Austerity, Brexit and 44 days in purgatory: the key stages of Tory rule

Politics professor Tim Bale tracks the five main phases in 12 years of Conservative government

The age of austerity: 2010 and beyond

Up until the financial crash of 2007/8, chancellor George Osborne and PM David Cameron were ‘compassionate Conservatives’, keen to ‘share the proceeds of growth’. But when the shit hit the fan, they were all about balancing the book with cuts to public spending (particularly on welfare and local authorities), bearing a much greater share of the burden than tax rises.

The anaemic economic growth that inevitably followed also translated into stagnant real wages, which only served to persuade people in less prosperous parts of the country that they’d been ‘left behind’ by a liberal elite down in London. This was music to the ears of populist politicians like Nigel Farage, whose wickedly successful campaign to link that discontent with voters’ latent Euroscepticism and their manifest anxieties about mass migration was gaining serious momentum – helped by hapless home secretary Theresa May’s draconian but doomed attempts to meet the government’s unachievable (and economically nonsensical) promise to reduce net migration to ‘the tens of thousands’.

Still, the Tories were canny enough to protect pensioners – their most reliable source of the support. The NHS also survived the cuts, if not a disastrous reorganisation; but waiting lists still grew longer and longer.

EU referendum: June 2016

Panicked by UKIP’s rising popularity, and claiming to be concerned about the government being on the hook for Eurozone bailouts, Conservative MPs pushed Cameron into risking an in-out referendum on the country’s membership of the EU. Worrying far too much about avoiding ‘blue-on-blue’ infighting and far too little about actually losing the vote, Cameron, who’d proved unable to persuade his party he’d brought back much of substance from Brussels, blew it.

Far more of his friends and colleagues – including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – came out for Leave than he’d ever imagined, and Dominic Cummings and his colleagues persuaded them to mount a brutally effective campaign highlighting more money for the NHS and taking back control of immigration, while Nigel Farage took things to another level with his infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster.

Jeremy Corbyn (literally) didn’t help much either. Nor, of course, did the UK’s highly partisan (and – in terms of circulation – overwhelmingly pro-Leave) print media, while public service broadcasters’ determination to provide ‘balance’ backfired by allotting as much airtime to outliers as it did to the ‘experts’ dissed and dismissed by Leave in predictably populist fashion.

The consequent coalition of ‘the left behind’ and ‘comfortable leavers’ ensured the country voted for withdrawal by 52-48 in June 2016. Cameron resigned with immediate effect, leaving the country’s economic and diplomatic policy in limbo and his party in a rancorous mess.

Theresa May and hard Brexit: 2016-2019

The Gove-Johnson partnership dissolved within days of the Conservative leadership kicking off, forcing the latter out of the race and ensuring the former stood no chance of winning it. Bad blood abounded as Theresa May – a ‘reluctant Remainer’, widely (if wrongly) seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ – was left as the last candidate standing.

Convinced that the referendum was all about the immigration she’d been unable to control as home secretary, and desperate to prove her credentials to Brexiteers wanting trade deals done with the US and the world’s rising powers, May quickly made up her mind that withdrawal from the EU meant leaving both the single market and the customs union, not fully realising, perhaps, the complicated consequences for Northern Ireland.

Theresa May
Theresa May failed to persuade her party to vote for her Brexit compromise, losing high-profile colleagues including Boris Johnson. Photograph: Toby Melville/AFP/Getty Images

Caught between her anxieties on that score and the unrelenting pressure to play hardball emanating from Brexiteer ultras in the ERG who never tired of reminding her declaration that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, she failed to persuade her party to vote for the compromise, losing several high-profile colleagues, the brazenly ambitious Boris Johnson, chief among them. Public frustration saw Farage’s newly-formed Brexit Party deliver the Tories a devastating defeat at the European elections, by which time May was on her tearful way out.

Boris Johnson: 2019-2022

Finally fulfilling his puerile dream of becoming ‘world king’ (or at least UK prime minister), Boris Johnson rode a tide of Tory desperation straight into Downing Street, where, helped by his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, he set about seeing off Farage by promising to ‘get Brexit done’ – ‘by any means necessary’. After unlawfully proroguing parliament, ridding the party of Tory MPs who’d thwarted a no-deal Brexit, and agreeing to a customs border down the Irish Sea, he took his ‘oven ready deal’ to the country and (with a little help from Jeremy Corbyn, as well as some supposedly sincere promises on public spending) the Tories won a ‘stonking’ eighty-seat majority.

It quickly became apparent, however, that their populist leader had little interest in, or talent for, actually governing – a reality fatally exposed by his so mishandling the Covid crisis that the UK was left with one of the highest death tolls of any comparable country. N0 10 was also revealed to have hosted myriad illegal parties during lockdown. Notwithstanding his support for Ukraine, his endless references to the country’s successful ‘vaccine roll-out’ and his Cabinet colleagues’ ‘war on woke’, Johnson’s popularity (never as great as his fan-club imagined) evaporated, and a toxic combination of scandal, sheer incompetence, disastrous by-elections and plunging poll-ratings saw him railroaded out of Number Ten by his own MPs.

Trussonomics: 44 days in purgatory

Rather than move on rapidly, the Conservatives, wary of what happened when May won the crown without being tested on the proverbial campaign trail, staged a seemingly endless leadership contest. Ironically, however, the widespread animus felt toward front-runner Rishi Sunak for supposedly ‘stabbing Boris in the back’ delivered victory to Liz Truss – an awkward free market fundamentalist who was more than happy to tell party members whatever they wanted to hear, particularly on tax cuts.

Many expected her to pivot back to a rather more practical stance upon assuming office, not least because it was obvious that the government was going to have to spend billions protecting the public from fast-rising energy prices. But Truss, together with her ideological soulmate and chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and cheered on by Brexiteer ultras and ‘Tufton Street’ think tanks, was determined to seize a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slash taxes and deregulate in the name of ‘growth, growth, growth’ – to hell with experts and ‘Treasury orthodoxy’.

The markets balked, and voters looked on aghast before stampeding toward Keir Starmer’s Labour party. Several excruciating media appearances, sackings and parliamentary chaos ensued in short order, and before we knew it, she too was gone – just a bad dream, or a nightmare that the Tories will find it impossible to escape?

  • Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron

Tim Bale

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