UK Politics: Ten more years of the Tories?

David Cameron and Boris Johnson
Cameron and Johnson in 2015 as PM and London Mayor respectively
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With next week marking a decade since the Conservatives came to power Max Liu looks back at the Cameron and May years and ask what's next for the Johnson government?

"How Johnson handles Britain's response to the pandemic, or perhaps how he is perceived to have handled it, could define his premiership and determine the outcome of the next general election which is [1.56] to be in 2024."

Next week it will be a decade since the Conservatives came to power in the UK. The general election of 6 May 2010 was the first since 1974 to result in a hung parliament and, after an uncertain few days of bargaining, the Tories took power in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. There was no question which was the senior partner, however, with David Cameron's Tories holding 306 seats and deputy PM Nick Clegg's Lib Dems on 58.

Cameron's failure to win a majority in 2010 against an unpopular Labour government, that had been in power for 13 years, is often underestimated when considering the key political blunders of the 21st-century. He should have swept to power with a comfortable majority and his failure to do so looks with hindsight like a harbinger of the complacency that would do for his premiership six years later.

Clegg and Cameron 956.jpg

Cameron's years in Downing Street were the most stable of the past decade. The anticipated rifts with the Lib Dems never materialised as the spineless Clegg went along with Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne's radical austerity plan. The referendum on electoral reform, which was Clegg's key demand before entering coalition, was a non-event, with the status quo prevailing comfortably.

The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, however, was closer than expected and has left the issue unresolved to the degree that it's possible we'll see another referendum during the next decade.

In 2015, Cameron won a majority while the Lib Dems were reduced to eight seats. One year later, it was as though that victory had never happened as Cameron was condemned to eternal political ignominy when he called and lost the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. It cannot be overstated how much of a shock this was - Remain traded at [1.16] on the Exchange on the morning of the vote - and the country has been reeling from the consequences ever since.

Crushed by the saboteurs

Will history judge Cameron's successor Theresa May more kindly? She certainly didn't enjoy much luck in office and, after a strong start in the summer of 2016, made the fatal error of holding the third general election of the Tory decade the following spring.

May lost her majority and was forced to spend the rest of her premiership ricocheting between Brussels, where her Brexit plans were given short shrift by the EU, and Westminster where her Brexit plans were given short shrift by MPs.

May in Brussels 956.jpg

She was consistently undermined by figures in her own party. Principal among them was Boris Johnson who spent his time as foreign secretary, and the months following his resignation in protest at May's Brexit deal, plotting his own ascent to the top job.

Ten more years?

Johnson strolled to victory in last summer's leadership contest and, less predictably, lead the party to its biggest election victory for more than 30 years in December. It was a conclusive end to a decade of political upheaval which many commentators thought left the way clear for a more straightforward 2020s. Johnson said he wanted 10 years in power and looked unassailable.

But so far the new decade has been anything but predictable and, in an interview published today, Johnson has revealed that he came close to dying from coronavirus last month. How he handles Britain's response to the pandemic, or perhaps how he is perceived to have handled the pandemic, could define his premiership and determine the outcome of the next general election which is [1.56] to be in 2024.

So far the signs are positive for Johnson, with a poll from the consistently reliable Survation this week showing the Tories 17 points ahead of Labour and, crucially, gaining support.

That's reflected in the betting with the Tories [1.77] to win most seats at the next election. Bettors are less enthusiastic about their chances of winning a majority, however, with the current price [2.74] - marginally longer than a hung parliament [2.72].

It's been pointed out that government's often gain support during a crisis and lose it afterwards when the implications become clearer and public inquiries begin. Winning a big majority - Johnson's is 80 seats - is no guarantee of longevity. Margaret Thatcher's majority was 102 after the 1987 election but she was gone three years later. Further back, however, Harold Macmillan lead Britain through the pandemic of 1957 before increasing his majority to 100 in 1959.

Ten years ago Cameron failed to win the most winnable of elections but subsequent elections have show it remains true that the Tories know how to triumph in the most unpromising circumstances. They ruled Britain for 18 years under Thatcher and John Major between 1979 and 1997 - a record for a party in the postwar period. Will the Tories surpass that this time? The past decade has taught us never to underestimate them.

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