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The Tory landslide was a lifetime ago

Boris Johnson speaks in Sedgefield following the Conservatives' 2019 general election victory. Credit: Getty

December 12, 2023 - 7:45am

Four years ago today, Boris Johnson won the biggest Conservative majority in 30 years. The then prime minister had not just won a landslide but — it seemed — redrawn the electoral map. Suddenly, the Tories had burst through into parts of the country previously deemed off limits, assembling the most formidable coalition of voters since Tony Blair’s breakthrough in 1997. And to cap it all off, they’d taken Sedgefield — Blair’s old constituency — in the process.

Aware of the symbolism, Johnson travelled to Blair’s former seat in an attempt to define his victory, crowning himself the new master. And just in case anyone missed the message, he stole Blair’s famous line from 1997. “We are not the masters,” Johnson warned his new crowd of “Red Wall” MPs. “We are the servants and our job is to serve the people of this country.” 

Blair’s message two decades earlier, though, had a sting in its tail. The Tories were not dead, he warned, just sleeping. “Let their fate serve as a warning to us,” he said. “What the people give, the people can take away.”

Four years on from Johnson’s extraordinary triumph, the Tory Party has entered what amounts to a state of fitful narcolepsy, falling asleep at the wheel to the point that the car has careered over the cliff edge. What we see today is less a coherent political party than a group of crazed individuals fighting to escape from the vehicle before it crashes into the ground.

The result is that Rishi Sunak today faces the most important vote of his short premiership, with predictable rumours swirling around Westminster that should his new Rwanda plan be defeated he too will find his grip on power beginning to slip.

On his Left, Conservative “One Nation” types — or Wets if you are being less kind — threatened to vote it down because it goes too far in restricting human rights. Last night the faction agreed to support it, while expressing “concerns”. On his Right, meanwhile, a coalition of social conservatives, Eurosceptics and Thatcherites seem to have united in condemnation of the bill for not restricting human rights enough. The situation sums up all that has gone wrong for the Tories over the past four years. Where is the coherence? Where is the unity of purpose? Where is the idea?

This is just the kind of bill Johnson should have been able to steer through Parliament with ease. That is, had he not let his own reckless ineptitude get the better of him.

At the root of the Conservatives’ problem today is not the fact that they removed Johnson personally, but instead the utter shallowness of their commitment to the type of big-state Tory nationalism he was elected to deliver. Just look at what he said in Sedgefield to jog your memory of what he was elected to do. Promising to repay the trust of those who had broken a habit of a lifetime to vote Tory, Johnson proclaimed: “I understand how big a step that is, and we will […] deliver on things that matter — not only Brexit, but public services and the NHS.”

It is almost comical that as soon as Johnson was removed last year, the party lurched first to the small-state libertarianism of Liz Truss and then returned to the Osbornism of Sunak. What we have left is a Tory Party without any anchor or captain, its mutinous crew fighting with one another to take control of the ship while they are continuously smashed by events.

The reason this moment is so fraught with danger for Sunak is that the Tory tribes threatening his leadership are not simply fighting over the policy in front of them, but for control of the Conservative Party itself. 


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Paul T
Paul T
4 months ago

It’s your profession that forgot his landslide victory. Within a few months the world was engulfed by Covid and you lot seemed to lay the entire blame for the “worst excess deaths in the world” (they weren’t even close) entirely at Johnson’s feet. And you didn’t stop. The damage done to the press by the press since 2019 has been enormous and it might never recover.

Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

The media were going downhill far earlier than 2019.
The Tories really do deserve to lose now after squandering a unique opportunity in 2019. But they may at at least go away and eventually rebuild, painful and slow though it may be.
But the media deserve to lose even more. And – lacking any real accountability like politicians – they will likely remain in denial and not rethink and rebuild.
I’ve come round to the view that the awfulness of UK news reporting is a major factor in why nothing ever gets done in this country. Any change or innovation is met with an automatic reflex of scepticism and scorn.

William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

I checked the Covid death stats recently and was surprised to learn that the UK was in the middle of group of western countries such as France, etc. The UK did about as well (or badly if you’re a Guardian reader or listen to the BBC) as many other similar countries.
You’d never have thought that if you pay attention to the media.

