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IT’S OVER

Labour has won the 2024 General Election. Let’s take a look back at the multiple crises successive Conservative administrations worsened, created or ignored

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During Christmas 1834, the statesman Robert Peel laid down the founding principles of a new politics for Britain. His Tamworth Manifesto promised stability, responsibility, substance, and a welcome release from the “perpetual vortex of agitation” that defined the era. And, with that pledge to the nation, Peel conjured into life the modern Conservative Party. 

It is currently being conjured back into death again; the victim of its own colossal opportunism and self-absorption. 

The seeds were sown in 2006, when Lehman Brothers appointed Steve Baker as its “chief architect of global financing and asset service platforms”, a role he remained in until Lehman’s global financing architecture spectacularly fell over. At which point he went off to become a Tory MP.

The collapse was precipitated by Lehman’s overexposure to the exotic financial instruments which had been the responsibility of a managing director at Deutsche Bank, one Sajid Javid.

The global crisis was a glorious opportunity for a chap called Rishi Sunak, a partner at a hedge fund which aggressively pushed RBS into collapse, earning Sunak an estimated £5 million, and costing taxpayers £45 billion. (If you can’t picture what £45 billion looks like, just imagine a pile of £10 notes 300 miles high).

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The resulting bank bailout doubled our national debt almost overnight and enabled the fulfilment of the Conservative Party’s greatest dream: slash the state to the bone, and blame all the consequences on Gordon Brown. 

It was a year since David Cameron had backed his party’s plans to abolish the regulation of mortgage provision, which was long enough for everybody to forget about it, and they now cheered him as he attacked Labour for its lax regulation of mortgage provision.

It was very nearly enough to persuade us to elect a Conservative prime minister. But not quite. However, after a hauntingly odd meet-cute with Nick Clegg in the Downing Street rose garden, Cameron went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and destroyed them for a decade. 

It was a trial run for what he was about to do to the country.


Cuts Cuts Cuts

World leaders responded to the financial crisis with generous stimulus packages. Cameron and George Osborne were having none of it. Rather than a boost, they pursued austerity – which put the willies up anybody who had ever considered investing in Britain.

It briefly looked like we were making savings, although only in the way a farmer might boast of all the money he’d saved by not planting any seeds this year. 

The consequences soon became clear. In our wallets, outside our windows, on our streets, in our parks, our care system, our schools, workplaces, hospitals – everywhere we looked, we saw the signs of torpor and decay, as the institutions of the state lay incapacitated by ideologically-driven cuts.

Of course, there was only austerity for some. For others, the Tories brought years of plenty. 

Since 2010, the 10 wealthiest Brits have seen their fortunes grow from £47 billion to more than £182 billion. The gap between the richest 10% of the population and the poorest grew by 50%. The richest 1% of Brits now hold more wealth than the poorest 70% combined. Food bank dependency skyrocketed from 40,000 people per year to more than three million.

Obscene private luxury went hand-in-hand with grotesque public squalor – and it didn’t even work. 

Austerity was advertised as a way to reduce state debt, but debt continued to grow as the social cost of the cuts exceeded any savings. One stark example: since the Conservatives slashed expenditure on youth services, the costs of child social care has increased by 36%. 

Smaller towns away from the M25 and M4 corridor experienced huge pressures, which the Government and media largely ignored, but others expertly exploited.

UKIP, a right-wing fringe party, began blaming all of this on foreigners – as right-wing fringes always do – and many Conservative MPs were more than happy to nod along, delighted that somebody was diverting blame away from Westminster. 

Few of them gave much thought to the long-term danger to the country – or to themselves – of unleashing Nigel Farage‘s nationalist-populism. 

They were about to find out.


Bye Bye, EU

It didn’t help that we had a fundamentally lazy Prime Minister. 

Cameron’s aides described him spending hours playing Angry Birds or afternoons of solo tennis against a machine he had named in honour of his Lib Dem Deputy, ‘The Clegger’ (presumably on the basis that all it did was spout balls all day). 

But he also felt like a lucky Prime Minister. 

The media was forgiving to the Tories, and the Tories were magnanimous in return. Not even the fact that Cameron’s own press secretary, Andy Coulson, had been intimately involved in the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World seemed to cause the Conservatives much damage. Rupert Murdoch shouldered the blame, closed the rag, and launched The Sun on Sunday, and then laughed as the second part of the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics and culture was dropped.

