster and do them anyway – and still expect the public to listen.”

Barwell says the demise of the Conservative party is not “inevitable” but there are three challenges it faces to become electable again: the right wing of British politics splintering and the rise of Reform, the age profile of Tory voters which could see the party losing further support at the next election, which he says is “almost existential”, and the use of tactical voting “because the party is really disliked by a significant chunk of the electorate”. Barwell adds: “This is really vital and has electoral consequences. These are the things that the party is going to have to talk about how it addresses these challenges if it wants to revive itself.”

A former cabinet minister agrees: “In 2019 we won a coalition of the right wing. But now One Nation voters in middle class leafy areas switched to Lib Dem, more blue collar working class Tories went for Reform. When first past the post turns against you it is brutal.”

Having instigated the revival of the Tory party 20 years ago, what is Cameron thinking now as he witnesses its downfall? Someone who has known Cameron for years says: “I suspect now he is probably feeling a sense of disappointment that the party is in its final stages and it is almost a reversion back to where he had pulled it from. A lot of the things he did have become undone.”

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