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22 May 2023

What do the Tories have to show for 13 years in office?

The Conservatives have now been in office for longer than New Labour but they have little to celebrate.

By Martin Fletcher

Over the weekend the Conservatives surpassed New Labour’s 4,757 consecutive days in government. You’d have thought they would have seized the chance to crow, but not a bit of it. They greeted the milestone with complete silence. Even they realise, perhaps, that the past 13 years have been catastrophic for the United Kingdom, and that by almost any measure – political, economic and social – we are a gravely diminished country.

Those years have been so catastrophic, in fact, that when Michael Gove was asked at last week’s National Conservatism conference to list the government’s greatest achievements, the longest-serving member of the cabinet named the introduction of Universal Credit, his own education reforms, levelling up and Britain’s response to the war in Ukraine.

The last claim is reasonable, though any government (save one led by Jeremy Corbyn) would surely have responded the same way. But levelling up? If that’s been such a conspicuous success why are so many Red Wall constituencies now turning back to Labour in disgust? And why was Brexit, the act for which this government will be remembered decades hence, not on Gove’s list?

Let me attempt my own assessment.

New Labour had two prime ministers – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – during its 13 years in government, and pursued a broadly coherent political programme. The Conservatives have had five, veering wildly from David Cameron’s programme of austerity and modernisation to Boris Johnson’s big-spending populism to Liz Truss’s reckless libertarianism and Rishi Sunak’s low-key pragmatism.

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Only three of the five were actually elected by the people. Two – Johnson and Truss – were drummed out of office by their own MPs and would top many people’s lists of Britain’s worst prime ministers. Some would also include Cameron for his grotesquely irresponsible decision to call a referendum on the complex issue of Britain’s EU membership without even the safeguard of requiring a 60 per cent majority. As for Theresa May, her name is seldom now mentioned without the adjective “hapless” attached to it.

In other words, four of those five prime ministers were failures, with the jury still out on Sunak.

Beyond that, do we feel economically better off for all those years of Tory government? Like hell we do. We find ourselves saddled with the highest taxes since the Second World War, double-digit inflation, punitive interest rates, anaemic growth, slumping investment and plummeting living standards.

[See also: The Tories are falling into incoherence]

The Tories blame the Covid pandemic and war in Ukraine for our economic collapse, but does anyone seriously still doubt that Brexit is not a major factor? The promises with which Brexit’s proponents duped an ill-informed electorate into voting to leave have all been exposed as cynical lies.

Far from unleashing economic growth, we have willfully removed ourselves from the giant trade bloc across the Channel. Far from becoming “Global Britain”, we have lost our seat at the table in Brussels – the very seat that made us so useful to the United States. Far from regaining ancient freedoms, we have robbed our children of the priceless right to live, work or study anywhere in Europe. Far from restoring pride in Britain, many hundreds of thousands of Britons have chosen to become citizens of other countries – a truly damning indictment of any government.

Brexit was not on Gove’s list of achievements because the signature act of this Conservative hegemony is increasingly seen for what it is: an historic act of national self-harm.

Even Nigel Farage admitted last week that “Brexit has failed”. A protester outside the National Conservatism jamboree caught the national mood perfectly: holding out an empty plastic bag, he invited the conference-goers to pick a “Brexit benefit”.

Moving on, can anyone name a public service that is stronger now than when the Tories took over? In 2009 Brown boasted of delivering “the shortest waiting times in history”, which may or may not have been true, but today a record 7.5 million people are waiting for NHS treatment and in some parts of the country doctors’ appointments are almost unobtainable.

The social care system is close to collapse, for all Johnson’s promises to fix it “once and for all”. There is a record backlog of court cases. Victims of crime no longer bother to call the police because they know nothing will happen. Mail goes undelivered. Railway journeys are a lottery. You have to wait months for new passports or driving licences. Public sector strikes are commonplace. Our rivers and beaches have become ever more filthy.

The Tories have shredded the ethical standards that pertained before 2010. They have knowingly acted unlawfully. They have corrupted the honours system. They have normalised lying, rule-breaking, cronyism and the acceptance of huge donations from dodgy foreign billionaires. They have ignored sexual harassment, bullying, illicit lobbying and the leaking of confidential information by Tory ministers and MPs. Only last week Jacob Rees-Mogg breezily admitted that the government had engaged in “gerrymandering” by requiring voters to produce identification documents.

The Tories have seriously weakened our core institutions. They have relentlessly assailed the Whitehall “blob”, leaving the civil service dispirited and demoralised. They have assiduously sought – with some success – to undermine the independence of the judiciary, the BBC and the Electoral Commission. They have poisoned public discourse.

We’re a much less happy nation than we were before 2010, those “sunlit uplands” having proved a mirage. We’re much less united, the Tories having shamelessly practised the politics of division, engaged in culture wars and treated both Scotland and Northern Ireland with contempt while doing nothing to reach out to Remainers. And we’re less free, the Tories having restricted our right to protest and vote.

Mercifully, we are now witnessing the death throes of this appalling government. The Conservatives were routed in this month’s local elections. They are rapidly and openly fragmenting into warring factions. Sunak no longer commands the loyalty of his cabinet ministers, let alone his MPs (witness Suella Braverman’s speech to the NatCon conference). The very peak of his ambition is to limit the damage caused by his predecessors, as shown by his five pledges: to halve inflation, restore economic growth, reduce the debt, cut NHS waiting lists and stop small boats. 

Next year’s general election is now Keir Starmer’s to lose, but what a bittersweet victory it will be. What terrible destruction the Tories, those self-styled patriots and champions of the “people’s will”, have inflicted on Britain. What a broken country a new, inexperienced Labour government will inherit. What an immense task it will face to mend and heal it.

[See also: Death rattle conservatism]

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