Nobody could pin a thing on Cameron. Labour, as per usual, was busy eating itself. All the criticism for tripling tuition fees fell on the Lib Dems. 

Cameron even escaped much personal condemnation for Andrew Lansley’s vandalism of the NHS, which led insiders to observe that Lansley should be “taken out and shot”. Instead, he was given a life peerage. Potato, potahto.

So Cameron felt he was inherently jammy, and as pressure grew from the right of his party for a vote on leaving the EU, he acted as though a remain victory would be a foregone conclusion. 

But he’d reckoned without Boris Johnson

Johnson didn’t believe in Brexit, or in anything else really, except for Boris Johnson. He’d told the House of Commons that “I am a bit of a fan of the European Union”, but he emitted such a stench of raw ambition that it could bring down a light aircraft – and Brexit was his chance.

If the Leave campaign won, Johnson would almost certainly end up in the top job. Even more exciting: if Leave lost there would be no need to implement anything as damaging as Brexit, he’d retain a ready-made scapegoat over the Channel, and would be able to style himself as the heroic symbol of a stymied patriotism. 

It was win-win for Johnson, right up until the moment he accidentally won. 

And then the shit hit the fan.

This came as a surprise. 

Because, with the exception of the millions of people who had predicted the shit would hit the fan, nobody had predicted the shit would hit the fan. But it did. 

The Government’s new top priority was to pretend that the Brexit vote wasn’t a calamity. It didn’t matter that 330,000 people had already died in pursuit of austerity, now it was spend, spend, spend – although once again, only on the financial sector. The Bank of England had to offer to inject £250 billion into our economy to persuade markets we hadn’t gone mad.

But the big danger from Brexit was never an immediate crash – it was the slow puncture of protracted decline, which we now see all around us (but politicians and the press pretend we don’t). 

It may be less dramatic than the stock market losses of £2.17 trillion that occurred in the days following the EU Referendum, but gradual deterioration has left average workers worse off by £11,000 every year than they would have been if we’d continued the trend left behind by Labour.


Desertion, Deceit, Maybot

Everybody responsible for the mess immediately walked away from it. 

Farage, for example, had dedicated himself tirelessly to Brexit for 23 years with an upright zeal that lasted right up to the instant his campaign required somebody to be accountable for what came next, at which point he scarpered. 

You probably don’t even remember the man, because a month after the referendum he stepped away from the public gaze forever, telling the throng of journalists invited along to witness his monastic withdrawal into humble obscurity that “I want my life back” and “I won’t be changing my mind again, I can promise you”.

You’ve never said a truer word, Nigel. No really, I’ve checked. The others were all even less true.

Cameron whistled a merry tune and pootled off to his preposterous squillionaire’s woodshed, where he would spend his days lobbying one bunch of old Etonian mates on behalf of other old Etonian mates.

This left Boris Johnson as a shoo-in to be the next PM, but his enthronement was abruptly cancelled when his emotional support turbot, Michael Gove, revealed to the world’s press the shock news that Johnson was a shambolic, deceitful jackass who wasn’t remotely capable of the job.

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So, by default, we ended up with Theresa May – who hadn’t wanted Brexit, didn’t know how to do Brexit, and made the catastrophic tactical error of attempting to define what Brexit meant, rather than just joining in with the riot of delusion. 

She was bound to fail: any definition would disappoint at least half of the people who had voted for it, each of whom had their own vague idea of what they expected to happen next. 

In desperation, May subjected the nation to an utterly pointless general election so she could prove she was ‘strong and stable’. It proved she was powerless and rickety, and she barely scraped a majority.

Then, for a surprisingly long time, not a lot happened. 

She seemed to just totter around in baffled sorrow, enduring the loss of 60 ministers in two years, record-breaking parliamentary defeats, and the stage collapsing around her while she delivered a chorus of death-croaks to an aghast party conference. 

That was bad enough, but at least it was an accident. 

The following year’s shindig was deliberate: an outbreak of dangerously original dancing that looked like Vogon poetry in motion, before she was led away to be put out of her – and our – misery by a man who promised to boost our democracy by becoming prime minister without holding an election: Boris Johnson.


To Our Eternal Shame

Johnson was a master at appealing to people who loathed almost any other Conservative. 

He did it using two simple tricks: perpetual, omnidirectional bullshit; and pretending he was barely a Conservative at all. Maybe a bit Tory around the edges, but he wasn’t one of them: the stereotypically spoiled, vindictive, and small-minded chancers who were clumsily bleeding the nation dry, when they weren’t flogging it off to their mates. Those people were traditional Conservatives. He was something else. Something new. Something fun.

