Why Britain Is Turning on Its Conservatives

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, many people hadn’t seen it coming. But if they had been paying close attention to what was happening in the U.K., maybe they would have. A few months before the U.S. election, the U.K. had voted to leave the European Union. That vote, too, was a shock. But it showed that the anti-globalization, anti-elite, anti-establishment sentiment was stronger than many people had predicted.

Next week, on July 4, the U.K. is again facing a crucial vote. But this time the mood is very different than what’s happening in the U.S., in telling ways. After a series of scandals, the Conservative Party looks like it’s headed for a bruising defeat. Rishi Sunak may even make history as the first sitting prime minister to lose their seat in a general election. Voters in the U.K. seem to have similar discontents to the ones that show up in U.S. polls: rising prices, housing shortages, immigration. But in the U.K., they are holding the Conservatives accountable and planning to vote in the rival Labour Party.

How did the Conservative Party fall off the cliff? How did the Labour Party thread the needle so well? And what could Democrats hoping to defeat Trump learn from Labour’s strategy? In this episode, we talk to London-based Atlantic staff writer Helen Lewis about the Conservative scandals, Labour’s ingenuity, and the right-wing nationalists waiting in the wings.

Listen to the conversation here:


The following is a transcript of the episode:

Hanna Rosin: Eight years ago, the U.K. and the U.S. went through very similarly shocking votes. The U.K. surprised people around the world by voting for Brexit.

News archival: Breaking news. British Prime Minister David Cameron is stepping down in the wake of Britain’s stunning and historic vote to leave the European Union.

Rosin: That was in June 2016. And then in November of that same year, Donald Trump was elected.

News archival: Secretary Clinton has conceded to Donald Trump. This concession took place in a phone call.

Rosin: Both countries seemed to be in a more nationalist mood, pushing back against massive global change.

Now, in 2024, the two countries are also going through elections only a few months apart—only the U.K. may be going in a very different direction.

I’m Hanna Rosin. This is Radio Atlantic, and today we’re gonna dig into the U.K. elections with London-based Atlantic staff writer Helen Lewis.

All polls show that the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, is headed for a massive and bruising loss, while the Labour Party is threading the needle in a really effective way. And then, waiting in the wings, a populist right-wing faction.

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Rosin: Hi, Helen.

Helen Lewis: Hello.

Rosin: Hey. So, your election is coming up way sooner than ours.

Lewis: Yeah, we’re having a six-week election campaign, which I would highly recommend, rather than the American one, which seems to last about three and a half years.

Rosin: It’s true. It’s kind of unimaginable. And I feel like you guys are rudely holding your election on American Independence Day. Like, should we read anything into that?

Lewis: Mmm—yeah, I think that ship has sailed. I don’t think you can be “re-independent” again, I’m afraid.

Rosin: (Laughs.) Oh, boy. So everything I read about the election says that the Conservative Party will lose—like really, really, really lose.

Lewis: That has been the picture in the polls since about 2022, that the ruling Conservative Party, the center-right party, took a knock back then and has never really recovered. And everyone sort of has naturally assumed, you know, Well, the Conservatives have got this incredible campaigning machine. As soon as the general election kicks in, the polls will narrow.

And actually, the story is that they really haven’t. The Conservative campaign has been a disaster show, top to bottom. You know, this was a party that once styled itself as the natural party of government, and it is a complete basket case.

You know, as we’re talking, several people around Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, have been accused of placing bets on the election date using insider information that they gathered. That’s the level of sort of minor-league crackpottery that we’re talking about.

Rosin: Okay, I just want to slow one thing down. He called for elections. A lot about that not only is not obvious to an American audience; it’s not obvious to anyone, like, why he would call an election now when they were so behind. So maybe just start with the basics. What does that mean that your current PM can call an election? And why did he do it now?

Lewis: So one of the prerogatives of the British prime minister—there was a brief pause in this, but currently—is they get to choose when the election date is.

And so he went out into Downing Street, outside the prime minister’s official residence in London, to announce that he decided to call this unexpected, surprise election. And it poured with rain. And he hadn’t taken an umbrella. So that was bad. So all the pictures were called things like Drowning Street and stuff like that.

And for the last couple of years—actually, since Brexit—there’s been a protester who has stood outside of a House of Commons or Downing Street, often playing very loud songs to a loudspeaker, and the song that he was playing very obviously in the background of Rishi Sunak giving that speech is D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better,” which is the anthem for the 1997 Labour landslide.

Sunak: This is proof that the plan and priorities that I set out are working.

Lewis: And if you know that song—Rishi Sunak started speaking. It started raining, and then you could hear the verse of that song building, and you knew what was coming. And it was just this sort of sense of terrible, yawning horror.

Sunak: But this hard-earned economic stability was only ever meant to be the beginning.

Lewis: So, one thing after another, these gaffes have just piled up. And the thing that’s been really interesting about it is normally you’d expect the Conservative Party to get a relatively easy ride from the print press, which in the U.K. is very right-leaning. But even they have been forced to concede it’s going really, really badly.

Rosin: Right. But why if it’s going so badly, why would he call the election now? I thought he had a little while to go before he absolutely had to.

Lewis: So Rishi Sunak had months and months left to go, but he decided to go early. And there are a couple of theories about why he did this.

One of them was that he expected worse economic news to come out over the summer. So inflation has been stubbornly high—actually, it’s ended up dropping slightly. Interest rates, the worry was, would stay high and that more people would come off fixed-term mortgage deals that they’d gone onto when interest rates were much lower, and therefore their mortgages would jump dramatically—and therefore, they’d think that the economic picture was bad and be likely to vote against the government.

And then also the summer is the peak time for small boats arriving, carrying asylum seekers and illegal immigrants from France into Britain. And that has been a big campaigning issue of the Conservatives. One of their pledges in government was to “stop the boats.” And they’ve been completely unable to do that, and I think will always be unable to do that, for the same reason that, you know, the rouse about the border wall with Mexico. You know, you can clamp down on it, but you will never stop people trying to make those journeys, because, you know, the rewards for them are so high and their situations are so desperate on the other side.

So all of those factors, I think, made him think that things were only going to get worse over the summer and that he was just constantly going to be asked, you know, When are you going to call the election? When are you going to call the election? And maybe you should just get it out of the way.

Rosin: Yeah, I mean, you’re just describing Rishi Sunak’s tenure. But the interesting thing about this moment is that they’ve been in power for 14 years. It just seems like a huge—crashingly huge—moment, like they’re just falling off a cliff.

Lewis: It’s extraordinary. I mean, my entire career covering British politics has been under Conservative rule. And the thing that’s really important to remember is that David Cameron was the Tory prime minister from 2010 to 2016. And that was, you know—it was a tough era of austerity, but the government was relatively kind of stable. It was a coalition and then the Tory majority.

Then Brexit happens in 2016. And after that, in relatively quick succession, you have Theresa May, who can’t get a Brexit deal through. And then Boris Johnson does get a Brexit deal through and then collapses in a chaos of having partied through COVID-19, basically and broken COVID-19 rules. And then he’s brought down. The Tory members then choose Liz Truss, who wants to cut the tax rates for top earners and bring in this very kind of libertarian budget, spooks the markets, and the cost of our debt goes up.

She lasts 49 days, depending on how you count it, and then they bring in Rishi Sunak, the runner-up to her. After Brexit, what it did is—you can say Brexit really killed the Tory Party. They got everything they ever wanted, the thing that they’d said was this great, impossible dream (the Eurosceptic right) for a long time.

And then it was an incredibly poisoned chalice.

Rosin: Well, it’s interesting because it feels like I haven’t heard the word Brexit very much in this election. Like, what happened to all of those intense politics of Brexit?

Lewis: Yeah, I mean, I interviewed Anand Menon, who works for a think tank called U.K. in a Changing Europe, and he said, The thing that unites both leavers and remainers in the focus groups that we do is they don’t want to talk about Brexit. They’re bored of it. Or for the leavers, it wasn’t the thing that they were promised, and for the remainers, it’s something that they hated that was done to them, and they feel angry about it. They also know the question can’t be reopened.

Rosin: Mm-hmm.

Lewis: That’s kind of fascinating to me, because one of the reasons I think that so many people are voting against the Conservatives—and I think the way to see this election is it’s an anti-Conservative election because the votes are going from them to the Liberal Democrats, who are a sort of centrist party. They’re going to Reform, which is a radical-right party, and they’re going to Labour, which is a center-left party. But so it’s an anti-Tory election, and people feel that the Conservatives just messed up. And they spent a lot of time—you know, spent three years not doing Brexit after the country voted for it.

And then the big question now, of course, is that really Britain’s economy is in a pretty woeful state. Our productivity is quite low. Our medical waiting lists are very long. The only thing, really that would be a kind of instant win would be rejoining the single market, which is what we were in when we were in the European Union.

And that is something that just Labour do not want to talk about, because the idea that Brexit has been betrayed would be a great rallying cause for the kind of radical right again. And so Labour’s approach in this election—you might say we’re about to have a great, big swing back to the center-left, but that’s moderated by the fact that in order to win, Labour have been very, very cautious about their program.

You know, they’ve basically accepted the kind of spending envelope that they’ve inherited. They’re not planning to splash cash when they come in at all. And they’re also, what they say now, is they’re not planning to reopen the question of our relationship with the European Union. I don’t think that’s true, but that’s what they’re saying.

Rosin: You know, it’s interesting what you said about the British economy. It’s not how I think about it. I generally think of the U.K. as a pretty well-to-do, prosperous place.

Lewis: I think it’s very hard, maybe, for Americans to realize when the bits of British culture they consume are—you know, maybe it’s Downton Abbey or Doctor Who or whatever it might be, but Britain is a much poorer country than America. By European standards, it’s not doing too badly, but by American standards, you know, we do not drive as nice cars as you do. We do not live in these bigger houses as you do, on average.

Rosin: Mm-hmm.

Lewis: And so, the public realm has felt like it’s really fraying. At the moment, about one in five people are on a waiting list for medical care under the National Health Service. And that’s huge. There are quite a big number of people in that 50-to-64 age group who haven’t gone back to work full time since COVID-19. Now that might be that they’re suffering from, you know, the aftereffects of COVID-19. That might be that they’re, say, waiting for a knee operation or to see someone about their heart trouble or whatever it might be.

And they are just sort of stuck on those waiting lists. And this is a really big problem for the Conservatives, particularly because their voting base is so old. So they’re fishing in a pool of, you know, We’ll protect pensioner benefits. We’ll protect pensions. But then, also, that is exactly the same group that is most in need of medical care and is most probably, therefore, likely to be waiting, languishing on a waiting list, waiting to see, you know, a specialist doctor.

Rosin: Right. Okay. So this isn’t sort of abstract budget issues. These are sort of day-to-day, real-life issues. Was there something, if you look back at Conservative rules—so forget about the politics—that people look back on, and they said, Oh, the Tories mishandled the economy in this or that way, and that’s why they’re even relatively worse off in the last eight years than the U.S.?

Lewis: Well, this is my personal opinion. But yes, I think the entire program of what was called austerity under David Cameron and George Osborne in the early 2010s was a mistake. That was a time when interest rates were low. We could have borrowed money to invest in public services. Instead, they went through a big program of cutting back the state.

In Britain, local authorities are responsible for social care. So if you need at-home care, you know, either as a vulnerable adult or as a child, those things are in the gift of councils. And so council budgets have been stripped back hugely.

You know, they probably did have some fat in them, coming out of the Labour years and, you know, they coasted downhill on some of that, but the gaps have really begun to show now, and things do look quite threadbare, I think.

[Music]

Rosin: Alright, so we’ve discussed the Conservative Party and what went wrong during their time in power. So what would the country look like under Labour? That’s after the break.

