The Politically and Morally Bankrupt Tories Deserve to Lose

Foreign Affairs

Winning elections doesn’t matter when things only get worse between.

Rishi Sunak wandered out of 10 Downing Street on Wednesday to announce that the next United Kingdom general election will take place on July 4. In normal times, a prime minister might hope to announce an election in glorious sunshine. Inevitably, it was pouring rain.

The problem with conducting an autopsy of the Conservative Party’s time in power in the United Kingdom is remaining calm. Imagine a pathologist conducting an autopsy on the body of a man who had defrauded the pathologist’s elderly mother out of her life savings. The temptation to go ape with the scalpel would be tremendous.

As an expat, I perhaps have a little more emotional distance than most. Still, I can feel my blood pressure rising as I contemplate more than a decade of missed opportunities, avoidable mistakes, and pure corruption. 

On one level, the Conservatives have been remarkably effective. They have won four elections! That is no small accomplishment. The last time the Democrats or Republicans achieved such a feat was in the 1940s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt won his fourth. Yes, their competition has been dubious, with the sheer unlikability of Gordon Brown, the awkwardness of Ed Miliband, and the hard leftism of Jeremy Corbyn making for less than intimidating obstacles. But, to some extent, the unlikability, awkwardness, and hard leftism were brought out by the Conservatives’ skilled, if vastly cynical, electioneering.

Yet politics is not just about winning elections. It’s about what you do between them. Here, the Conservatives have monumentally failed. There is almost no aspect of British life that has improved under Tory government—and, indeed, most aspects have degraded. 

To some extent, the ability to win elections and the inability to govern have been related. The Conservative dominance among older voters has made MPs grimly reliant on the support of aging homeowners who treat the idea of local building developments with outraged alarm. This has not just exacerbated Britain’s housing woes, but has even hamstrung the development of essential infrastructure such as reservoirs.

Attempting to balance good policies and good polling is difficult. The former should still come first, of course—because what is the point of good polling with bad policies?—but people who aren’t going to face a vote on whether their career will continue should at least have a sprinkle of empathy. What is more infuriating is how the Conservatives have embraced policies which are both unwise and unpopular.

Time and again, the Tories have pledged to reduce immigration. David Cameron and Theresa May both promised to take net migration back to the tens of thousands, only to see it rise through the hundreds of thousands. Brexit, to a large extent, was a vote on immigration. Boris Johnson’s government inexplicably responded with a vast hike in non-EU arrivals, taking numbers to historically unprecedented heights. 

There is some extent to which this has been motivated by purblind short-termism: the desire to prop up GDP figures at the expense of true growth, the desire to staff the health and social care systems without higher expenses on training and salaries, and the desire to keep underperforming universities afloat. But the Conservatives also tend to be glib cosmopolitans—“anywheres,” to borrow the phrasing of David Goodhart—who occasionally play-act as national conservatives for publicity reasons. This draws them to the worst of both worlds, as they do a performance of tough-minded restrictionism. Their signaling looks harsh, such as with Theresa May’s crass “Go Home” immigration vans, while their policies are radically liberal. (Ten years on from those stupid vans, an asylum-seeker from safe and tourist-friendly Morocco, who had been allowed to hang about in the UK for years for no reasons, stabbed an elderly Englishman to death because he felt angry about Israel.)

The Conservatives have been very good at gaining power in an electoral sense. They have been less interested in gaining power in a broad political sense. Tony Blair—who was far more talented than any of the Tories, even if he chose to use his powers for evil—made sweeping legislative and institutional changes throughout his decade in power. The Conservatives have simply accepted them. The “Blob” of useless quangos and radical chic charities maintains tremendous power, while the more extreme obstructionist and egalitarian implications of acts like the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 have been tolerated if not extended. The Conservatives wanted the power to pose as governors more than they wanted to actually govern.

Outside of extreme cases, politicians should be judged by their public acts more than their private lives. Still, ten Conservative MPs being effectively expelled over sexual misconduct allegations since 2019 is a bleak reflection on the moral shallowness in which our politicians wallow. Some cases of passing sleaze have been downright farcical, such as in the case of the prominent MP who sent compromising images to a malicious user of a gay dating app, who then blackmailed him into giving up the contact details of other MPs, some of whom sent compromising images as well. Call me a liberal, but the stupidity is the most offensive thing.

One might sympathetically imagine that the Conservatives’ lack of moral and political vision has been balanced by a detail-oriented technocratic competence. Actually, the Conservatives’ lack of moral and political vision has been packaged with miserable incompetence. State failure is evident across British society. The National Health Service is ranked lower than ever in patient surveys and academic studies. Prisoners are being released for lack of space in prisons. Army recruitment goals have not been met since 2010. Energy planning is a terrifying farce that could plunge Britain into blackouts in the near future. Would that Britain had been fortunate enough to have been governed by soulless but effective technocrats.

Right-wing commentators disassociating themselves from the Conservatives might face the understandable charge of opportunism. Certainly, we bear some responsibility as well. The government’s excessive emphasis on top-down public health measures during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, was fueled by many—if by no means all—of us in the right-wing media. We have spent far too much time jeering at marginal leftists that could have been used focusing on our actual authorities. Too much discourse has been spilled on fanciful abstractions without a sense of how they can be translated into policy.

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Yet the Conservatives have also failed to listen time and again—doubling and tripling down on their mistakes. Now, even their electioneering looks hapless, with 14 years of failure ensures that any accusation they fling at Keir Starmer’s Labour Party looks enormously hypocritical. Starmer is unlikeable and untrustworthy—being to Tony Blair what a depressed Elvis impersonator is to the King of Rock and Roll in his prime—yet he would have to promise to ban ice cream and raise taxes by 1,000 percent to lose the next election. 

What can I say? The Conservatives deserve it. Politicians of the future should take note. Winning elections is admirable—indeed, essential—but it will not determine your legacy. No one is going to look back with admiration on the length of the Conservatives’ time in power. They are going to look back with outrage and incredulity on the scale of the damage that has been done within those years.

Prime Minister Keir Starmer could well be worse, but I could not in good conscience recommend that anybody vote Conservative. Fool me once? Shame on you. Fool me twice? Shame on me. Fool me five times? “Shame” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

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