Just over 100 years ago, one of the most powerful political parties in Britain was removed from office, never to come into power again on its own bat. The Liberal party – what had been the Whigs – had been in office for 17 years by 1922. During the first world war, they swapped prime minister from Herbert Asquith to the radical David Lloyd George. Given the way the war was going, the hope was that Lloyd George would be a better wartime leader.
Lloyd George was an outsider and unusual choice for prime minister. He was Welsh and, unlike Asquith, had no aristocratic connections – the third commoner to hold the position. While the ruling party leaders were Anglicans, Lloyd George was a Methodist.
Under Lloyd George, the Liberals constructed a coalition with the Conservatives, their perennial rivals. The newly formed Labour party was just making its mark. The coalition won the ‘khaki ‘election of 1919, so called to honour the returning soldiers who had fought so well.
But by 1922, Lloyd George was facing opposition within his coalition. He was accused of selling honours for donations to the party. His being an outsider did not help. Conservative MPs gathered at the Carlton Club, their favourite haunt. They decided to end the coalition and make Andrew Bonar Law (a Canadian) their choice as prime minister.
The coalition broke up. The Liberals never came to power again during the 20th century. Lloyd George had his champions among the Welsh and radicals, but conventional politics treated him like a pariah.
All this should sound familiar after the drama we have witnessed in the Conservative party over the last few weeks, not to say over the past 12 months. Disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson has always been treated as somehow ‘not one of us’ by his party. His attempt to reward his father with a knighthood has been rubbished and his entire resignation honours list has been widely mocked.
History repeats itself
Carrying the analogy further, the UK’s departure from the European Union was the Conservatives’ political equivalent of the war and Theresa May was the Asquith figure to Johnson’s Lloyd George.
Johnson displaced her, causing an election that he won by a large margin. He had impressed people with a successful stint as mayor of London. As prime minister he was liked by much of the general public. He handled some elements of the Covid-19 pandemic reasonably well by making the right decisions on buying the Pfizer vaccine and encouraging Astra Zeneca’s research. Then he messed up on social distancing, failed to follow government guidelines, had to resign as prime minister, and here we are.
On 9 June, Johnson resigned from his seat in parliament ahead of the publication of findings from an investigation into the so-called ‘Partygate’ scandal. This is retaliation for what he believes was unfair treatment. He knows that causing by-elections will expose the weakness of his party and of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Opinion polls have indicated that Labour is in the lead. Mid-term elections are always fraught with risk for the ruling party. The economic situation is not very encouraging.
The Conservative party has been divided since 2019 despite its win. Brexit has failed to deliver the good news. The economy is virtually in recession. There are strikes in many sectors. Inflation is hard to get down and rising interest rates are adding to the pain. Taxes seem to be higher than the Conservatives are comfortable with and the pandemic forced up borrowing which the Tory supporters do not like.
It is quite probable that, after some by-election defeats, Sunak will be driven to the public for a new mandate. I predict a wipe out. Labour could see a repeat of a 1997- if not 1945-style win. This could relegate the Conservative party into the doldrums as it did the Liberal party after 1922.
But the Conservative party’s troubles go much deeper than the matching dates nearly a century apart. The party has been at war with itself ever since Margaret Thatcher failed to win the first round of the leadership contest in 1991. It narrowly won the 1992 general election but since 1997 has had eight leaders in 25 years: William Hague, Michael Howard, Ian Duncan Smith, David Cameron, May, Johnson, Liz Truss and now Sunak. It is a party which has lost its centre of gravity.
Europe is the open wound which has bled the party. The Conservatives led the country into the Brexit adventure. In doing so, the party lost its normal caution and conservatism. It is hard to say which other party will take its place. Labour replaced the Liberals in 1922. Will it be the Greens in 2023?
Meghnad Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Chair of the OMFIF Advisory Council and Crossbench Peer in the House of Lords. He resigned from the Labour party in 2020 after 49 years of membership.
Image source: 10 Downing Street