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5 July 2024updated 07 Jul 2024 10:23pm

The Conservatives invited this disaster

Through their incompetence and dishonesty, the Tories managed to alienate almost all voters.

By David Gauke

This is an election result that leaves the Conservative Party fighting for its life. The oldest and most successful political party in the country – probably the world – has never taken such a beating.

In 1832, under an expanded franchise, the Tories won 175 seats with 29 per cent of the vote. Two years later, the modern Conservative Party was born and it never achieved less than 30 per cent in a general election again, until now. In 1906, it obtained its lowest number of seats (156). It took further heavy beatings in 1945 (197 seats), 1997 (165 seats) and 2001 (166 seats). All of these elections were seen as disasters at the time. By the time the country went to the polls yesterday, anything comparable in 2024 would have been greeted with relief.

There will be plenty of analysis examining the types and locations of voters who have deserted the Conservatives but, in short, the answer appears to be everything, everywhere, all at once.

The Red Wall is red again. Not a single Labour seat won in 2019 has been retained. Areas that have been trending Conservative for decades, such as Wales and the North Midlands, have seen big reversals (there are now no Tory MPs representing Welsh constituencies). South-west England is largely a disaster.

The Blue Wall – prosperous, middle-class constituencies that once constituted the Tories’ electoral base – now consists of many red and orange bricks. Surrey, which only ever elected Conservatives (with one aberration in 2001), now has six Liberal Democrat MPs. In Hertfordshire, the Tories have gone from ten out of 11 seats to just three out of 12; traditionally safe seats in Sussex, Berkshire and Hampshire have also gone Liberal Democrat. Oxfordshire is a Tory-free zone.

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It has been a tidal wave. It is hard to argue that defeat was not deserved but there have been diligent MPs, effective ministers and potential future leaders who have been swept aside. They have won enough seats to be the official opposition but perhaps not to be an effective one.

The recriminations have already started. Those on the right of the party will point to the votes gained by Reform and argue that the government was insufficiently conservative. People like me point out that the Tories lost far more seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats and that it should appeal to the centre ground. What is undeniably true is that the Tories lost votes – millions of them – in both directions.

Perhaps it is impossible to appeal to the entirety of the coalition that supported the Tories in 2019, at least without Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party. Every attempt to win the support of one part of the coalition (and nearly every one of those attempts were aimed at social conservatives) only made it harder for other parts of the coalition to back the party.

The biggest problem was that all voters felt let down by incompetence and dishonesty. But these factors cannot be isolated from political positioning. By choosing to lean into the apparent political realignment, by choosing to prioritise older, less educated voters, by taking an approach to Brexit that was based on bluster rather than a hard-headed assessment of national interest, the Conservatives put electoral strategy ahead of governing well.

The consequence was that they governed badly and got punished accordingly. Even the very part of the electorate whose prejudices the Tories sought to indulge rejected them in favour of another grievance-mongerer, Nigel Farage. Like the 2019 Tories, he is an over-promiser but has not yet been exposed as an under-deliverer.

The Conservatives in opposition can concentrate on winning back those voters, and there will be no shortage of voices calling for precisely that. But it would be at the expense of winning over the support of other, growing parts of the electorate or recovering a reputation for competence more generally. Advocating for leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, for example, will make the Tories sound unserious and extreme. It is a fight Keir Starmer would relish.

As Tony Blair, David Cameron and now Starmer have demonstrated, oppositions win power by convincing the electorate that they are sincere. If the Conservatives are ever going to recover, establishing credibility and demonstrating competence are what is required. Depleted of power, talent and morale and under apparently mortal threat from the right, one has to be very optimistic to believe that the Conservative Party will be offering either quality any time soon.

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