In 1991 Alan Watkins published A Conservative Coup, about the fall of Margaret Thatcher the previous autumn. By the time of his death in 2010, Watkins had been writing a weekly political column for the best part of fifty years, he knew Westminster intimately, and he interviewed many Tory MPs as he tried to unravel an event that had astonished the world. One of them was the affable John Biffen, who had served, somewhat unenthusiastically, in Thatcher’s Cabinet and who was quoted on the last page of the book: “You know those maps on the Paris Metro that light up when you press a button to go from A to B? Well, it was like that. Someone pressed a button, and all the connections lit up.”
Those charming electric maps that illuminated the route from Sèvres-Lecourbe to the rue Saint-Maur have gone the way of the petit bleu and the vespasienne, and in any case no such figure of speech would do for the story of Thatcher’s party since her departure, unless it were some kinetic artifact flashing on and off at random. Like Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, and Winston Churchill before her, Thatcher led the Conservative Party for roughly fifteen years. In the thirty-two years since her fall, there have been nine Conservative leaders, including five prime ministers in the past seven years. If 1936 was the year of three kings (George V, Edward VIII, and George VI), 2022 will be remembered as the year of two monarchs and three prime ministers, not to mention four chancellors of the exchequer, five education secretaries, and more than thirty resignations from the government.
When Liz Truss made her sorry last appearance in Parliament on October 19, 2022, before resigning as prime minister after all of forty-nine days—beating George Canning’s two-hundred-year-old record for the shortest premiership—it was one hundred years to the day since Tory MPs voted to leave the coalition led by the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George, who resigned immediately. That vote was also a repudiation of Austen Chamberlain, the Tory leader, and prompted A.J. Balfour’s sour observation that “it is not a principle of the Conservative Party to stab its leaders in the back, but I must confess that it often appears to be a practice.” More recently, practice has become addiction. At moments of disaffection within the party half a century ago, that grand old salt Rear Admiral Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles used to steady the ranks of his fellow Tory MPs with the words “Pro bono publico, no bloody panico.” Now bloody panico has become the Tories’ prevailing mode.
What can have happened to them? We’ve had something called a Tory Party in England for 350 years, and while it’s difficult to discern a direct line of descent from the Church-and-King Cavaliers and anti-Exclusionists of the reign of King Charles II to the motley crew of the reign of King Charles III, the most remarkable thing about the Tories has been their endless adaptability to the times. In the 1840s the party of the squirearchal “gentlemen of England” brought down Sir Robert Peel, its leader, because of his repeal of the Corn Laws, which favored landowners’ income, but before the century was out the Tories had reshaped themselves to attract not only middle-class but working-class voters.
Since the Third Reform Act in 1884 broadened the franchise to include most adult men—all men, and most women as well, were given the vote in 1918—the British Conservatives have been the most electorally successful political party in modern European history and have governed, alone or in coalition, for eighty-five of the past 135 years. In Tory Nation, Samuel Earle discusses and frets morosely over this success, which has confuted so many hopes and indeed confident predictions on the left.
His informative book is enlivened by apt quotations. “It is not just that the most humiliating formalities of the feudal era have been retained,” Friedrich Engels lamented about England in the 1840s. “The worst of it is that all these formalities really are the expression of public opinion, which regards a Lord as being of a superior kind.” Well, maybe, but this political success might also have something to do with the prosperity created by the Tories’ embrace of market capitalism, certainly by comparison with regimes that have claimed the inheritance of Marx and Engels. At times Labour has hoped to usurp the Tories as “the natural party of government,” but that has never happened, and the saying that “England is a Conservative country that sometimes votes Labour” sounds plausible enough.
And yet at present the Conservatives seem less a natural party of government than barely capable of governing at all. After the lamentable if often risible three years of Boris Johnson’s premiership and then the altogether ludicrous Truss, the calmer, not to say downright dull, figure of Rishi Sunak appeared to offer some respite from the turmoil, but with the Tories in their present fractious state there’s no telling. When I sent half-ironical congratulations to a don at Lincoln College, Sunak’s Oxford alma mater, on the ascent of their eminent alumnus, he replied, “We’re very proud of Rishi and hope that he lasts at least a year.”
