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The Sordid Story of the Most Successful Political Party in the World

How the Tories became unbeatable

On December 13, 2019, Britain’s newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed “a new dawn.” The Conservative Party had secured its largest parliamentary majority since 1987. Almost 50 new seats had swung the Conservatives’ way, including many in the so-called “red wall”: working-class constituencies in north and middle England traditionally considered Labour strongholds. Johnson and his fellow Tories were jubilant. “Rejoice!” the front page of the conservative Daily Mail sang.

In all the excitement, it was easy to forget that this was the Conservative Party’s fourth election win in a row—its second such sequence in the last 40 years. Johnson simply did what the vast majority of Conservative leaders do: win elections. Of the party’s 21 different leaders, spread out across its long, winding 200-year-odd history, 19 have contested elections, and only four have failed to win at least one—a record of victory that has earned the Conservatives the moniker of “the most successful political party in the world.”*

The Conservative Party’s main opposition, meanwhile, spends most of its time as just that: the opposition. Since the formation of the Labour Party in 1900—a source of existential anxiety for Conservatives at the time—only four of Labour’s 19 leaders have won an election. In the last 40 years, that number falls to one: Tony Blair, both Labour’s most successful leader and its most conservative. “The best centre-right option there is,” as The Economist quipped in 2005, as Blair accomplished his third straight win. Take away Blair’s victories, and Labour has only been in power for 18 of the last 100 years. The Tories, either alone or in coalition, have ruled for the rest.

Such single-party dominance might well alarm the citizenry of a proud, liberal democracy—especially one where well-funded public services and wealth redistribution, not Conservative strong points, consistently poll as very popular policies. Yet the party’s remarkable record of victory—eight of the last 11 elections—is rarely scrutinized as a source of fundamental concern. Each Conservative win is explained away either by the contingencies of time and place—a strong or weak economy, a particularly canny Conservative leader or campaign, a weak Labour candidate—or by supposedly “innate” Conservative Party qualities like “competence,” “flexibility,” or “unity.” It is often said that Tories simply “know how to win elections.”

Even now, after a brutal plague year in which Johnson has led Britain to one of the highest death rates per capita in the world, the Conservatives are still comfortable favorites to win the next election. Britain has lost nearly 120,000 lives to the virus so far, is currently eight weeks into a national lockdown that will last until at least April, and faces the worst economic forecasts of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development bar Argentina. The government’s blunders have been blatant, repetitive, and devastating. And yet, mirroring government messaging, a majority of people say that the public, rather than politicians, are to blame. The Conservative Party marches on.

The enduring popularity of the Conservatives amid the pandemic does thus point to at least one secret of its success: the party’s ability to disassociate itself from the consequences of its own actions. Rarely has a political party wielded so much power, for so long, with so little accountability. If elections in Britain tend to take one of two forms, “kick them out” or “let’s keep going,” the Conservative Party’s trick is to appear as the answer to both, as it suits: the brave challengers of the status quo and its brave defenders, always rescuing the nation from a Labour threat that never quite materializes.

Despite botching Britain’s pandemic response, Boris Johnson is riding high.
Geoff Caddick/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Johnson’s resounding win in December 2019 was a textbook example. Having overseen a decade of domestic turmoil and a stark coarsening of living conditions, the Conservative Party then presented itself as the panacea to the problems that it had created. Johnson promised to “Get Brexit Done,” as per his election slogan, ending a four-year battle over European Union membership initiated by his party, and to reinvest in public services after 10 years of Tory-imposed austerity. “Our country has now embarked on a wonderful adventure,” Johnson declared upon victory.

This power of disassociation is at the heart of the Conservative Party’s unrivalled record of victory. Britain’s departure from the EU—finally “done” on January 1—has been a huge asset. Its “Year Zero” effect, as one Conservative minister put it, has allowed the party to pretend it has taken on a new incarnation, untarnished by the past; that it’s a different beast from the party that has been in power for the best part of the last 200 years; a “new dawn” is always rising. But this power of disassociation cannot be accomplished alone: It requires a compliant media, a believing public, and an electoral opponent that cannot help but play along. The story of Conservative success is, to a remarkable extent, the story of Britain itself: a nation where, in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s famous refrain, everything changes, so long as everything stays the same.

British conservatism has often praised itself for an adaptable nature: a thought and practice rooted not in ideology but in pragmatism, tradition, and “common sense.” Yet beneath a veneer of amenable moderation, the Conservative Party’s aims have been clear and constant: maintaining power, resisting the redistribution of wealth, and safeguarding the legitimacy—the ascendancy—of the nation’s elites.

“Hostility to radicalism, incessant, implacable hostility, is the essential definition of Conservatism,” as former Conservative leader and three-times Prime Minister Lord Salisbury wrote in 1859. “The fear that the radicals may triumph is the only final cause that the Conservative Party can plead for its own existence.”

Over 150 years later, this central Conservative plea against radicalism—aimed at the left, at least—remains persuasive, even if the fear has never been realized. Unlike other countries, Britain has witnessed no revolution or serious political rupture in its modern history. Old elites are not overthrown but absorbed—above all, into the Conservative Party.

The result has been a remarkable continuity, and closeness, in the upper echelons of British society. In the 1930s, the Conservative Party was still nicknamed “the cousinhood” for being such a family affair. About a third of its 429 members of Parliament could be placed on the same family tree, and two in every five belonged to the aristocracy. In 1951, when a 76-year-old Winston Churchill returned as prime minister, a quarter of his MPs were alumni of the same tiny school: Eton, the elite institution for boys founded in 1440, and the playground of 20 future prime ministers.* 

Today, the Conservative elite is more diverse and democratic. The landed gentry hold hands with bankers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the nouveaux riches. The number of Etonian MPs is down to 11 (although in the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected second chamber, there are still over 80); the proportion of Conservative MPs who received a state education is up to 59 percent, a record high, albeit well below the national average of 93 percent. But very British inequalities still endure, such as the fact that about half the land in England is owned by less than 1 percent of the population, with a small set of old aristocratic families accounting for a third of it.

The Conservative Party is doing its best to modernize its image, if not the country. Since the aristocrat Alec Douglas-Home, or “the fourteenth Earl of Home,” stepped down as prime minister in 1964, the Conservatives have experimented with leaders from more humble backgrounds—most famously Margaret Thatcher, the grocer’s daughter, winner of three elections between 1979 and 1990, and the longest-serving prime minister since Salisbury at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thatcher’s mere presence, as a state-educated woman, seemed to signal a new age of Conservative meritocracy and ideology: The party’s “traditional values” would now be shielded by the radical doctrines of the Chicago School.

Margaret Thatcher famously described the ascendance of Tony Blair as one of her greatest achievements.

Thatcher changed the Conservatives—and Britain, and Labour—forever. Yet even when the old guard was in retreat, it never really disappeared—91 percent of Thatcher’s Cabinet were privately educated, and more than a quarter were from Eton. Lately they have resumed the reins. Two of the last three Conservative leaders have been Old Etonians—first David Cameron and now Johnson. Both are distant relatives of the royal family (as was Johnson’s rival for the leadership in 2019, Jeremy Hunt). Despite more diversity in Parliament, private-schoolers dominate Johnson’s Cabinet, making up 69 percent of members—a 30-year high.

The mystery is what makes this most unsubtle of elites so electable. The Tory’s well-earned reputation as toffs has belied a surprisingly broad appeal. At least one in three working-class voters typically support the Conservatives, and recently this number has risen much higher. As the historian and Tory peer Lord Blake suggested, in 1968, from the outset of democracy, the Conservatives’ “greatest success” has been “to convince a large section of the working class that the class struggle was irrelevant and that they were a safer bet than the Left.” How have they done it?

Some argue that, either as a consequence or a cause of experiencing no political revolution, British people themselves are inherently (or “instinctively”) conservative. The monarchy remains an object of veneration for a majority of the public, and there is scant appetite for abolishing—or even reforming—the House of Lords, parliament’s anachronistic second chamber, where membership only ceased to be hereditary in 1999 under Blair. (It’s now the preserve of the major parties to appoint legislators for life, allowing the parties to curry favor with friends and flunkies, with no cap on numbers: It’s already eight times the size of the U.S. Senate, with nearly 800 peers, and the second-biggest legislative body in the world.)

The country’s cultural tastes clearly have a conservative bent, as well. Popular television series are often period dramas that offer pleasing escapes into quaint hierarchies—Downtown Abbey, Poldark, The Crown, and so on. In May last year, Dame Vera Lynn, a singer during the Second World War, returned to the charts for the second time in three years. The nation’s most popular prime minister is also revealing: Churchill, the hero of Britain’s “finest hour,” persists in the national imagination as a kind of ur-statesman, wedding an upper-class aesthetic to the plucky stoicism of the everyman.

Yet such cultural and political tastes don’t arise from the soil—they are the products of a broader culture. Here, the nation’s media surely plays its part. Of Britain’s 11 major newspapers, six make up the so-called “Tory press”: The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Express, and the Evening Standard. These vastly outnumber the two newspapers in Labour’s corner, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror. (The other three, the i, the Daily Star, and the Financial Times, lean right but aren’t loyal to either party.) Almost all are owned by billionaires with close ties to the Conservative Party, namely Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Lord Evgeny Lebedev, and the Barclay family.

Even as print numbers nose-dive, the chasm in readership and influence is huge. The Tory press’s combined daily circulation is 6.8 million copies, over seven times the sum of The Guardian and Daily Mirror’s. The disparity narrows a bit on the internet, but it’s still pronounced: 131 million online monthly reads versus 61 million. And even these figures don’t reflect their different abilities to set the political weather. In the name of neutrality, the BBC’s news content is largely based on what the national press reports, and so its agenda is then reflected in the BBC’s own coverage, which filters down to its massive monthly online readership, peaking at 1.5 billion views in March, and flagship television and radio broadcasts.

The “Tory press” moniker is quite literal. Editors and leading writers are often close friends (or more) with Conservative MPs; or future party advisers; or, like Johnson (who has worked at the Times, the Telegraph, and The Spectator), future MPs themselves. They make no secret of their loyalties—during the 1979 election, for example, the Daily Mail splashed a front-page story written by Thatcher’s own spin doctor while, in 2015, the Daily Telegraph breached privacy regulations by sending hundreds of thousands of registered readers an email urging everyone to vote Conservative. The papers are rewarded for their fidelity not only with access and favorable policies but also knighthoods and peerages. Among Johnson’s appointments to the Lords, so far, have been two editors, two columnists, and a press baron—and they join more than 30 other members of the trade.

The Tories have benefited immensely from their close relationship with Britain’s right-wing tabloids.
Arthur Edwards/News International/Getty Images

During Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, between 2015 and 2020, anti-Labour tirades reached unprecedented heights, according to research by Loughborough University. But the reality is perhaps more banal: A daily drip-feed of Toryphilia, xenophobia, left-baiting, and jingoism that, even if not always believed by readers, lets the Conservative Party convincingly claim to reflect—rather than shape—the national mood. Laying blame for society’s ills elsewhere—immigrants, minorities, welfare cheats, the unpatriotic left—is a shared passion and serves a common purpose: stopping “the radicals” from taking power, as expressed by Salisbury over 150 years ago.

In 2001, the mood among Conservatives was rather different than today: The radicals weren’t in power, but the Labour Party was. Blair had won his second election on the trot. As the godfather-to-be of Murdoch’s child, happy to let anyone become “filthy rich,” he had almost the whole stable of newspapers on his side. The Tory press had become the Tony press.

Blair’s “New Labour” had found a winning formula: Privatize state services, set the financial sector free, drum up patriotic feeling, tack right in the culture war, and boost public spending to reduce poverty levels—“a spoonful of sugar helps it all go down,” as Blair memorably put it. Even The Economist, which had backed “the real Tories rather than possible Tories” in 1997, was impressed, conceding that Blair was “the only credible conservative currently available.”

The Conservatives were in a rut, divided over a fringe obsession—Britain’s then-uncontroversial membership of the European Union—and unsettled by their own admiration for Blair. “I can’t fight my feelings anymore,” the journalist Michael Gove, who is now Johnson’s most senior minister, wrote in The Times in 2003. “I love Tony.” (Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, is star columnist at the Daily Mail.)

But Blair’s sudden dominance was misleading. Not only did Britain’s capture by the Labour Party reflect, in a deeper sense, Labour’s own capture by the Conservatives—Thatcher famously called Blair and New Labour her greatest achievements—Labour’s election wins were also less convincing than they looked. “The mood of excitement … began to wane a long time ago,” Gove later wrote in The Spectator, then edited by Johnson. In 2001, voter turnout had fallen to a record low of 59 percent, after never having dropped below 70 percent since World War I. By 2005, when Labour was reelected on a similarly low turnout, the party had shed more than four million supporters, mostly among the working classes in the north of England.

These shifts laid the ground for future Labour defeats. But the nature and extent of the Conservatives’ renaissance could not yet be foreseen, least of all by Conservatives: They were still in thrall to Blair. In December 2005, they found a Blair of their own to lead them, the “modernizing” David Cameron—an old Etonian, married to the daughter of a Baronet, who was young, lived in West London, and was similarly cozy with the press. Cameron told his party to “stop banging on about Europe,” committed to matching Labour’s levels of public spending, and vowed to end the Conservatives’ “nasty party” image. But after the 2008 economic crash, the atmosphere changed, and the Conservatives could attack Labour’s “lax” border control and “reckless” spending with renewed glee. In 2010, with the Tory press back on their side, the Conservatives returned to power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Cameron heralded “a new age of austerity.” Under the guise of cleaning up Labour’s mess, the government slashed public spending and ramped up anti-immigration legislation and rhetoric. The then–Home Secretary Theresa May announced a new “hostile environment” for illegal immigration, and the same harsh spirit seemed to suffuse society as a whole, as state welfare was dramatically rolled back. Media reports about “welfare cheats,” “benefit scroungers,” and “welfare tourists” were relentless. By 2013, a YouGov poll found that people on average thought 41 percent of the welfare budget went on the unemployed (the true figure was 3 percent) and that over a quarter of the welfare budget was claimed fraudulently (the government’s own figure was 0.7 percent).

Cameron rode this wave of resentment to a clear majority in 2015. But it came with a generation-defining concession: To quell the rise of the U.K. Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, and unite the Conservative vote, he had committed to a simple remain/leave referendum on EU membership. Cameron campaigned for Remain, but the Leave campaign—led, opportunistically, by Johnson, Gove, and the Tory press—edged it by four percentage points. On June 24, 2016, the day after the vote, Cameron resigned. For a moment, it looked like the Conservative Party might collapse, as well. But in fact the Tories were going to be much more at home than Labour in the post-referendum world.

The high turnout of 72 percent—well above the 63 percent average of the previous four elections—introduced, and reintroduced, many voters into the fray. The largest rise was among the working classes, two-thirds of whom voted Leave, in regions where disillusionment under Blair had deepened. Many of these voters had left Labour long ago. Brexit, and its resonant “Take Back Control” slogan, was the gateway drug they needed to finally turn Tory. At least the Tories, unlike Labour, called the referendum, and could count a decent number of authentic Brexiteers in their ranks (Johnson, who only decided at the last moment that he would back Leave, is not among them).

Britain is now experiencing the aftermath of this shift. In 2017, Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, won 44 percent of the working-class vote—a full 14 points above the 2015 haul, and two above Corbyn’s Labour, which was then campaigning on a manifesto accepting the Brexit vote. In 2019, when Labour backed a second referendum and the Tories vowed to “Get Brexit Done” (“no ifs, no buts”), Johnson won 48 percent of the working-class vote, a full 15 points above Labour. It was a historic result, and Johnson found a fitting place to celebrate. He delivered his victory speech in the old mining town of Sedgefield, County Durham, which had turned Tory for the first time since 1934—and was the 24-year parliamentary base of Tony Blair.

Despite the pandemic, Johnson ploughed on with Britain’s departure from the EU and, on December 24, finally sealed the terms of separation. Cases of coronavirus were soaring, and Johnson’s personal promise to “save Christmas”—which saw him loosen anti-Covid restrictions against scientific advice, only to reimpose them at the last moment—was at least partly responsible. But Johnson could still end a grim year with fawning praise in the press. The front page of The Sun showed a grinning Johnson dressed as Santa Claus, dropping presents down a chimney, celebrating “the Night Before Brexmas.”

The audit of the pandemic has offered a brutal assessment of Britain: a wealthy nation where a quarter of the population, and one in three children, live in poverty, after a stark rise since 2010; where state welfare is now among the stingiest in the developed world and life expectancy is in decline. Johnson’s election promises to “level up” the country and reinvest were always unlikely—there is a reason why, of The Sunday Times Rich List’s top 20, only one donated to Labour (and even that donor also gave to the Tories). But after the pandemic, the chances are even lower. A new age of austerity looms—though Johnson will no doubt deliver it with a smile.  

Johnson has every reason to be cheerful. As the Conservatives eye an unprecedented fifth election win in a row for the Conservatives—a feat matched only by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, in coalitions—the early signs are promising. Johnson recently appointed a Tory donor as the new chairman of the BBC, while two much-publicized right-wing television channels are on the way. In December, the government enacted plans to redraw all 650 parliamentary constituencies—a move that is expected to give the Tories about an extra 10 seats at the next election. The economic forecasts are uniformly gray, but the state’s surprisingly effective vaccine rollout, which is dramatically outpacing the European Union’s, has brightened the nation’s horizons; Johnson is expected to reap the rewards.

So even as the death toll mounts, the Conservatives have a swagger in their stride—spurred, perhaps, by a justified sense that the more hostile Britain is as a place to live, the more hospitable it is to Conservative wins. On January 13, after a campaign by professional footballer Marcus Rashford shamed Conservatives into improving the meager food parcels they were giving to struggling families, the prime minister thanked Rashford for holding the government to account. Someone had to, he joked, and Rashford was doing a more “effective job” than Labour.

While Johnson’s born-to-rule bonhomie keeps the party faithful on his side, he remains a divisive and duplicitous figure: Only his ambition can be believed. He has played the libertarian and the authoritarian, the wartime leader and the classroom clown, the man of the people and the aristocrat—and he has lied, prolifically, throughout it all. Yet in both his ability to appear as different things at once and his undeniable success, he is a perfect embodiment of Conservatism, modern or not.

*This article has been updated for accuracy.