Last edited 4 months ago by William Shaw
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
4 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I vividly remember the glee with which journalists who should have been the most impartial, respected and respectable, and certainly think themselves as such, accused Johnson day after day, with banners about the mounting deaths, which must have put intolerable pressure on a lonely PM, struggling with a most unusual crisis, and supported by a civil service we see in action every day and in every aspect of our lives in which they concern themselves.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon was feted as outstanding, although it was obvious what she was up to.
The kind of question I’d like asked in the current Covid enquiry, for example, is who was responsible for the extremely wide definition of a death from Covid? I know it was obviously irrational to me at the time, and in contrast to other countries such as Germany, but not Belgium, which also reported high numbers of deaths.
The answer is because a stratum of society forms an opinion first, and then finds the evidence, or treats the opinion as if axiomatic. It not only dominate journalism, but much of the legal profession, to judge by the enquiry.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
4 months ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Indeed. Journalism has brought itself (a few honourable exceptions apart) to the level of a parasite sucking the lifeblood from the body politic. I have some respect for the author, and in many ways his depiction of Johnson is right but without taking into account the enormity of the burden that befell him in short order following the electoral triumph.
Whether, without Covid, we’d have seen a different impetus towards delivering on the promises made (just about getting Brexit over the line apart) is now unknowable, though i suspect not. It could be that having delivered the UK from the grasp of the EU, he considered his job done.

Last edited 4 months ago by Steve Murray
Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

People forget Johnson himself nearly died from Covid.

David L
David L
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

However much you despise the media, it isn’t enough.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

The jibbering ijots in the press are too shallow and ahistorical to get it.

Chipoko
Chipoko
4 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

From the moment he secured victory in the 2019 general election, the state broadcaster, the BBC (funded by legislated taxation, euphemistically referred to as the ‘licence fee’), set out to unseat Boris Johnson. And ultimately they succeeded.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
4 months ago

On his Left, Conservative “One Nation” types — or Wets if you are being less kind — threatened to vote it down because it goes too far in restricting human rights. 

Ironic, isn’t it, that they might be called “One Nation” Tories. Because the people they are so concerned about – largely economic migrants who are only seeking “refuge” from the Third-World repression of La Belle France – are not of our nation. These faux-conservatives are either liars seeking to import cheap labour for their mates, or sentimental softies who shouldn’t be allowed near power. Soon, there will not be any nations for them to play God with. They can make amends by putting our nation first for once.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

It’ll never happen. The political caste has nothing but scorn for the stubborn little people who always seem to be in their way..

Matt M
Matt M
4 months ago

They were elected to reduce immigration and ensure all laws put the interests of the British people above any international commitments. That is what Brexit was and that is what the 2019 landslide was about.
Boris, Truss and Sunak all missed (or ignored) this.
Legal immigration has skyrocketed, illegal immigration is an insult to the British people and we are still being sytmied by judges in-hock to foreign courts and conventions.
Now they are paying the price!

54321
54321
4 months ago

Four years ago today, Boris Johnson won the biggest Conservative majority in 30 years. The then prime minister had not just won a landslide but — it seemed — redrawn the electoral map.

Believing that Johnson re-drew the electoral map in 2019 is almost as deluded as people on the political Left who still insist that Corbyn won in all but name in 2017. They are a twin pair of elections which happened in all but unrepeatable circumstances.
In 2017 the electorate were divided, angry and insulted by Theresa May’s absurd decision to call an election then refuse to campaign. Labour got their “constructive ambiguity” pitch right and Corbyn, who to be fair thrives on campaigning, benefitted. Though nowhere near to the extent of nearly winning as his supporters claim.
In 2019 the electorate were sick of 3 years of infighting and had started to realise that Corbyn isn’t quite the genial socialist Grandpa they had presumed. The Conservatives got their “Get Brexit Done” pitch right and Johnson’s unique brand of boosterism largely stood in for actual policies.
It was always a conditional deal with the Red Wall but if they were not such a clownshow an 80 seat majority – however it came about – could have been a golden opportunity to lock in at least two full terms. Of course they couldn’t have predicted Covid but they handed the media, many of whom will never forgive Johnson for Brexit, a succession of own goals by creating a set of restrictions which were all but impossible to follow and then proceeding to not follow them themselves. Then compounded it by acting as a party with the self-discipline of a bunch of drunks in charge of the brewery.
So that’s where they are. Perhaps the most successful electoral party in the history of democracy with no real clue as to what it really stands for, ravaged by infighting, led by venal incompetents and openly despised by voters of just about every persuasion.
And as I commented yesterday. There’s no obvious way back for them because they are anathema to most young voters and that probably isn’t going to change as it might have done in the past when young people would lose their radicalism as they grow older. Too many of today’s young people will find themselves locked out of home ownership and locked into the gig economy to ever give a toss about conserving anything.

Last edited 4 months ago by 54321
William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago
Reply to  54321

Nice appraisal of the moronic Tories.

Last edited 4 months ago by William Shaw
Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
4 months ago
Reply to  54321

Very nice. It’s certainly hard to be a promoter of capitalism without, er, capital. In France Le Pen is disproportionately backed by the young. In whichever direction they swerve, younger Millenials and Gen Z feel they have very little to lose by capsizing the boat. This year is the first year that Millenials/Z outnumber Boomers/X in the voting booth. We will see more extremism ahead as the fight for economic justice mounts. I have a hunch that social justice was a side show (aided by vested interests) for a younger generation completely impotent politically because of the sheer size of the Boomer generation. Their natural “coming of age” was put on ice. Let’s see ….

