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Britain’s Conservative catastrophe

Lessons from the U.K. election—and a warning to conservatives everywhere


Then–British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak returns to No. 10 Downing St. in London after his call for an election on May 22 in the pouring rain Associated Press/Photo by Kin Cheung

Britain’s Conservative catastrophe
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Britain’s national election was held, ironically enough, on July 4. Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had adopted the risky strategy of calling for a quick national election months ahead of schedule. Sunak was desperate for a political play that might change, avoid, or at least mitigate the catastrophe his Conservative Party faced when an election was held. His strategy was a total failure. Britain’s Conservative Party, one of the most successful and powerful political parties in history, now faces legitimate questions about its political survival.

How could this have happened? Sunak is now a former prime minister and the new prime minister is Keir Starmer, the decidedly bland leader of Britain’s Labour Party. The conservatives had held power for 14 years and had long been considered the nation’s “party of government.” The Conservatives, sometimes referred to as “Tories,” are the party of Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, and Margaret Thatcher. They have been the unquestioned political establishment for the nation and its parliamentary system. That establishment is now broken. The party has been broken. In reality, it broke itself.

When the election results came in, Labour had won 411 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons—a landslide of epic proportions. The Conservatives lost 244 seats won in the previous election and held onto only 121. It was a wipeout from which the party may not survive. Britain’s party of government has lost its reputation for competence, and voters were ready to see them go. Starmer’s Labour Party ran on a very fuzzy set of policies and proposals, but this was not an election about big ideas. It was an election over basic competence and voter frustration. The Conservatives’ 14-year hold on power was through five prime ministers. The party had exchanged the political and moral clarity of the Thatcher years for a mess of incoherent policies and ruinous scandals.

Historians may well argue that it was the 2016 Brexit vote that broke the party. Prime Minister David Cameron, faced with a challenge to his Tory establishment (Eton and Oxford) pro-European worldview, stunned the political class by putting Brexit to a vote. He was sure it would lose. It won. Britain voted to exit the European Union. Cameron was destroyed in terms of political credibility and accordingly resigned. He was followed by no less than four Conservative Party prime ministers. First came Theresa May, who then gave way to the populist (and near cartoonish) Boris Johnson. He would eventually go down in a crisis over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that he had thrown a party in violation of the policies he enforced on the British people. Johnson was followed by a true conservative, Liz Truss, who went on to make history as the prime minister with the shortest term in British history: 49 days. Truss was followed by Sunak, a technocratic politician of enormous personal wealth (and his wife is even wealthier), whose tumultuous term in office saw a general breakdown of the British welfare state (certainly in terms of wait times and competence), rising inflation, and massive citizen unrest. Not a good look for a wealthy prime minister with a country estate in the U.K. and an expensive house in California. Oddly enough, it also turned out that Sunak held a coveted green card from the United States. Again, not a good look for a British head of government.

The Republican Party in the United States would do well to look at the catastrophe of the Conservative Party in Britain and learn the lesson fast.

Sunak announced his party’s bid for another term in office with his call for a quick and unexpected national election. His announcement was in itself a massive political disaster. The prime minister was determined to open his campaign with a major speech outside of No. 10 Downing St., the iconic residence of British prime ministers. He continued giving his address in what became a heavy rain. By the time he finished (which no one remembers for its content), he was standing in a soaking suit looking like a man experiencing a tidal wave. That’s exactly what Sunak and his party were facing.

There will be many in the United States who will point to the Conservative Party’s defeat in Britain as a failure of conservatism. In this case, that is nonsense. The Conservative Party had abandoned conservative principles and, in one of the weird ironies of the situation, the formerly socialist Labour Party seemed more conservative in personality if nothing else.

This disastrous run of supposedly conservative prime ministers began with Cameron, who in 2012 infamously came out in favor of same-sex marriage with these astounding words: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a Conservative.” In other words, he has no earthly idea what conservative means.

Britain faces interesting days ahead. The new Labour government made a lot of promises it can’t possibly keep, and all the economic challenges that faced the Sunak government, and more, will face Starmer. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party is going to have to figure out if it intends to be conservative, or even a party at this point. The Republican Party in the United States would do well to look at the catastrophe of the Conservative Party in Britain and learn the lesson fast. If any conservative party forgets conservative principles, it will deserve to be out of power with its leaders soaking wet.


R. Albert Mohler Jr.

Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College and editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also the host of The Briefing and Thinking in Public. He is the author of several books, including The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church. He is the seminary’s Centennial Professor of Christian Thought and a minister, having served as pastor and staff minister of several Southern Baptist churches.


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