But what an inheritance he found! As if in the television series Life on Mars, we seem to have been taken back fifty years to the 1970s and problems we’d hoped never to see again. Surely “stagflation” was a thing of the past, but no, here it comes once more: the United Kingdom now has both the lowest growth rate and, at more than 10 percent, the highest rate of inflation among advanced industrial nations. It is the only Western country whose economy hasn’t grown since the pandemic; at the new year, the Financial Times’s annual survey of leading British economists was cheerlessly headlined “UK Faces Worst and Longest Recession in G7”; and at the end of January the International Monetary Fund predicted that the British economy would perform worse this year than all other advanced economies, including Russia’s. Disposable incomes and living standards have been falling faster than they have for decades, and the Bank of England’s latest rise in interests rates—the tenth consecutive increase—in early February sent many mortgage payments up again. Not surprisingly, Christmas and the New Year saw a wave of strikes for higher pay, by border guards and railway, bus, and post office workers, bringing the country almost to a halt—and worse than that when they were joined by firemen as well as nurses and ambulance drivers, aggravating the woes of the National Health Service, which is the object of so much patriotic pride but which now sometimes seems near collapse.
As if all those weren’t problems enough for Sunak, he’s still cleaning up the festering mess left behind by Johnson. At the end of January he sacked Nadhim Zahawi as chairman of the Conservative Party when it transpired that he had been evasive about a £1 million penalty he had been obliged to pay for a questionable tax return—and this at the very time last year when he was serving as chancellor of the exchequer. Sunak is also under intense pressure to deal with Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister and former foreign secretary, after multiple accusations that he bullied officials. Needless to say, Zahawi and Raab were both appointed by Johnson.
Most Johnsonian of all is the appointment of Richard Sharp as chairman of the BBC. Sharp is a rich former banker who spent most of his career at Goldman Sachs (for which Sunak also worked, like everyone else, it sometimes seems). He was once an adviser to Johnson, he has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservative Party, and when Johnson was at Downing Street Sharp helped facilitate a private loan of £800,000 for him.
One predictable political consequence of the Tories’ antics is that Labour, under the decidedly uncharismatic leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, has been leading in the polls by 20 to 30 percent or more. As Johnson’s government disintegrated last July amid a flood of ministerial resignations, Starmer made by his standards quite a good joke about “the sinking ships fleeing the rat,” but now comes a different group of deserters: the swelling numbers of Tory MPs who have said they will leave Parliament at the next election. Some are veterans like Sajid Javid, who will doubtless return to banking; others only arrived in Parliament at the last election but guess they would lose their seats if they stood again.
Three years ago I related in these pages Johnson’s ascent to Downing Street in July 2019, followed by the disgraceful way that he subverted parliamentary government and the rule of law before calling and winning an election, and Fintan O’Toole has written about his fall last summer.* That story has now been fleshed out by Sebastian Payne in The Fall of Boris Johnson: The Full Story, in which a significant part is played by Charles Moore. Arguably the most prominent right-wing English journalist of his generation, he has been the editor of both The Spectator and The Daily Telegraph, for which he still writes, and he is also the author of the excellent three-volume official life of Margaret Thatcher.
In the final volume, Herself Alone, there is a gripping day-by-day account of the events leading up to her fall, written mostly with restraint, for all Moore’s deep emotional attachment to his subject. That is expressed by the book’s epigraph, “When lovely woman stoops to folly,/And finds too late that men betray…” (which well-known lines, in the sense that Oliver Goldsmith intended them, might seem to apply more aptly to the personal life of Boris Johnson than the political life of Margaret Thatcher), and then when the biographer writes with lachrymose grandiloquence about the “tragic spectacle of a woman’s greatness overborne by the littleness of men.”
But not even Moore, embarrassingly infatuated as he is with “Boris,” could write similar words about his eviction from Downing Street. Although Andrew Gimson in Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10 does his best to make a case for Johnson, it’s a hopeless task. He has been praised for his handling of the Covid pandemic, but the real heroes of that story were the scientists who created the vaccines and all those who jabbed us, from nurses to eminent doctors who came out of retirement to help. Johnson’s initial response to the pandemic was all over the place, as Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, shows in convincing and grim detail in his score-settling Pandemic Diaries: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle Against Covid, written with the political journalist Isabel Oakeshott.
In one respect Johnson decidedly set the tone for a contemporary Tory Party that has been plagued by sexual and financial scandal. Sexual impropriety among politicians is nothing new or necessarily important. The pious William Gladstone supposedly said that he had known eleven prime ministers, seven of whom he knew to have been adulterers, by which he didn’t mean that only the other four were fit for office. And at the time of the Profumo affair in 1963, Evelyn Waugh wrote to a friend deriding the factitious indignation: “To my knowledge in my life time three Prime Ministers have been adulterers and almost every cabinet has had an addict of almost every sexual vice.”