Hugh Bryant
HB
Hugh Bryant
4 months ago

What recent events have taught us quite forcefully is that the levers our politicians pull are no longer attached to anything. Their role is simply to act as scapegoats for the mistakes of the real government.

William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago

Hoping and praying that UKIP and REFORM to step up and gang up and replace the abysmally useless and incoherent Tories… permanently!

Last edited 4 months ago by William Shaw
Matt Fraser
Matt Fraser
4 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

I agree about the Tories, but you can’t be keeping up with developments.
In recent, UK-wide, General Election Voting Intention polls, with about 2,000 participants, REFORM often attracts more than 200 supporters, and its trend is upwards. Sunak & Co. are terrified of REFORM.
UKIP, however, usually gets only 1 or 2 supporters, and sometimes even 0. It has been irrelevant for years, and its leadership is a toxic. Any party “ganging up” with UKIP is doomed, which is why they all shun it.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 months ago

There’s no contradiction between small state conservatism and effective public services. The reason public services are so poor in Britain today is because they are attempting to do too much for too many.

Peter B
PB
Peter B
4 months ago

Perfectly captures the core problem.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago

What bits you suggest they don’t do? And how’d you sell that to the Red Wall?
Save us the peanuts from say, abolishing EDI posts in public bodies etc. Needs to be something substantial if you really want a fundamentally smaller state.
Then campaign with that honesty and see what happens.
Personally I think there is a debate to be had about what the state can and can’t do, and what Responsibilities we all have alongside our Rights, esp when Country got itself cash-strapped. But Tories and supporters veer consistently away from being honest. Like the twaddle on the side of the Red Brexit Bus.

Caradog Wiliams
CW
Caradog Wiliams
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

The alternative at the moment is Labour, which is highly backed by unions. What the state can and can’t do will be for discussion during meetings of Labour and its backers.
Welsh Labour has said that it won’t be happy until 100% of the people in Wales work for the state – with guaranteed work for life and juicy pensions (and plenty of sickies). There is a logical flaw there somewhere but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The idea of Socialism is that the government comes up with a plan to make everyone equal – tax the rich and give to the poor. The problem is the definition of rich and poor. Thomas Piketty’s latest book shows how taxes on property need to rise sharply, with a 50% automatic level for inheritance tax. The money would then be put towards a universal inheritance for everyone on reaching the age of 25 years – €150,000 per person. Is this a good idea?

Last edited 4 months ago by Caradog Wiliams
j watson
j watson
4 months ago

I looked for the reference where Welsh Labour said what you contend CW and couldn’t find it. I don’t doubt some SWP type might have, but not quite the same. So I think that’s an exaggeration somewhat on your part.
Defining Socialism I suspect a long and separate debate with multiple different interpretations.
Regarding Piketty’s ideas – generally I think he’s right. Taxing income disincentives work and he’s been strong consistent advocate for a rebalancing with asset and wealth taxes for some time. Asset inequality has increased significantly in recent decades and it’s a serious problem we will have to confront at some point.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Some of us , when we beard the failing Councils lament that they would have to restrict their activities to core tasks, did wonder why in earth they had exceeded their brief in the first place.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Yes I’m sure a few peripheral things will have to go. But overwhelmingly the core spending is basics, including education and ever increasing social care costs. Suggestion on how we square that?

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 months ago

And they are layabouts who think going to the office is degrading, this must never be forgotten.

John Tyler
John Tyler
4 months ago

No direction! You’re right. The same old elite has won back control from the electorate. Now we’re back into a stagnant pool of cosmetic action and very real arrogance. Sure, Johnson was a personal mess, but his response to the mood of ordinary people was absolutely spot on, and without the sort of fascist leanings so widely attributed by so many apologists for the old status quo and left-wing propagandists.

Andrew Martin
AM
Andrew Martin
4 months ago

Everyone misunderstood how powerful the Blob were. The Tories can’t do anything without their approval and they cower when somebody says Boo to them. The Party needs to grow a pair and sort out its detractors rather than being cowards.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
4 months ago

It is time the seat-warming, time-serving Conservatives begged Nigel Farage to come back. He’s tanned, rested and ready.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
4 months ago