[Music]

Rosin: Okay, Helen, we’ve talked a lot about the Tories, but it seems like Labour is the one that are about to be in control. So what’s up with them?

Lewis: Well, Labour has had an absolutely wild transformation in the last five years. In 2015, Labour lost to the Conservatives, you know, I think one that they were perhaps hoping to win. And at that point, the members elected Jeremy Corbyn, who was a lifelong backbencher—you know, a thorn in the side of the Labour leadership. He was a socialist. He was anti-war. He was anti-imperialist. You know, he came from that very particular left, hard-left tradition.

Rosin: Uh-huh.

Lewis: And he was absolutely terrifying to the conservative press. You know, it turned out he did not too bad in the 2017 election, admittedly against a very poor opponent in Theresa May.

But by 2019, people had really bought the idea that he was (A) not up to it and (B) you know, kind of a radical leftist, essentially. And so Keir Starmer was selected as Labour leader, not entirely promising a complete break with the Corbyn years. He said that Corbyn hadn’t done enough on anti-Semitism within the party.

But he certainly didn’t come in saying, I want to smash up every bit of Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy. But that is what he’s done.

Rosin: So he is basically a centrist.

Lewis: Well, is he? This is the question. If you look at his life and record, you know, he was a human-rights lawyer. As a teenager, he was at school with Andrew Sullivan. And Andrew Sullivan says, you know, I was a kind of Reaganite, and he was a Eurocommunist.

Rosin: Interesting.

Lewis: Yeah. So, you know, he has obviously been on a political journey, even himself. And the question is: How much of that is that’s where he thinks the voters are, and how much of that is a genuine conversion? But, essentially, what happened was that the team around him identified the fact that the only way to win the election was to move to the center, which is what Tony Blair, the kind of great Labour leader who won in Labour terms—you know, won this massive majority in 1997—said: Elections are won from the center.

And so the analysis that Labour made was, We don’t want to pile up votes in the cities and university towns. Where we want to win is we want to win back that red wall of those Northern English seats. Every voter we win back from the Conservatives is kind of worth double, given that we’re the only two parties that might lead the country.

And so they moved really definitively to the center, both in economic terms and in cultural terms. Starmer and his deputy, Angela Rayner, took the knee during 2020 and posted a photo of themselves doing that. And I don’t think they would do that now. You know, now they’d be much more likely to be talking about, you know, how important the English flag was and patriotism is, and all those reassuring messages to voters in the middle and small-C conservative voters.

Rosin: Interesting. So what does that look like in practice? Like, take culture-war issues. I mean, they’re very much alive in the U.S. Did they just tamp them down and sort of not talk about identity-culture issues?

Lewis: They’ve tried to neutralize that as much as possible. So, take gender, which is a subject that I cover a lot. The other Labour candidates, when they were standing for election in 2020, signed a pledge, pledging to bring in self-identification of gender and also to prescribe a couple of feminist groups, saying that they were kind of anti-trans bigots.

Keir Starmer declined to sign that pledge. He signed a milder version of a kind of trans-rights pledge. And ever since, Labour has tried to tack a course down the middle of saying, Of course, women have some legitimate concerns, but we’re also a party of equality.

I don’t think they’ve entirely threaded that needle yet, because J. K. Rowling has been out criticizing them for kind of sitting on the fence and not really, you know, fully committing to one position or another. But they’ve certainly moved a long way from where they were under Jeremy Corbyn on that issue.

They’ve moved a long way from where they were in the Jeremy Corbyn era on, say, immigration. You know, our support for Ukraine would be another one. Israel has been a particularly tricky issue for Keir Starmer because there are lots of Labour MPs with very strong Muslim populations in their wards, and for those voters, we know that Gaza is a big issue, and Labour was quite slow to call for a ceasefire. And that’s been something that’s been thrown against some of their candidates in, say, some of the Birmingham seats, for example.

Rosin: Does J. K. Rowling have influence in a U.K. election?

Lewis: Yes. I mean, in cultural terms, yes. You know, she was the splash on the Times when she wrote that piece. But, you know, I don’t think she will move an enormous amount of votes, just simply because I think Labour is piling up votes where it needs to be. And I think although gender is an issue that matters to lots of people in the U.K., I’m not sure how many people, you know, would vote on culture first rather than economics.

Rosin: Uh-huh.

Lewis: And I think that’s the lesson that the Conservatives have learned in this election, that culture wars are all very well when, you know, there’s nothing else to talk about. But most people are not going to vote on a culture-war basis if the main thing that they’re worried about is, I can’t pay my mortgage, and I’ve been waiting for two years for a hip replacement.

Rosin: Right. So it’s just economic issues. Like, economic issues rule the day. But now Labour is going to inherit all those economic issues. So do you get the sense that they have some plan to deal with these difficult things?

Lewis: Yeah, I mean, I think, I think you will have an incredibly difficult job because the fundamentals of the British economy are in a bad way. And the levers that you would pull are rejoining the single market and also building an enormous number of houses so that young people can more efficiently distribute themselves and live in the places where there are jobs.

And both of those policies have big losers to them. You know, lots of people’s entire wealth now, particularly older people, is built into the idea of their house. That’s their nest egg. That’s their pension. That’s how they might hope to pay for social care if things go really wrong. And you know, also, they like their view. They like their amenities. They like everything being as they bought it. They don’t necessarily want a big tower block next to them, or whatever it might be.

And so, you know, he’s going to have real difficulty in enacting policies that have losers.

Rosin: Right. One thing we haven’t talked about and completely left out of this potential future picture is the Reform Party. Can you explain what that is and what’s going on with them? Because it’s important.

Lewis: So if you’ve ever seen a kind of guy in a strange blazer with a slightly, kind of, froggy smile beaming next to Donald Trump, that is Nigel Farage.

Rosin: (Laughs.) You guys are so much liberally meaner than we are in certain ways. It’s so delightful. Anyway, yes.

Lewis: I mean, that’s who he is. Someone pointed out he looks a lot like—he’s been wearing this white, striped blazer, which is kind of a cricket blazer, and—he does look like the bad archaeologist in the Indiana Jones films.

Anyway, he is an extraordinary character in British politics. He was involved in a party called the U.K. Independence Party. So he’s privately educated, then he went to work as a city trader, and then he got involved in Eurosceptic politics throughout the ’90s, when that was a kind of fringe obsession of the right, of the Tory Party. And he served several terms as a member of the European Parliament, all the time campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.

And then he really kind of came to prominence when that tendency picked itself up in the Conservative Party. And it became the thing, if you wanted to become a Conservative member of Parliament, you said to the electorate. You know, you said, of course, I’m very much in favor of leaving the EU, whether you meant it or not.

And so we end up in this weird position where the pressure was so great on the Conservative Party to grant a referendum that David Cameron put it in the manifesto for 2015, hoping that it would be traded away in any coalition deal with the Lib Dems, unexpectedly won a majority in 2015, and then actually had to do it.

At which point, Nigel Farage sort of bloomed onto the stage. He then helped win this incredible victory for Brexit. And that was seen, you know—the prime minister thought that was a bad idea, and people voted for it anyway. And the prime minister then had to step down.

Rosin: So Nigel Farage is sort of most associated with the pure core of Brexit, Brexiters.

Lewis: Right. And then he sort of seemed to get a bit bored with the tiny, piddling politics of the U.K. and started going to the Conservative Political Action Conference—you know, the very big right-wing jamboree.

Rosin: CPAC. Nigel Farage was at CPAC. So I’m getting a picture of someone who’s endlessly trying to differentiate themselves while the Conservative Party is endlessly trying to co-opt him.

