Expert: UK's Tories committing "electoral suicide" — but the far right will be back

Scholar Brendan O'Leary on the British Conservative Party's date with oblivion this week — and what happens next

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 30, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Nigel Farage and Rishi Sunak (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage and Rishi Sunak (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

By the end of this coming week, the United Kingdom will almost certainly have a new prime minister, Keir Starmer of the Labour Party. That will also bring an early end, in all probability, to the political career of Rishi Sunak, the Conservative Party's current whiz-kid prime minister, who at 44 is just about young enough to be Joe Biden's grandson. But the contest between those two distinctly unimpressive party leaders is only a footnote to the real story. 

Britain's July 4 election — yes, it's just a coincidence! — will bring down the curtain on 14 chaotic years of Tory rule under five different prime ministers. One of them, right-wing zealot Liz Truss, famously could not outlast a head of lettuce and another, Boris Johnson (basically the Monty Python version of Donald Trump), won a historic victory in 2019, engineered Britain’s final departure from the European Union and was forced to resign in disgrace less than three years later.

Labour’s impending victory is likely to be historic as well, and to signal a major reordering of British politics, with enduring and perhaps global ripple effects. The Tories — a name that precedes the official creation of the Conservative Party by more than a century — could be reduced, at least temporarily, to electoral rubble. They are expected to lose more than 200 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons (maybe a lot more) and could end up with the lowest total in their long history. Many observers expect Labour to win an unassailable supermajority of 450 or more.

But as I discussed recently with Irish political scientist Brendan O’Leary, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania with particular expertise in British and Irish politics, the scale of Labour’s presumptive big win is deceptive in some ways, and should not be mistaken for a massive surge in enthusiasm. There’s no doubt that the British people are sick of the Tories after years of seemingly endless economic, social and political crisis — but Labour will probably win about the same percentage of the overall popular vote as it did under former left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2017, when it narrowly lost to the Tories under then-Prime Minister Theresa May. The British national mood is grim, and won't get a whole lot lighter no matter how this election turns out. As Sam Knight wrote last week in the New Yorker, Starmer’s Labour Party, rebranded as barely left of center and almost anti-ideological, is poised to “win a mandate that is enormous and fragile at the same time — an electoral sandcastle.”

This reflects the peculiar effects of Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system in a multiparty democracy, where in many parliamentary districts (known as constituencies) Tory and Labour candidates will face not just each other but a centrist Liberal Democrat, a right-winger from Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant Reform UK and perhaps a Green candidate, a left-wing socialist and a quirky local independent of some kind. And that’s without considering the regional effects of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru in Wales or the distinctive sectarian parties in Northern Ireland, which is still technically part of the U.K. but doesn’t behave like one.

For O’Leary, the long-term consequences of the 2024 election could include, on one hand, Britain’s eventual return to the EU and, on the other, a reborn far-right Tory party, perhaps led by Farage and infused with MAGA-style mania. It might also mean potential independence for Scotland and, somewhere down the line, a final resolution of the ever-contentious “Irish question,” presumably in the form of unification or federation between Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland, which broke free of the U.K. just over a century ago.

Since O’Leary and I are both citizens of the small nation just mentioned — and since his published works include "Making Sense of a United Ireland" and the multi-volume study "A Treatise on Northern Ireland" — we spent several minutes discussing the minutiae of the Irish question. But let's save that for another occasion, shall we? We'll focus here on the likely outcome of Britain’s Fourth of July election, and how it contrasts with the dreary, dreadful contest ever-so-slowly unfolding on this side of the Atlantic. 

O'Leary spoke to me by Zoom from his hotel near Belfast. This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

I don't know how much of this is legitimate and how much is scaremongering or an attempt to drive turnout, but projections for this election are extraordinary. The Daily Telegraph, which is clearly a Tory newspaper, published a poll this week suggesting that Labour could win as many as 500 seats [in the 650-seat House of Commons]. That seems outlandish, in the sense that Im not aware of any British election, or any election in any parliamentary democracy, that has seen that kind of a dramatic turnaround, after the enormous victory the Tories won five years ago under Boris Johnson.

So the methodologies of the survey companies have improved, and they're now collecting a huge amount of data at constituency [i.e., district] level. So in principle, their predictions should be better than before. I'm a political scientist. I teach the bizarre nature of the winner-take-all electoral system, which is rarely fully seen in the United States because of the duopoly of two parties, even though Republicans are overrepresented, in terms of seats won in relationship to votes cast.

But in this particular election, given that Labour is likely to be solidly in the 44% range, and given that the rest of the electorate is split fairly evenly between Reform UK, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in England, and then split with the SNP in Scotland and with Plaid Cymru [the Welsh nationalist party] in Wales, these kinds of extraordinary outcomes are actually, mathematically, very feasible.

