One thing pundits and pollsters across Britain agree on is that the current political turmoil is unprecedented. But is that really true? While the specifics of the situation may have arranged themselves into a fun, new, economically devastating configuration – and the size of the Conservative’s crash in the polls is truly jaw dropping – there is familiarity to the upheaval. Hold onto your hats, my friends: we have entered the ‘Tory death spiral’.
Symptoms of this particular malaise include a crashing pound, a succession of scandals and bitter intra-party feuding. Faces at the top table change with regularity; at least one leader must be forced out, as well as a chancellor (or four). ‘Dis’ is the prefix of the moment: disunity, distrust and dissent reign. But there are no more external foes to shunt blame for the upheaval upon; having won four consecutive terms in power, the Tories are victims of their own political success.
If that all sounds a bit, well, precedented, it might be because there are historical instances that are at least worth looking back on because of clear similarities.
“It feels a lot like the aftermath of Black Wednesday [in 1992],” says James Butler, contributing editor to the London Review of Books and Novara Media co-founder. “The Tory reputation for competence relies primarily on their reputation for managing the economy.
“When the economy takes a big hit and they’re in charge and can’t offload it to someone else, it’s very hard for them to recover.”
After four terms, the rot is impossible to ignore, even by a public which has wholeheartedly embraced successive Tory rebrands. In 1992, John Major’s surprise victory – like Boris Johnson’s in 2019 – prompted debate across media and politics as to whether Labour would ever be in power again (one 1994 book, co-authored by polling legend John Curtice, was titled Labour’s Last Chance?). Five years later, Tony Blair led the party to electoral triumph. A similar wipeout in Labour’s favour is predicted now, although it’s less thanks to any charismatic snake oil salesman’s pitch of a ‘third way’, and almost exclusively down to Tory self-implosion.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Tories were being called the most successful political party in the world. But every empire eventually falls – if only so it can reinvent itself anew. Liz Truss is not the harbinger of Tory doom; she’s just the (likely) final symbol of the party’s decline, before the ailing beast is put out to opposition pasture for roughly two to three election cycles. The party goes through “episodic crises”, observes Butler.
“One of the crises it’s going through at the moment is about Britain’s position in the world and it’s the [kind of thing] that provokes reformations in the Tory party. It’s not completely unprecedented,” he adds, citing internal wrangles in the 19th century over defining British ‘Toryism’ and 20th-century debates on trade and Europe that collected scalps including the likes of Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron and Theresa May.
The most unusual aspect of the current mess the Tories find themselves in, is the scale, says Butler, encompassing every facet of the party.
“It encompasses the leadership, the kind of people [the Tories] have in Parliament, the people who are members of the Tory party,” he says. “It’s a crisis on every one of those levels: of the quality of people at the top, of the identities of people in the party, of representation for people in the country,
“That seems to me,” says Butler, “to be really big and very, very unusual”.
The Tory machine is geared in service of one goal above all else: clinging onto power. But the ruthlessness that allows them to eke out a few further victories by shunting aside various factions when the decay starts becoming apparent, eventually proves their downfall. Perhaps the mindset can be compared to the string-pullers at Watford Football Club, famed for their excessively quick coaching turnovers the moment performance dips below expected levels. This strategy can provide short-term results but doesn’t go further in rebuilding a cohesive squad with a collective, long-term vision. Eventually, relegation beckons.
Moya Lothian-McLean is a contributing editor at Novara Media.