But the moment Johson was in power, he was revealed to be not only a textbook example of one of them, but something far worse as well. 

What started as a giddy novelty act quickly descended into a set of behaviours that sickened the public, infected the whole party, and reminded us that – as one of Johnson’s own frontbenchers admitted – “when you peek behind the curtain, Tories are privileged, sneering elites who take the rest of us for fools”.

He unlawfully prorogued Parliament when he found democracy a bit awkward. He booted 21 of his own MPs out of the party for trying to make him stick to just one of his Brexit campaign promises. He fibbed to the public. Lied to Parliament. Hoodwinked the press. And pulled the wool over the Queen’s eyes.

It was appalling. But it fooled enough people to win him an election, and once he’d seen off Jeremy Corbyn, it looked like plain sailing. 

But, after a decade of austerity, the state was so enfeebled that it was incapable of withstanding the slightest shock, and a combination of Brexit and then Covid cruelly exposed our fragility. 

Johnson pretended he was leading the battle against the pandemic, but a fish rots from the head, and he was Sir Plankton Churchill. “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there,” said one senior advisor. “And what you learn about Boris was he didn’t chair any meetings. He liked his country breaks. He didn’t work weekends. It was like working for an old-fashioned chief executive in a local authority 20 years ago. There was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning. It was exactly like people feared he would be.”

There were constant scandals. 

Everyday office life in Johnson’s Government included: affairs, drunkenness, illegal parties, bullying, dereliction of duty, watching porn, avoiding tax, and hoofing lines of Class A drugs. 

There was: Owen Paterson, Jennifer Arcuri, Baroness Dido Harding, David Warburton, Neil Parish, Chris Pincher. 

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Titles were attributed to the most garish: DominicCummingsGate, WallpaperGate, PartyGate. He had more gates than Wembley Stadium.

Every day you’d think things couldn’t get worse, and every day he’d prove you wrong. 

By the time it was over, Boris Johnson had turned 10 Downing Street into the most fined address in the country, and even the Telegraph had assigned its crime correspondent to cover the travails of our Prime Minister.

Eventually, to force Johnson from office, 62 ministers, private secretaries and trade envoys resigned in disgust. The previous record for mass resignations was 11. Finally, some #worldbeating! 


A Sinking Sunak Feeling

But our troubles had just started. 

“The problem isn’t just Boris,” warned the former Conservative chairman Chris Patten. “The problem is the party which chose him. They are said to want Liz Truss, which I don’t think would be a frightfully good idea, to put it mildly.” He was not wrong. 

Truss entered Downing Street boasting a fool-proof plan to reinvigorate our economy. But nothing is fool-proof to a truly extraordinary fool, as the ‘Margarine Thatcher’ proved in 49 days of hectic disorder.

Yet there was a paradox at the heart of Johnson and Truss: they were each trivial, yet each momentous. With Rishi Sunak, however, there is no such paradox: he has risen without consequence.
Since the Brexit Referendum, the Conservatives have spaffed their way through five PMs: Prime Minister David Cameron, ‘Prim Monster’ Theresa May, ‘Primate Minister’ Boris Johnson, ‘Punctuation Mark’ Liz Truss, and ‘Prime Miniature’ Rishi Sunak.

Each of them has, in their own special way, made a stupefying mess of the job, taking it in turns to curse us with austerity, frigidity, delinquency, insolvency, and now inadequacy. 

But how did we end up with a Prime Minister this terrible at politics?

Sunak promised integrity. He appointed Nadhim Zahawi, despite his ‘careless’ tax affairs and a multimillion pound fine from HMRC.

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Sunak promised professionalism. He appointed Lee Anderson, a witless edgelord and gravel-throated carnival barker who was kicked out of the party for a racism scandal.

Sunak promised accountability. He appointed Suella Braverman just six days after she’d been sacked from the same job by Truss, having lost “the confidence of the security services”.

The Conservatives are supposed to be the natural party of government, delivering growth, rectitude and stability. Yet, after 14 years, the country is skint, divided, dilapidated, and declining. It was time to put an end to it. 

We might be 190 years later than Robert Peel planned, but today we have finally voted to be independent of this perpetual vortex of agitation.

Russ Jones is the author of ‘The Decade In Tory’, ‘Four Chancellors and a Funeral’, and the forthcoming ‘Tories: The End of an Error’


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