"Activists and enthusiasts in the Tory ranks, many of them, would prefer to be led by Nigel Farage. They actively want to commit electoral suicide, and Labour is, quite sensibly, not interrupting their enemies while they're making mistakes."

So if Nigel Farage manages to land anywhere in the region of 14% or 15% of the vote, and most of that will be in England, that kneecaps the Tories, although they'll still be the largest opposition party because of their regional concentration. There are outside possibilities that the Liberal Democrats might win more seats than the Tories, but Reform would have to do extraordinarily well for that that to occur. So I don't think of these as mad predictions. The current suggestion is that the range of Tory seats is from 53 up to about 114 or 115. Now, if they have 115, that would be about 17% of the seats or so. They could still have the mid-20s in percentage of the vote, but the system is incredibly cruel to parties whose vote is spread evenly as opposed to highly concentrated, as Labour's is. Labour was able to survive as a major party even when its percentage was in the low 30s because of its strong concentrations of supporters. So do I think these surveys are accurate? Yes. 

Now, they could have perverse consequences if people take it as read that Labour is going to win, and win a supermajority. It's possible Labour voters won't turn out. Labour is deliberately waging a calm, peaceful, relaxed, don't-scare-the-horses campaign that could under-mobilize their vote. On the other hand, if the Tories are reduced to basically pleading with the electorate to back them to prevent Labour getting a supermajority, that means they've already conceded — and the activists and enthusiasts in their ranks, many of them, would prefer to be led by Nigel Farage. They actively want to commit electoral suicide, and Labour is, quite sensibly, not interrupting their enemies while they're making mistakes.

So with reservations about turnout, this looks as if it's going to be worse for the Tories than 1997, when Tony Blair led a huge Labour victory. What will be extraordinarily different, as you suggested in your question, is this will be a turnaround from 2019, when Boris Johnson led a famous victory, particularly targeted on Brexit-supporting working-class Labour areas. All of those are gone. Labour's recovered them, and it's doing its best not to offend them in any way. So that will be an amazing turnaround, and it will be a testament to just how awful the Tory prime ministers have been, since 2019 in particular, though arguably long before that.

You’ve touched on this briefly, but I was thinking about the future of the Tories, who have dominated the political scene in Britain for such a long time, other than the Tony Blair “New Labour” years [from 1997 to 2010]. Where do they go from here? What strikes me about the period of Tory government you’re talking about, from 2019 to now, is that Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson almost seem to belong to different parties, in terms of ideology, political style and personality. So what happens to this historically successful party going forward, after this disaster?

It shouldn't be forgotten that although Sunak comes across as a standard neoliberal cut-out figure he did support Brexit, which no sane, intelligent economist with a knowledge of trade should have come to. So although Sunak may seem non-ideological, he's rather right-wing, both on the Brexit alignment and his targeting of immigrants. He's quite obviously appealing to the gray-haired vote: Let's bring back national service! Let's put a spine into the young! Let's make it worthwhile to work! There's a standard attack on welfare parasites, on immigrants. He's a polite and courteous man, generally, but he shouldn't be immediately coded as a standard “wet” Conservative. He isn't. He's rather right-wing by the standards of some of his predecessors. He wouldn't have become prime minister otherwise, because of the nature of the party after 2019. 

We need your help to stay independent

But you're right. There is a genuine tension between those neoliberals who would like to get back to reasonable trading relations with Europe and the populists who would like to snuff out immigration and who would be very happy to be led by Nigel Farage, crazy though that may seem. So if they do badly, that civil war inside the Tories is going to continue, and Farage is in this weird position of both presenting himself as the leader and sole owner of Reform UK and implying that, well, I'd be happy to be the leader of the Conservative Party, but it will have to be renamed and rebranded and so on. So that's a likely future. 

Up in Scotland, it'll be very interesting to see whether the new SNP leader can staunch the losses. It's remarkable for me, as a political scientist, that support for independence in Scotland has remained stable between 45% and 50% despite the travails of the SNP. So they shouldn't be written off, yet they may have a bad election. Labour is coming from having only one seat in Scotland, which used to be their safest redoubt. So any significant Labour performance will be rewarded with lots of seats in Scotland, and the Tories are going to be crushed. It's largely going to be an SNP-Labour contest, and the SNP may lose from being thinly spread out.

England is going to be a fight on the right between Reform and the Tories, with Labour doing historically well but perhaps not outstanding. In Wales, Labour has been in government for a long time. Plaid Cymru might attract a few votes because there have been leadership difficulties with Labour in Wales, but the Tories have no hope.

So I think we're talking, really, about just how bad the result will be for the Tories. And this is the most successful right-wing party in electoral democracies in the Western world. This party has been going under this name, in one form or another, since 1832, and has always been electorally competitive. Its secret has always been its ability to target the median voter, which Labour has frequently avoided doing, through cunning or ideological enthusiasm. The historic pattern has been, since the turn of the 20th century, that Labour and the Liberals have been split, and the Conservatives have frequently won. And that pattern may now change.

