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The Tories deserved their drubbing

The deluge. Credit: Getty

July 4, 2024 - 10:10pm

The reality that the Tories have tried to deny and avoid for months has now hit. While exit polls are never perfect, the margins of error are small. It is now just a matter of waiting a few hours for the Tories’ worst defeat in history to play out.

Tonight’s projection, 131 seats, does not just mean defeat but humiliation. 1997, the horrid memory etched into many, now feels like a balm. There is no sugar-coating this now, it is the worst defeat for any party in living memory.

The voters who put the Tories in power five years ago have deserted them in droves. Some have gone Leftwards, backing Labour and the Lib Dems, others to the Right and Reform. Hundreds of thousands have simply stayed at home.

The result is defeat almost across the board. No demographic or geography is safe. The fabled Red Wall may never be spoken of again, but at the same time, true-blue Tory heartlands will have flipped. A Lib Dem wave will sweep through the Home Counties, while suburban and rural seats go Red.

This evening caps an ignominious end for the Tories. For nearly three years they have unravelled. First the scandals of Boris Johnson, then the calamity of Liz Truss, and finally the slow bleed of Rishi Sunak’s tenure. While they have tried to deny the direction of the polling, or hope for some salvation, nothing has been forthcoming. Now, there are no more excuses.

The rest of tonight will be painful for the party. Both fresh-faced candidates and seasoned veterans will be publicly met with the ire the party has earned. Seats with huge majorities will tumble; Cabinet veterans will be deposed. Not many will watch on with sympathy. Elections sometimes capture a mood — tonight is a distillation of anger against the Tories.

The failures of 14 years are now being cast out. Whether it’s the pain of austerity, anger at rising immigration, or frustration at stagnant wages and living standards, the Government has not been able to outrun the blame now. In their millions, voters across the country have moved to expel them. Only the safest seats seem to have escaped this tide.

Over the coming weeks there will be talk of post-mortems and rebuilding. Challengers will emerge to replace Sunak. They will each have their own views on what went wrong and how to fix it. In time, the electorate might learn to trust the party again — or else might see new predator parties pick more votes away.

Labour will face their own challenges. The one thing true of every government is that one day its popularity will falter. That will be far from their minds tonight, though, as a new bumper crop of MPs enjoy their victories. Politics is brutal: it’s right to luxuriate in the highs.

While that happens, the Conservatives must stew in mediocrity. The party failed to create winners from its tenure, beyond a narrow group of pensioners. It alienated parts of its base by spinning back and forth. Most of all, it failed to deliver or maintain the trust of the public. Tonight’s judgement is simple on one level — it is no longer fit to govern.

Those Tories who held out hope have now had it dashed. The rest is just details. It will be bad, and much of it deserved. Really, bearing the pain and understanding that will be perhaps the most vital part of the recovery process.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

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Matt M
Matt M
20 days ago

I think the Tories and Reform will eventually merge – maybe after a coalition arrangement – settling on a socially conservative platform. It is possible that the Con/Reform vote share tonight was bigger than Labour’s.

D Glover
D Glover
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

I don’t think Nigel is come to praise Caesar, he is come to bury him.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
20 days ago
Reply to  D Glover

Agreed. And a combination of 13 seats and Tory in-fighting (with b****r all insight likely to emerge if the past is any predictor) could persuade Farage he doesn’t need them (by any standards the growth is exponential). He consistently talks about building a movement from the bottom up which is a novel idea in out topdown tehnocratic age, he is a consummate brand man, his go to market strategy is fresh (5000 seater meetings), and he has an eye to passing the baton to the next generation (citing Zia Yusuf). Why buy market share when you can get people to switch based on bullseye persona, proposition, and execution?

Amelia Melkinthorpe
Amelia Melkinthorpe
19 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Keep an eye on James McMurdock – he won Basildon South and East Thurrock for Reform on his own (nearly), with a superb social media campaign, and by going and talking with (not to) the inhabitants. He’ll go far. A gracious, civilised chap.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Reform will look to avoid Tory entry-ism. This is just the beginning and we can count on Labour to make a complete hash as they descend into fractional squabbles. It’ll be vote share nationally and in how many seats they came second that’ll interest Reform.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

You’re right. At least at the moment, with 535 of 650 constituencies declared, the vote share for Conservative/Reform is 37.3% (split 22.7% and 14.6%) and for Labour is 35.7%.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Ah but a Lab/Lib/Green vote share much higher. Core of the Country ain’t where you think it is. Convince yourself otherwise and you’re doomed.