But what distinguishes the Tories nowadays isn’t marital infidelity or sexual variety so much as sheer squalor. One MP was imprisoned for sexual abuse of minors, one was forced to resign when a woman MP sitting in the chamber of the Commons noticed that he was looking at pornography on his cell phone, and another, Chris Pincher, was seen at a party at the Carlton Club fondling the groins of younger men, to which Johnson initially responded, with his ready wit, “Pincher by name, pincher by nature.” Hancock’s own political career ended when a CCTV camera caught him in a passionate embrace in his ministerial office with a colleague who proved to be also his mistress (transgressing lockdown rules as well as the Seventh Commandment). He has since appeared on a grotesque “reality program” eating the genitals of exotic animals in some distant clime, and he looks more and more like our present-day answer to the Rector of Stiffkey, who was defrocked in the 1930s for devoting excessive pastoral care to chorus girls and ended his days exhibiting himself in a barrel at a circus before, sad to say, he was mauled by a lion.
Everyone knew about Johnson’s none-too-private life, with its innumerable marriages, mistresses, divorces, abortions, and offspring in and out of wedlock, but the Tories failed to see that in this case the personal really might be political. While Johnson was mishandling the pandemic he would address the nation on television in his rambling, bumbling manner, which prompted Robert Harris, the political journalist turned novelist, to observe that as we listened to him blathering on with his feeble excuses and totally unconvincing explanations, we all realized what being married to him must be like. And so although Johnson’s fall has been called unexpected, it was surely overdetermined. He always had a transactional relationship with MPs who knew very well that he was a “seedy, treacherous chancer,” in Ferdinand Mount’s phrase, a ruthlessly ambitious, totally unprincipled opportunist who has never believed in anything in his life apart from self-advancement and self-gratification. While they supported him as long as he could win an election, the Tories sensed that he was always a series of accidents waiting to happen.
Intense public resentment over bibulous parties in Downing Street during lockdown was only one of the dramas that led to Johnson’s resignation, and Payne takes us back to a now-celebrated dinner at the Garrick Club in November 2021 for former colleagues at The Daily Telegraph, from which Johnson emerged talking to Moore. As one Cabinet minister has said, “The first rule of politics is that if you listen to Charles Moore and do the complete opposite of what he says, you won’t go far wrong,” but Johnson forgot that when Moore urged him to help his old friend Owen Paterson, an MP and former minister who was facing suspension for being paid to lobby ministers on behalf of outside interests. “The average voter,” Payne says, could see that Paterson “blatantly breached Parliamentary rules,” and yet Johnson, who has spent his life breaking rules of every kind, tried to steamroller his MPs into bending their own rules on Paterson’s behalf.
When his Cabinet ejected him, his successor as Tory leader was chosen by the members of the Conservative Party after weeks of excruciating “hustings” debates between Truss and Sunak. Queen Elizabeth always spent late summer at Balmoral, the royal residence in Scotland, and on September 6 she had to receive first Johnson, who flew there to resign, then Truss, who arrived to be appointed as his successor. Having to see the two of them in turn might be enough to polish off any frail ninety-six-year-old, and two days later the queen died, closing a chapter more poignantly than any political changing of the guard.
Returning to Westminster, Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng, one of her closest political friends, chancellor of the exchequer. In 2010 they were among a group of newly elected Tory MPs who published a book called Britannia Unchained, advocating a utopian (or dystopian) Singapore-on-Thames of low taxes and minimal regulation and containing the memorable words “The British are among the worst idlers in the world,” maybe not an ideal slogan for an election manifesto. On September 23 Kwarteng unveiled in Parliament his “growth plan,” or scheme for unchaining, which proposed large tax cuts without any balancing reductions in public spending.
Rarely has any abstract political proposition been so quickly falsified. Sterling and government bonds plunged, as it turned out that, although the Truss government might have loved the markets, the markets didn’t love them. Kwasi Kwarcrash, as Alistair Osborne of The Times dubbed him, hung on for three weeks until October 14, when Truss sacked him, in a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to save herself. At that point Starmer made another effective joke. “A book is being written about the prime minister’s time in office,” he told the Commons. “Apparently, it’s going to be out by Christmas. Is that the release date or the title?” It turned out to be both. Truss resigned on October 20, while the unfinished book by Harry Cole and James Heale was, with admirable journalistic enterprise, hastily revised and published as Out of the Blue: The Inside Story of the Unexpected Rise and Rapid Fall of Liz Truss, and it proves a richly entertaining account.