Spot on. Dark night of the soul

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
4 months ago

I remain unconvinced by this idea that The Red Wall all craved the Big State Socialism of the Imposter Johnson. The idea that all those Northern working class folk were culturally rifht wing but economically left wing is not accurate. The Red Wall and a majority of Provincial England still value and crave a party hostile to all progressive nostrums, including Corbyn/GDR style Socialism. Also despised are the partisan lazy workshy Blob, the useless broken NHS, punitive taxation, human rights lawfare and judicial overreach and the Establishments total failure to stamp out the deranged State equality cult, the appalling Net Zero mania and mass immigration – legal and illegal. Basically, all non metropolitans Brits despise the multicultural hyper regulatory Progressive Order which has been built by Blair + EU and meerily sustained by charlatan weak Fake Tories like May Cameron and Johnson. The Red Wallers are conservatives. They ditched the mad socialist Corbyn remember.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago

There are some unique circumstances that have contributed to Tories problems. Clearly Covid and electing a poor series of Leaders would hit any Party. Having a membership like the Tories always going to lead to some poor Leaders because they crave dishonest promises.
However the bigger issue in the background and unavoidable is the inherent contradictions in Right wing thinking – Neo-Liberalism vs Little Englander Nationalist. Obviously these are ‘generalisations’ but fundamentally Tories haven’t found a way to reconcile these issues.
Even if the Tories implode and suddenly the road opens up for Reform the same contradictions will quickly surface – in fact probably faster as more of the Reform nut-jobs will be subject to scrutiny and questioning and come rapidly unstuck.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

So, what is the alternative.

j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Fundamentally they need to start being honest about trade-offs.
For example measures reducing legal migration – we may have bigger short term gaps in social care and ‘Mum’ may not get quite the care you hope and you may have a to do a bit more yourself, but it is the trade off with what you as a populace prefer. Medium term we’ll sort how Social Care funded, and then be able to create a more attractive career structure such that we can better recruit internally. But means we will all have to pay a bit more. It’ll be worth it but painful for a period.
Another example – our Education sector will contract a bit because we will reduce some of the associated migration. We’ll lose some tax take (and create some job losses) as a result too as it’s one of a best performing Sectors, but it will reduce some pressures on services. Albeit these were younger folks so they tended to create less pressures short term. Nonetheless will help ease some Housing availability, albeit won’t address national shortfall alone. It will though provide you with more assurance we have ‘control’ even if we forgo some income as a result.
And we need ‘Growth’ and whilst EU has some challenges of it’s own us not being in the world’s biggest Single Market doesn’t help us drive growth as much as we need. Being in it will give Businesses more longer term investment certainty and they need that after the chaos of recent years. How we handled HS2 for example we recognise puts the frighteners on Business faith in long term investment. So we’ll look to closely align and gain as many benefits as poss without rejoining EU fully. Means we’ll be a bit of a Rule taker, but we are fairly sure if it’s good enough for Germans it’s good enough for us.
Just a start of course. I think a more radical approach to Investment and Investment earnings needed too. Too much into bricks and mortar.
In many regards this sort of honesty needed as much by the other Parties too.

Last edited 4 months ago by j watson
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
4 months ago
Reply to  j watson

OK, thanks for your reply. Item by item:-
We need to be more honest. To do this, though, how do we handle the media? The politicians say something but the media disseminate the message. Just an obvious example: We announce that no more care workers will come into the country in the next 5 years. Daily Mail headline, “Government aims to deprive all pensioners of help.” Pensioners vote against the plan.
We do need to cut legal immigration but we need to get people off benefits urgently to fill the gaps. Headline in Guardian, “Government fat cats attack the poor again.”
Somehow we have to improve education. Not by changing the syllabus again. Not by making things ultra-equal so that everybody can do equally badly. Perhaps by closing universities and concentrating on trades. To do this the parents have to be involved. Parents have to know their responsibilities as well as teachers. How many teachers have I spoken to, who say that they spend more time potty training than teaching.
Do not agree that we can grow, just because we say we will. We have to grow somewhere in something. Please don’t say finance because this just means Londo – and only part of London at that. Blaming Brexit will not help and we will not rejoin the EU for a long time, if ever. That is just wishful thinking on your part.
Assume that Labour wins next year. It is an ideal time for a PM to sit in an armchair and address the country telling us how bad things are and what we are going to do about it. Do you know what: Mr Starmer wouldn’t have a clue, any more than Mr Sunak.

Last edited 4 months ago by Chris Wheatley
j watson
j watson
4 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Yes I do agree the role of the media a big factor in short-termism and failure to be honest.
I don’t doubt the Guardian has some influence on a certain left-leaning demographic, but that’s actually quite a small group. Guardian reading Labour voters remain a small minority group. Most Lab voters don’t read it.
Whereas the Right Wing media has much more reach and depth. It controls far more of the daily Headlines. Now whilst sometimes it’ll push against a Tory Leader much more often it’ll support and fall into line. Therefore Tories can afford to be more honest on trade-offs, but they need the balls to do it. Of course currently the Tories fighting an internal battle so their media friends not entirely sure which way to lean, but I think my general point holds. It’s about Leadership.

Last edited 4 months ago by j watson