"This is the most successful right-wing party in electoral democracies in the Western world. The historic pattern has been that Labour and the Liberals have split, and the Conservatives have frequently won. That pattern may now change."

We might see a long period of Tory exclusion, depending, of course, on the performance of the Labour government. Underlying all this, as you can tell, is a remarkable level of volatility among the British electorate. This couldn't be talked about unless that was the case. Many of the ordinary citizens target Liz Truss in particular, who had, I think, a 50-day premiership. The head of lettuce lasted longer. [Laughter.] That period coincided, for many homeowners, with a sudden hike in the interest rates on their mortgages, which haven't gone down. So the Tories irreparably lost their reputation for economic competence under Truss, and since then Sunak has largely been devoted to staunching the bleeding.

Now, his activity on Northern Ireland, in some respects, has been commendable.

Yes. I wanted to ask you about that, of course.

He sought to make the previously-agreed arrangements work as planned. He dressed it up in the Union Jack, with as much conservative rhetoric as he could muster, thereby breaking the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. But not one single sentence, not one single clause, not one single punctuation mark of the protocol was adjusted, so the fundamental legal consequences of the U.K.'s departure from the EU is that Great Britain and Northern Ireland have separate trading arrangements with the EU. [Note: This refers to the complicated agreement struck with the EU after Brexit to avoid a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU nation.]

He wisely concluded that conducting a trade war with the EU was not the route to an electoral victory. So he avoided that. He avoided making things worse, and I think that's probably going to be the generous verdict on his premiership.

So on the 5th of July, Keir Starmer will more than likely become prime minister. Five years ago he was a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and a staunch supporter of what was widely viewed as a left-wing agenda. Since becoming leader, he has exiled Corbyn completely and reinvented himself as a non-ideological blank slate who’s prepared to manage an economic crisis. So what kind of Labour government will we see a month from now?  

I think their priority will be conveying economic stability. I think there will be some significant moves in the first budgets towards greater economic equality, with the rich paying a higher burden. I don't expect dramatic increases in public expenditure. They're resource-constrained. That's genuine, but if they can kick-start some kind of improved relationship with the EU, if trade begins to tick up, if they basically stop the U.K. from doing stupid things, there should be a partial recovery, a slow one, and they'll want to build on that in order to get a mandate. To do more exciting things in a second term, I think that's feasible.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Now, what is not known is what happens on the international scene. If there's a Trump presidency, where does that leave NATO? If there is a further deterioration in the situation in Ukraine, what happens now? It's clear that Starmer will be a champion of NATO, and he may want to get closer to other European leaders, both as part of detente and as an early move towards what he must, inside himself, really want: a return to the EU, like the bulk of his parliamentary party. They don't want to put that before the electorate now. They don't want to scare the horses, but over time, they want to be in a position to say, look, it just makes sense to go back in. But there are lots of costs to going back in, and one of the first upfront costs is the abolition of sterling [the venerable British currency]. They have to go a long way before they can get there.

There’s a rough-and-ready truism about the broad, general parallels between electoral politics in the U.K. and the U.S. Sometimes it’s obvious: The simultaneous rise of Reagan and Thatcher was no accident, and Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were both part of the same centrist, neoliberal “end of history” tendency. That parallel seems to have been broken down lately — of course Boris Johnson was compared to Trump, but he’s off the stage now. As I wrote recently, both Sunak and Starmer are a lot more like Joe Biden than like Trump.

"It's clear that Starmer will be a champion of NATO, and he may want to get closer to other European leaders, as an early move toward what he must, inside himself, really want: a return to the EU." 

So the way I think about that is that, at this stage, Nigel Farage is Trump, right? If the U.S. had reasonably fair electoral administration, and if there wasn't systematic gerrymandering everywhere, it's my view that the Democrats would have 55% of the seats and 55% of the electorate. The Republicans are a minority party who have successfully used institutional means to exaggerate their strength, and that's a big difference with the U.K., where the electoral arrangements, for all their flaws, are fair across the parties. There is no gerrymandering. Independent electoral commissions draw the boundaries and the parties accept them. There may be some negotiation at the margins, but the electoral constituencies are reasonable, the way in which elections are conducted is reasonable and the courts are genuinely depoliticized. That's a striking contrast with the U.S.

But you might argue that one of the reasons why the Tories are heading for a serious implosion is that their ideological fantasies have actually been tested. Many of the Trump fantasies have not been tested: enormous tariffs, blocking immigration, firing the Federal Reserve chairman, all those kinds of things. If they were tested, I think the implosion in U.S. economic performance would be such that Trump would have to be a dictator to survive in office.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir