Analysis | Britain’s Conservatives face an ‘extinction-level’ event


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The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. After 14 years in power, Britain’s Conservatives appear headed for a historic defeat. Various projections surrounding Thursday’s general election show the opposition Labour Party — led by Keir Starmer, a mild center-left politico — on the precipice of a potential parliamentary supermajority. The fate of the Tories, as the Conservatives are also known, seemed encapsulated in that pivotal moment toward the end of May when Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an early vote: There he stood, alone in the rain at 10 Downing Street, grim-faced, soaked, bedraggled and, as some of his critics suggested, seemingly desperate for it all to be over.

That end seems around the corner. A survey conducted last month by the Telegraph, a newspaper well-known for its Conservative leanings, projected a “Tory wipeout,” with the former ruling party dropping to a mere 53 seats from its current 365 in the House of Commons, and Labour securing a startling 516-seat haul. Sunak would lose his own seat, according to the survey, as would two-thirds of his cabinet. Some forecasters suggest that the Conservatives may not even end up being the largest party in opposition. The centrist Liberal Democrats could, in some scenarios, win more constituencies than them.

Not for nothing, some pundits and analysts have cast the election as a possible “extinction-level” event for the Tories, who have presided over an astonishing period of political and economic turbulence since winning power in 2010 under then-party leader David Cameron. In that time, Britain has had five prime ministers, multiple financial shocks, a pandemic, and the dramatic rupture and rolling, years-long crisis of Brexit. The country’s departure from the European Union was long desired by a segment of the Tory base; the shock referendum that enabled that right-wing dream to become a reality stunned the Conservative establishment; and the process to actually finalize the cross-Channel divorce embroiled the Tories in a messy, sprawling set of internecine feuds that collapsed governments and exhausted the British public.

Labour has been on its own tortured journey. Starmer casts himself in direct contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist former leader of the party who was driven out and is now running as an independent. An analysis of pre-election polls by the Financial Times suggests that both Labour and the Conservatives are set to “register their lowest combined vote share in a century.” The party is also expected to lose votes among certain ethnic minority communities over anger at Starmer’s perceived of embrace of Israel amid its war in Gaza. But, in Britain’s first-past-the-post parliamentary system, Labour could win 72 percent of the seats with just 42 percent of the total vote, according to the Times’s model.

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An imminent Labour majority will arrive in the wake of a Tory calamity. Sam Knight, in a sweeping New Yorker essay about 14 years of Tory rule, outlined “two basic truths” about the country’s experience over the past decade-and-a-half. “The first is that the country has suffered grievously. These have been years of loss and waste. The U.K. has yet to recover from the financial crisis that began in 2008,” Knight wrote, pointing to the regime of Tory austerity that slashed public spending, shrank the government and weakened the country’s beloved National Health Service. “According to one estimate, the average worker is now fourteen thousand pounds worse off per year than if earnings had continued to rise at pre-crisis rates — it is the worst period for wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars.”

Now, Britain copes with widening inequality, slumping productivity and an entrenched cost-of-living crisis. “Real wages have stagnated, no higher today than when the Cameron-led coalition first came to power in 2010, while the scant growth in GDP since then has been largely an effect of high immigration — GDP per capita has barely risen,” political economist William Davies wrote. “The national debt, which [former chancellor of the exchequer George] Osborne elevated to the indicator par excellence, climbed above 100 per cent of GDP last year, up from around 65 per cent in 2010. Business investment and trade in goods have both collapsed as a consequence of Brexit.”

Tom Crewe, writing in the London Review of Books, summed up the grim trajectory: “Fourteen years ago, Cameron and Osborne justified austerity by saying they were ‘fixing the roof while the sun is shining.’ But the roof is gone now, and there is nowhere to escape the rain.”

Rather than campaign on his party’s tattered legacy, Sunak spent the final days of electioneering imploring voters to thwart Labour’s supermajority. This pitch does little to disguise what Knight observed as the “second, all too obvious, fact of British life throughout this period: a single party has been responsible.” And it’s not Labour.

The beleaguered Sunak came to power not through a popular election, but an internal party ballot. The Tories under his leadership now probably aren’t just fighting a losing battle against ascendant Labour, but are going to hemorrhage votes to the insurgent far-right Reform UK party, which Sunak himself has attacked for its alleged tolerance of racists and misogynists in its ranks. The party is led by Nigel Farage, the ultranationalist, Trump-friendly, Brexiteering gadfly who has been one of Britain’s most influential politicians during the past decade — occasionally aligned with Tory leadership and often at odds with them.

Given that right-wing parties will still win tens of millions of votes, it’s unfair to suggest that the Tories are about to go extinct. But as Samuel Earle — author of “Tory Nation: The Dark Legacy of the World’s Most Successful Political Party” — argued, the future direction of the party may have Farage’s deep imprint on it. “Far from being a check on the far right’s power, the Conservatives have opened the door for it, allowing fringe reactionary interests to swamp Britain’s culture and politics,” he wrote.



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