Hugh Jarse
Hugh Jarse
20 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Not sure I can agree. How much of that ‘core vote’ is protest voting, I wonder?
Perhaps we ought not to underestimate the anger felt toward Conservative’s ineptitude.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Jarse

Difficult to know and clearly a more volatile electorate now more the norm. But what the Right got to also grasp is a tack further Right might lose them some more moderate Tories. The idea Reform and Tories just merge without difficulty and ructions a pipedream.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

A Coalition arrangement? So, if you add Reform’s four seats to the Tories’ approximately 100 seats, how far short are they? About 230 or so!

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
20 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Look at the vote shares, not at the seats won.
Labour is winning a lot of seats but their vote share is now under 35%. Reform is not winning many seats but add their vote share to the Conservatives and they are now above 37%.
Nigel Farage is, as Niall Ferguson said in his interview here on Unherd, “not a serious person”. Reform is not a serious party.
The Conservatives are not as out of it as they seem. Labour is not as into it as they seem.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
20 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

A “not serious” person who precipitated a Referendum which he won, despite the massed forces of the Establishment against him.
And a “not serious” party which has just won millions of votes, without a locally organised base or infrastructure.
Ferguson is wrong. He should stick to explaining history, not current affairs. He is utterly disconnected from the actual lives of normal people.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
20 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Can you see Nigel Farage being a prime minister? Or a minister? Or even doing a decent job in the seat in Parliament he just won on his eighth try?
The man is charismatic and he’s far from being crazy. But he didn’t build a party. As you say, Reform has no organized base or infrastructure. Their 4 million votes earned them exactly 4 seats.
Nigel Farage is not serious about governing. That’s not his shtick. Being a “bloody nuisance” (in his own words) is.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I agree with your last sentence, but I am not sure about the rest (although, as an Australian, I come from an electoral environment of compulsory voting and an preferential voting system).

j watson
j watson
20 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Tories move right and they are doomed. It’s the classic pattern though. After a bad defeat parties have tendency to initially move more towards their radical activists. And yet eventually have to work themselves back to be a more centrist ground to actually win a GE. Labour’s had to do that. Cameron had to do it.
One senses Tories in danger of doing a Corbyn equivalent mistake. The one hope for them seems to be that the elected Tories remaining are more moderate. But the membership and alot of the Right will howl they just weren’t Right enough. It’ll be shown to be cobblers. Country has a more moderate centrist core. To win you have to appeal to that.

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
20 days ago

The days of two, big , mass membership parties, with a large voter turn-out are long gone.

The challenge is to restore an alignment between popularity and incumbency. Until such, mandates remain provisional, not to say questionable.

Some kind of electoral reform is needed, the better to represent how people actually vote and ensure governments can function with a legal and ethical mandate. It might also make political discourse more relevant and, just maybe, more interesting.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
20 days ago
Reply to  Brian Kneebone

Very well put. An alignment between popularity and incumbency is exactly what is required.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

That bit I agree with. The “electoral reform” bit, not so much.

Adam Grant
Adam Grant
18 days ago
Reply to  Brian Kneebone

Electoral reform? Perhaps, as long as it’s ranked choice as opposed to proportional representation. PR allows parties to nominate a slate of political hacks who can get in if their actual candidates don’t personally get enough votes; so even though you like a party’s ideas, you can end up with a bunch of people whose primary allegiance is to their party leadership, as opposed to any ideas at all. Ranked choice allows voters to express their real desire with their first choice, then what they’re willing to live with with subsequent choices. Even third choices can be effective if there are a lot of candidates in a riding.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago

I think that is overly pessimistic. Ok, the Tories have lost and lost big, but they are still going to be the second biggest party in Parliament, and thus the official Opposition. They will also have sufficient MPs to properly fulfil that function. Reform have done extraordinarily well, but will still only have a handful of MPs. The Tories will need to take stock, and reinvent themselves over the next five years. They will however be back. As an aside, it looks (at time of writing) that the SNP will get a bigger drubbing in percentage terms than the Tories.

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
20 days ago

I think trying to follow Reform would be mistake, as Labour and LibDem took more Conservative voters than Reform, which indicates very little support for it.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
20 days ago

Congratulations at having successfully swapped plague for cholera.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
18 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Nah, more like leprosy.

Rob N
Rob N
20 days ago

For me, an ex Tory voter, the 2 worst things about last night were:
1 Andrew Bridgen not even getting 5% of the vote in his constituency.
2 the Cons still getting some seats. They needed total wipeout.

