There’s More to the Tories’ Demise Than Brexit

There’s More to the Tories’ Demise Than Brexit
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak launches the Conservative Party’s general election manifesto, in Towcester, U.K., June 11, 2024 (Press Association photo by James Manning via AP Images).

A strangely subdued atmosphere has enveloped the final days of campaigning before the U.K. general election on July 4, perhaps due to the fact that the opposition Labour Party has enjoyed 20-point leads in opinion polls over the governing Conservative Party for the past two years. As signs mount that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may have badly miscalculated in announcing elections earlier than needed, attention is already turning to the question of whether a collapse of the U.K. right, one that might mark the death of the Tory political tradition, was always inevitable.

In trying to establish when and why the Conservative Party’s death spiral began to accelerate, it’s possible to pick out several key moments as points of no return. But the vulnerabilities that have fatally weakened the party were already visible during its era of dominance. At the height of its political hegemony in the 1980s under then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the reordering of British society along neoliberal lines and a harsh approach toward those Thatcher characterized as “enemies within” gradually pushed advocates of a moderate Tory tradition to the party’s fringes.

The central role played by Michael Heseltine and other more pro-European Tory MPs in toppling Thatcher in 1990 fueled a backlash by the party’s Euroskeptic right, further amplified by opposition to the Maastricht Treaty that deepened the European Union’s integration in 1992. Not only did this infighting between rival factions lead to the disastrous electoral defeat against Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997, it entrenched divisions within the party over the U.K.’s relationship with Brussels that would culminate with the Brexit referendum on EU membership in 2016.

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