The fall of the Tories was a night to be forgotten
8 mins read

The fall of the Tories was a night to be forgotten

On The New Statesman election night party, as we waited for the exit poll at 10pm, Andrew Marr announced in his opening speech that the 2024 general election would be “remembered for a hundred years”. What we won’t forget – certainly not anytime soon – is what happened to the Conservative Party, which now has only 121 seats in parliament, its worst ever defeat, and after winning the 2019 election on the promise of a new, cross-class, pro-Brexit realignment of British politics. It was never close to happening. Levelling up – forget it. Reduced immigration and strict border controls – forget it. Piracy of Global Britain – forget it. A cascade of free trade agreements, as David Davis used to boast – forget it. By the end of the campaign, Rishi Sunak had been reduced to promising unfunded tax cuts and warning voters not to “give in” on Labour. No one listened to him. His empty, sterile brand of Conservatism is outdated, and he has been unlucky. More than defeated, he has been humiliated. He called a surprise election in the summer, standing in torrential rain outside 10 Downing Street, and then mounted a dismal six-week campaign, marked by setbacks and undermined by cynicism. At least he went out gracefully, his final speech as prime minister suitably contrite.


Apart from the Conservatives, the SNP needs to show more humility. The party was crushed in Scotland, losing 39 seats; seven of its nine seats are now the most marginal in Scotland. During the campaign, First Minister John Swinney, as unconvincing now as he was when he first became party leader in 2000-04, repeated the hackneyed notion that the majority of SNP seats at the polls would in fact be a mandate for a second independence referendum. Voters thought otherwise. The SNP presents itself as a party state: it believes that its interests and those of the Scottish people are aligned. This was always an illusion, and the independence movement has split into three parties. The intellectual energy and democratic flourishing – the writer Gerry Hassan spoke of “independence of mind” at the time – of the 2014 IndyRef campaign that so fascinated The New Statesman has congealed into something much darker and rancorous. One-party rule is bad for democracy, and the SNP is tired and complacent. The stigma of corruption remains. It was striking that Nicola Sturgeon, a pundit on ITV’s elections programme, referred to the SNP as “they”, as if she too wanted to disavow what the party and movement have become. The unity that made the SNP such a powerful election-winning machine under Sturgeon, and Alex Salmond before her, is gone. Labour’s next challenge will be to win control of the Scottish Parliament in 2026.


During the campaign, I chaired the Hertford and Stortford pre-election campaign, where I live on the Essex-Hertfordshire border. For decades, it was an ultra-safe Conservative seat. Julie Marson MP – known locally, I learned at the pre-election campaign, as “Julie Margate”, probably because she lives in Kent – ​​was a supporter of Boris Johnson. My friends and family who had written to her over the years about local issues had never received a polite reply. So it was no surprise when she declined to attend our pre-election campaign. The other candidates were engaged and well-informed, representing Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Reform. We discussed the environment, housing, transport, the polluted Stort and Lea, the common good and fielded sharp questions from the audience. When I was told Marson would not be coming, I wrote to her to ask if she would reconsider. She did not reply. Of course she didn’t. As a result she lost to 24-year-old Josh Dean of the Labour Party, who overturned the Conservative majority by more than 17,000 votes – another brick in the Tory wall removed as the whole house fell. I smiled when that result came.

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It wasn’t all good news for Labour on election night. I was saddened to see Heather Iqbal lose in Dewsbury and Batley to independent candidate Iqbal Mohamed, who believes that “our democracy has been hijacked by a corrupt, racist, brutal, apartheid and genocidal elite”. Will that be his message when people ask about bin collection and mental health services in the weekly election cabinet? Heather, who worked with Rachel Reeves, is one of the kindest and smartest people I have met in politics, but her campaign was destabilised by the sectarianism and opposition forces unleashed by Israel’s war on Gaza. Several Labour candidates endured brutal campaigns as independents and George Galloway’s Labour Party mobilised against them. Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, describes the abuse and harassment she experienced in her diary on page 13. These are not progressive new times. Ethno-religious conflict is boiling in old post-industrial hearts. The country is restless.


Yet Britain seems more stable than it did before the election was called. Labour has a solid majority of 172 in the House of Commons and a mandate for far-reaching social democratic change in the country. The Scottish National Party has been defeated, and the unity of the kingdom will not be threatened by a secessionist referendum again for a long time. This was an extraordinary general election, in many ways. The British people heard Rishi Sunak’s resounding warnings about Labour and ignored them. Now he is gone. On top of that, Liz Truss lost her seat. Jacob Rees-Mogg lost his seat. Julie Margate lost her seat. Everything has changed, changed utterly.

(See also: Why foreign affairs will define the Starmer era)

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This article was published in the July 10, 2024 issue of the New Statesman. Every choice