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The Brexit Disaster: A Tale of Five Prime Ministers

As the final rites are played out, Chris Painter assesses the procession of Conservative Premierships since 2010 and their failure to articulate any coherent political project

The Brexit DISASTERA Tale of Five Prime Ministers

As the final rites are played out, Chris Painter assesses the procession of Conservative Premierships since 2010 and their failure to articulate any coherent political project

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If Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities we have a tale of five Prime Ministers, as the final rites of a third era of protracted continuous Conservative rule since 1951 are played out.

The first period, lasting until 1964, operated largely within the post-1945 consensus established by Attlee’s Labour Governments. The second, beginning in 1979, tore apart that consensus.

The current hegemony ends with a Conservative Prime Minister trying to compensate for the chaos engendered by his predecessors, the final act in a procession encompassing David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and now Rishi Sunak. 

Delivering Brexit

David Cameron outside Downing Street. Photo: Georgina Coupe

David Cameron was elected as Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, selected for his Blair-like modernising credentials, just as Edward Heath was chosen in 1965 as a centre-right equivalent of then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Despite Gordon Brown’s struggles in Downing Street, Cameron failed to win outright in the 2010 general election. He negotiated a Coalition with right-inclined ‘Orange Book Liberals’ which, though tempering its more extreme manifestations, provided no real obstacle to making austerity a defining feature of his 2010-15 Administration.

With lasting damage inflicted on the public realm, Cameron’s dilettante style of governing also allowed his Home Secretary, Theresa May, to introduce a hostile migrant regime, albeit with little to show by way of statistical trends.

That provided an opportunity for even more divisive policies propagated from the Faragist Right. It led, of course, to Cameron’s ill-conceived promise of an in-out EU referendum which, despite profound economic and constitutional repercussions, contained no additional safeguards over and above the requirement for a simple country-wide majority. Thus, the scene was set for his ignominious resignation in 2016 after an unexpected election victory the previous year.

British Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Summit of 20 June 2019. Photo: Nicolas Landemard/Le Pictorium/MAXPPP

Theresa May, his successor, secured the Conservative Party leadership literally as the last candidate standing, because of post-referendum animosity between leading Brexit campaigners, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

She and her advisers latched onto the electoral possibilities of an economic interventionist-socially conservative platform. But instead of a ‘soft’ Brexit, which stood a chance of re-uniting the country after the bitterness of the referendum result, she immediately started drawing negotiating red lines, much to the dismay of a number of her Cabinet colleagues. Freedom of movement became a prime target, as one might expect from the architect of a hostile environment. 

Two developments left her Premiership in ruins. Firstly, there was the botched election in 2017, when she deprived her party of its parliamentary majority. Secondly, as the importance of maintaining frictionless trade with the EU dawned, along with the dilemma of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, a schism developed in her Party over what constituted a ‘true Brexit’ – with Johnson hovering in the wings.

Post-Brexit Blues

Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

Boris Johnson seized the leadership crown in July 2019. His economic interventionism, in the form of ‘levelling up’, was placed centre stage in the December 2019 general election which, together with a promise to finally ‘get Brexit done’ after prolonged political paralysis, proved to be a winning formula, not least in so-called ‘red wall’ seats.

Johnson’s uncompromising Brexit left many unresolved issues. And far from levelling up, with bizarre criteria used to distribute funds so designated, if anything economic, social and regional inequalities became even more entrenched. It was all further complicated by pandemic mismanagement. With Partygate revealing that Johnson’s Downing Street had flouted pandemic guidance and rules the writing was soon on the wall. 

He did emerge as a staunch and valued supporter of Zilenskiy’s Ukraine following the Russian invasion of February 2022, but given Johnson’s domestic troubles his motives even there were suspect. Moreover, as events pivoted again towards European security, his Government mouthed empty rhetorical slogans about ‘global Britain’. 

Former Prime Minister Liz Truss. Photo: Stephen Chung/Alamy

Enter Liz Truss in September 2022, achieving the remarkable feat of being Britain’s shortest-serving Prime Minister. This was a direct consequence of adopting an extreme form of economic liberalism, full of Brexit deregulatory zeal (despite having voted to retain UK EU membership in the 2016 EU referendum). That included a trickle-down economics revival act. Yet, comprehensive data sets discussed at the time, by Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer in The Guardian, demonstrated “not only does it not work but it does enormous damage to the economy and society”. The paradox was that market fundamentalism frightened the markets!

With her hapless political management also reducing Commons proceedings to farce, Rishi Sunak was quickly thrust into Downing Street, like Theresa May elected as Leader without need even to resort to a Conservative membership vote. His ostensible mission was to detoxify the Tory Brand after the chaos of 2022. Nonetheless, divisive polemics used to promote socially conservative values moved up a further notch under Suella Braverman’s controversial stewardship at the Home Office. 

As an instinctive fiscal conservative, in stark contrast to Johnson’s spending incontinence, Sunak also had much in common with earlier austerians, David Cameron and George Osborne, even though he had been obliged to act otherwise as Chancellor during the pandemic and energy crises. Robert Shrimsley accordingly opined in the Financial Times in March 2023: “He is, in reality, a small state Conservative trapped in a large state moment.” 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak chairs a Cabinet meeting. Photo: 10 Downing Street / Flickr

As for rekindling European ties, Sunak did dial down tensions with Brussels, agreeing to the Windsor Framework to address problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol inherited from Johnson, simultaneously taking steps to improve bilateral relations with Macron’s France. However, Johnsonian global pretensions survived; hence the Aukus defence pact between Australia, the UK and the US, along with entry into the Trans-Pacific trading partnership. This brought an attendant risk of the UK, once more, becoming subsumed in US foreign policy goals.  

Conservative dominance since 2010 has produced many mixed ideological messages, rendering it difficult to discern any coherent political project. It is as if since the 2007-08 financial crash we have seen a slow, lingering death of assumptions previously determining public policy parameters. That is reminiscent of protracted processes associated with the demise of earlier pre- and post-1945 governing orthodoxies, expertly dissected in Phil Tinline’s The Death of Consensus. Underlying drivers for a more active state and rekindling of closer relations with Europe were struggling to assert themselves. 

A probability stands out, however. The Conservative years from 2010-24 will come to be regarded by political historians as one of the least impressive eras of modern British governance; comparable to the dismal events from the disastrous deflationary decision to return Britain to the gold standard in 1925, through to Chamberlain’s fall from office in 1940.   

Chris Painter is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Management at Birmingham City University

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