Martin M
Martin M
20 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

Why would Bridgen have got any more votes than he got? He ran as an independent. Maybe he would have been better off to have joined Reform. As to 2, I think that although people were VERY dissatisfied with the Tories, some people would have voted for them to ensure Britain did not in effect have a one party government. I mean, it’s not as if people really like Starmer – this was an anti-Tory vote.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago

A good night. Accountability for 14 wasted years v important.
Starmer getting the mother of all ‘hospital passes’ and the ground has been deliberately salted too, but if he can do half of what he’s done to the Lab party to the Country he’ll help politicians re-earn public respect. He’s going to need some luck re: world events, too. To be fair Tories weren’t blessed with great luck last few years in this regard, but looking at the leaders they’d gone with they can’t complain too much.
The Right will spasm now. Tacking Right before realising an inescapable truth that they can’t win from there.

Guy Haynes
Guy Haynes
20 days ago
Reply to  j watson

There’s definitely some truth in your repeated assertion that elections are won from the centre. However, the problem is, the self-proclaimed centre has become the extreme in so many areas.

Immigration is an obvious example, what on earth is moderate or centrist about letting in a million people, many unskilled, every year legally, and allowing people to enter illegally without any meaningful penalty? This is a ludicrously extreme position, as extreme as threatening to deport all immigrants and let nobody in would be in the opposite direction. Oh and then they pretend that this and the pressure on public services are entirely unconnected.

What on earth is moderate or centrist about not only maxing the country’s credit card out year on year but increasing its credit limit continually? What on earth is moderate or centrist about ignoring pernicious crimes such as shoplifting and letting offenders off scot-free? What on earth is moderate or centrist in allowing pro-Palestine protestors to take over the capital every weekend, to beam offensive stuff onto the houses of parliament, and to make London a no-go area for Jewish people? What on earth is moderate or centrist about trying to end petrol based cars in under a decade and passing the cost of this onto families who have no hope of being able to afford the associated costs?

I could go on. So yes, you can say that the Tories need to hold the centre and avoid tacking to the right – but it’s just words isn’t it? There’s no real meaning, because there’s no real centre any more – they’re just as extreme as everyone else. And this is why the fringe parties are becoming mainstream. If the government had adopted a sensible, middle of the road position on immigration, crime, law and order and fiscal policy, you wouldn’t even have heard from Nigel Farage – we’d have just had a very tight election and probably a hung parliament.

BTW, not saying the solutions here are simple – but if the main parties simply pretend that no problems exist (as they do), don’t be surprised when that particular vacuum gets filled.

j watson
j watson
20 days ago
Reply to  Guy Haynes

You do assume Centrist (whatever that is but will use for now) = for mass migration and unfunded public spending. If you did then you bought the Tory/Reform spin much more than the thoughtfulness of much of your comment would indicate. In fact we’ve had both of those now for some time under the Tories and the vote for change applied to those matters too.
As regards Gaza/Pro Palestine – you forgot Starmer only getting the keys to No.10 today. He has driven anti-semitism out of Labour (or at least to v dark corners), and maintained a balanced position on this issue despite some electoral consequences for him.
The guy seems to have a record that focuses on what works. I suspect you are going to see more nuance and pragmatism to get things done than tribalism suggests. Let’s hope so.

John Ellis
John Ellis
20 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I think Guy’s “assumption” is not unreasonable, considering that – whatever their professed policies – the two so-called main parties have both presided over large increases in immigration, in taxes, in the size of the Public Sector and in the public debt. Most people would say that the LibDems and the Greens are to the left of Labour on most issues, and that Reform is to the right of the Conservatives. (If we can even still meaningfully use the terms “left” and “right” in political debate, which I personally doubt.)
So what else is the “Centre” but the focus around which both main parties seem to orbit, with only minor variations in how they approach these issues?

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
20 days ago

Looks like Labour will win over 400 seats but with significantly fewer than 10 million votes and a vote share of less than 34%. Two thirds of voters voted for another party. I haven’t seen turnout figures, but I suspect many people stayed home.
It’s the “the lowest share of the vote won by any single party majority government,” according to polling expert Sir John Curtice. Not the strong mandate to push forward new policies Keir Starmer would have wanted. In fact, only 5% of Labour voters said they voted Labour for its policies.
As long as you have a solid majority of seats, in practical terms it doesn’t really matter how large that majority is. But without the voters to back that majority up, I don’t think Labour will have the power it would otherwise seem to have.
In other words, this vote seems, like that in France and Germany, an uprising against the party in power. The people voted to bring back the guillotine. They wanted to see heads roll. And roll they did.

Stephen Wood
Stephen Wood
20 days ago

Except the vote didn’t go leftwards after all. Either Reform or they didn’t bother voting.