Part of the Tories’ problem is systemic and self-inflicted. Until 1965 Conservative leaders “emerged” through no formal procedure. When a Tory leader was also prime minister, the succession could be contentious, as when Harold Macmillan rather than R.A. Butler succeeded Anthony Eden in 1957, and still more in 1963 when Macmillan fixed the succession for Lord Home rather than Butler. After Sir Alec Douglas-Home (as he had become when he gave up his peerage to sit in the Commons) led the Tories to a narrow defeat by Labour in 1964, the Tories decided to follow Labour’s example and choose their leaders by the only proper way in a parliamentary democracy: election by the party’s MPs, who have themselves been elected by millions of voters. That was how Edward Heath was chosen, how Thatcher deposed him ten years later, and how she was deposed in turn.
After the Tories were routed in 1997, they took a disastrous course with a new system by which the MPs voted on candidates until they had reduced them to a short list of two, who then went to a final vote by party members across the country. The first leader thus chosen was Iain Duncan Smith, who was such an obvious dud that he lasted for a little more than two years before he was removed in one more parliamentary coup.
Handing the choice to party members might once have made some sense. In the early 1950s the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain had 2.8 million members and was one of the great popular political movements of Europe. Membership is now a rump of barely 180,000 who are much more elderly, male, prosperous, white, and right-wing than most Tory voters, let alone the populace as a whole. In a country with an electorate of 47 million, Truss was made prime minister by the votes of 81,326 people, fewer than fill Wembley Stadium for the Cup Final. Almost worse, this means that the Tory MPs can be—and have been—led by someone most of them don’t want, and that, while they can depose a prime minister, they can’t replace him or her, which gives them, in Baldwin’s famous phrase about the press lords (provided by Rudyard Kipling, his cousin), “power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot.”
However that may be, there’s no denying the Tories’ continued capacity for reinvention, as manifested in the personnel of our recent governments. The first names of the latest four French finance ministers are Bruno, Michel, Pierre, and François; of their German counterparts, Christian, Olaf, Peter, and Wolfgang; of American secretaries of the Treasury, Janet, Steven, Jack, and Timothy. The four successive chancellors of the exchequer until last October were called Sajid, Rishi, Nadhim, and Kwasi. Bruno Maçães, the Portuguese politician who is now a prolific commentator, has said that there is no other European country where four people with such names could have risen to such an office. Three of the highest offices—the premiership and the two historic secretaryships of state—are now held by people of color: the foreign secretary is James Cleverly, whose mother was from Sierra Leone, and the home secretary is Suella Braverman, whose parents were Indian by way of Mauritius and Kenya.
Veneration of Churchill is a dogma of the Tory Party (with which he had a very checkered relationship over the years) as well as of the American right, although his racism is no secret. He once told a colleague that “the Hindus were a foul race” who deserved to be extirpated, and in 1955, at the last Cabinet meeting over which he presided as prime minister, he said that the Tories should fight the next election on the slogan “Keep England White.” At the Conservative Party Conference the following year, one of the speakers was Captain Charles Waterhouse, a veteran of the Great War, an MP since the 1920s, and a great conference favorite. In his speech he used the phrase “nigger in the woodpile”; added in a stage aside, “Too many of them about anyway”; and brought the house down with raucous laughter—a memory that must make today’s Tories shudder, and not only them.
This was at a time when recently arrived immigrants from the West Indies faced gross discrimination and occasional violence. In a particularly repellent story related in Matthew Engel’s new book The Reign: Life in Elizabeth’s Britain, Carmel Jones arrived in England from Jamaica in 1955. A pious Anglican, like many West Indians, she went to her local parish church, where the vicar told her, “Thank you for coming, but I would be delighted if you didn’t come back. My congregation is uncomfortable in the presence of black people.” She joined a Pentecostal church instead. Is it any wonder that the Church of England now has only a few hundred thousand church-going members?
What Churchill would have made of a Hindu (and a teetotaler!) at 10 Downing Street scarcely bears thinking about, but whatever else they might be, the Tories today are plainly not a nativist party. It might not be sheer accident that the party that gave us a prime minister named Disraeli in 1868 and a prime minister named Margaret in 1979 (as well as two more women prime ministers since) should now give us one called Rishi Sunak. Americans might bear in mind that they haven’t yet elected a Jewish president, let alone a Hindu, and they haven’t elected a woman either.
“Europe, fatal topic of Mrs Thatcher’s last term,” wrote Watkins thirty-two years ago, and Europe haunts the Tories still. This melancholy tale is told in The Worm in the Apple: A History of the Conservative Party and Europe from Churchill to Cameron by Christopher Tugendhat, who belongs to an endangered species, the liberal Europhile Tory. A journalist turned MP, he took the path to Brussels and the European Commission, and today sits in the House of Lords. He’s now eighty-six, and his kind of enthusiasm for “the European idea” was found among Tories who had served in the war or grown up in its shadow far more frequently than among their successors.