Lewis: Yeah, kind of. Yeah. And I think he was also very useful for that. As I say, the print newspapers, which is still very powerful in British political culture, what they found Nigel Farage and his various incarnations useful for is for stiffening the sinews of the Conservative Party—you know, saying, Well, if you don’t give the proper Brexit, if you don’t cut back immigration, then people are going to vote for Nigel Farage. Look how incredibly popular he is. And he’s got incredible name recognition. I was looking it up—YouGov found that 98 percent of people in Britain have heard of him. He’s an incredibly popular figure with his supporters.

And this has been a problem for the Conservative Party, which I think is analogous to the Republican Party, which is: The non-radical, disruptive, “Drain the swamp,” “Tear it all down,” “I want to see the world burn” elements have lost the ability to argue for their own values as a positive thing.

Yeah, the center-right has just lost the knack for making compelling arguments for its own policies, in their own right. And that’s something that I think that both the Republicans and the British Conservatives have kind of struggled with lately.

Rosin: Interesting. Okay, that is very similar. He’s not the leader of the party the way Donald Trump is, but he’s the leader of a kind of energy, whereas the Conservative Party has failed to articulate itself or any other vision, whereas for him, you know what he stands for.

Lewis: Right.

Rosin: Okay, so just to end exactly where we started, there is a chance then that 2024 ends with Nigel Farage having power, Donald Trump having power, and at least in charge of the right-wing parties?

Lewis: Well, that’s the complicated wrinkle here, which is: Nigel Farage’s Reform Party is expected to win—at maximum—four seats. I think he might very well become a member of Parliament.

But, realistically, what they’re most likely to do is act as a spoiler. You know, in seats that are marginal, that once were a very safe Conservative seat, and now Labour are a strong challenger, if the Reform Party takes 5,000, 10,000 votes, that will hand that seat to Labour. So he isn’t in power so much as he’s a dealmaker and a kind of deal-breaker for the Conservatives. But you’re right—he does have an enormous amount of power because he will just be in Parliament, with all the privileges that that means after this election.

And the Conservatives will be going through a leadership election—because Rishi Sunak will leave—and one of the big questions for the next leader will be, you know, Would you let Nigel Farage join the Conservative Party? You know, Where is the future of your party? What do you think he’s got right and is popular that you’ve got wrong?

And so, you know, I think Britain has been relatively unusual in Europe, in that there hasn’t been this big, radical-right surge within the system, in terms of getting seats, just because of the way that our elections work.

But if you look across Europe—you have Giorgia Meloni in Italy, you have Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, you have National Rally (which used to be Front National) in France, you have Viktor Orbán in Hungary—you know, there are big populist-right parties that are doing extremely well. And so far, we haven’t had that energy represented in Parliament in quite the same way. And the question is, a bit like Trump and the Republicans, is there some vision of this in which Nigel Farage manages to make the Conservative turkeys vote for Christmas and reverse take over their party?

Now, I think they’d be mad to do that, but they have done a series of other things that I also think are mad, so I can’t possibly rule it out.

Rosin: Right. Okay, so we don’t know the actual details, but what we do know is there’s a populist-right force—both countries. There’s a Conservative Party slash Republican Party looking for an identity. There’s a Labour Party that’s doing well in the U.K., and we don’t know what happens to the Democrats. So those are basically the three forces in play.

Lewis: Yeah, I think you can look at the picture and see some of the similar underlying forces. And the twin things about what do voters want, there are obviously a big block of voters in both countries who want competence, right? They want a government that they basically don’t have to think about. They want things just to work and not really have to hear about politics.

And then there is a sizable block of voters in both countries who are angry and disenfranchised, and want a bit of energy and chaos, and want, kind of, some of the system to be torn down.

So those are both competing factors in both countries, I would say.

Rosin: Right. Okay, well, I understand this so much better now. Thank you so much, Helen, for explaining it to all of us.

Lewis: Thank you very much for having me.

[Music]

Rosin: This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by Kevin Townsend. It was edited by Andrea Valdez, fact-checked by Yvonne Kim, and engineered by Erica Huang. Claudine Ebeid is the executive producer of Atlantic audio, and Andrea Valdez is our managing editor. I’m Hanna Rosin. Thank you for listening.

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