He gloomily describes British failure to engage with continental Europe in the decades after 1945; then the change of heart in the 1960s with Macmillan’s and Harold Wilson’s unsuccessful attempts to join what was then the European Economic Community, both vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle; then Britain’s successful entry in 1973, followed by increasingly sour relations under Thatcher and the rise of Europhobic parties of the right, culminating in 2016 in the Brexit referendum. Tugendhat is honest enough to concede that British advocates of “joining Europe” were evasive about the loss of sovereignty involved, which created “a not-unjustified suspicion in the minds of the electorate that, on European matters, successive governments could not be trusted to speak frankly about their intentions.”
But if Remainers or Remoaners need to acknowledge that there has never been much enthusiasm among the English for an “ever closer union,” voters can now see for themselves how economically damaging Brexit has been. Ed Conway is the economics editor for Sky News and writes for The Times (a newspaper owned by the Europhobe Rupert Murdoch). He says that we have learned in practice what “every sensible economic analysis pointed out” in 2016: “Leaving the EU would reduce Britain’s relative productivity and prosperity. The damage would range from small if we stayed in the single market to big if we pursued a hard Brexit. Britain chose the latter”—hard Brexit outside the EU market being what the Tory fanatics want.
No wonder that Brexit has been followed by “Bregret” or buyers’ remorse: an average of recent polls showed that 58 percent of voters not only regret Brexit but favor rejoining the EU, which is what 79 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds want. And yet you wouldn’t know that from our political leaders. Both the Tories and Labour are in a curious form of denial. Sunak feels obliged to claim, against all evidence, that Brexit was a great success, but Starmer, a former Remainer, is no better in his insistence not only that Brexit is a done deal but by silent implication that its malign consequences must not be discussed in public.
In one wretched way the Tories are worse than ever: to adapt Biffen’s phrase, a connection is lit up between the Conservative Party and business and finance, or just money. Lloyd George’s fall was partly precipitated by his scandalous sale of honors, and that scandal has taken new form, with some startlingly improper peerages handed out by Johnson. Apart from his cronies such as Moore and the biographer and provocateur Andrew Roberts, one new peer is Evgeny Lebedev, a shadowy oligarch and son of a KGB officer. But Johnson has no need to worry. In the five months since he was ejected from office he has collected nearly £5 million. That includes part of a multimillion-pound multibook deal that he struck personally when he visited Murdoch at his Arizona ranch, as well as fees for speeches he has given or is going to give in America.
Meantime while Truss quite absurdly claims that she was brought down by “the powerful economic establishment” (no, she was brought down by the capitalist free market she affected to revere), she has been conspicuously disloyal to her successor, although not as much as Johnson. When Baldwin resigned the prime ministership in 1937, he promised he would neither “spit on the deck nor speak to the man at the wheel,” words that Harold Wilson recalled when handing over his office to James Callaghan nearly forty years later. Johnson spits in the face of the man at the wheel. February found him grandstanding in America, raking in money while recklessly waving the bloody shirt of Ukraine. Three years ago I described how Johnson had tried to wish away the problem of Northern Ireland after Brexit with a mixture of treachery and mendacity. Now, just as Sunak has been engaged in delicate negotiations with the EU and the Irish government to resolve the impasse, Johnson has tried to spike his guns—or betray him—with off-the-record “warnings.”
As if the FT’s and IMF’s forecasts weren’t depressing enough, one Tory pundit told us at the New Year, “Brace yourselves for a Boris Johnson comeback.” It might even happen. In a remarkable demonstration of his sheer nerve and total indifference to any sense of propriety, he attempted to return to Downing Street when Truss fell, only two months after he had been driven out in disgrace, and as a sign of their party’s moral decadence, more than a hundred Tory MPs were prepared to support him. If they still want him to return, it demonstrates the depths to which a once-great party has sunk—and explains why veterans of the Tory governments in the 1980s and 1990s like Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine have said that it would be for the best if the Tories lose the next election. And it seems quite possible that they will indeed suffer a catastrophic defeat to match those of 1906, 1945, and 1997.
Not just Sunak but everyone else has expressed a wish that 2023 should be an improvement on 2022. Maybe it will be, but I’m haunted by the memory of the speech that the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha made to his unfortunate people one January long ago: “This year will be harder than last year. On the other hand, it will be easier than next year.”
—February 23, 2023