Politics

The Tories have seen their worst defeat in modern history. This is their legacy of failure

The electorate has cast its verdict, bringing 14 years of Conservative government to an end. Here's all the essential facts and figures on a rocky era

After 14 years of government, the Tories have changed themselves as much as they've changed Britain. Image: Big Issue composite/Andrew Parsons/Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street/Raul Mee (EU2017EE)/Flickr

Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss. Boris Johnson, Brexit bus. Four elections, referendums, David Cameron. The Conservatives will argue they didn’t start the fire, and that the country’s woes have their roots in New Labour, but the electorate has cast its verdict and, after 14 years of power, the Tories have lost the election.

The era will be remembered by some for the 2012 Olympics, the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit. Others will look back on a period characterised by austerity, Grenfell and the Windrush scandal.

Spanning five prime ministers, the reign saw the party reinvent itself over and over, from a cosmopolitan coalition, through a promise of levelling up, and ending as a populist offering begging the electorate to save it from oblivion. Now, promising change, Keir Starmer is set to walk into Downing Street just five years after Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority and power looked assured for the foreseeable future.

But how much has the country changed since the Conservatives came to power in 2010?

At a glance, from 2010 to 2023:

  • Rough sleeping: 1,770 to 3,898
  • Unemployment: 7.9% to 4%
  • Food banks: 35 to 2,900
  • NHS waiting lists: 2.6 million to 7.75 million

‘14 years of Conservative rule has made the country poorer overall’

David Cameron and George Osborne came to power and set to work with austerity. Its impact is borne out in many of the statistics you’ll read.

Wages have stagnated. Workers are £11,000 worse off than if pre-2008 trends had continued, estimates the Resolution Foundation. Living standards have lagged behind other wealthy countries since 2010, with disposable incomes growing by just 6% and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) saying the UK has sunk to the “bottom of the league”. Pensioners have done slightly better than everyone else. The country now has the highest tax burden since 1949.

Poverty has remained broadly stable since 2010, but with an increase recently thanks to inflation and the two-child benefit cap. Absolute poverty has fallen since 2010, but “slowly by historical standards”, according to the IFS. A total of 4.3 million children live in poverty, up from 3.6 million in 2010.

“14 years of Conservative rule has made the country poorer overall. While economic growth measured by GDP has continued to increase, the rate of growth slowed dramatically. The Conservative-led coalition government oversaw cuts to public spending and with it the gradual disintegration of state infrastructure, which includes education, health care, and social security, that supports a successful economy,” said Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge of the University of Derby’s sociology department.

“Meanwhile, house price inflation has continued unabated, locking large numbers of working-age people out of property acquisition. To these problems of their own creation, as the final prime minister of this long period of rule Rishi Sunak has offered no solutions. Instead, hoping a mixture of tax cuts and crude culture war policies would win over enough people to prevent an electoral drubbing by the Labour Party.”

How have the Conservatives done on key issues?

Slow progress has been made on social housing. From 2013 to 2023, the number of social rented homes fell from 4.0 million to 3.8 million, according to an estimate by the UK parliament. By 2022/23, just 15% of new affordable homes were for social rent. Before 2011 it was over half. In the 13 years before the Conservatives came to power, 362,000 new socially rented homes were built. In the 13 years from 2010 to 2023, this fell to 171,000.

All this combines to create an acute housing shortage. The National Housing Federation estimates there are 4.2m households in England with unmet housing needs.

On learning and employment, the number of people on out-of-work benefits has increased from 1.496m to 1.536m. Benefits cuts made during austerity have been credited as driving child poverty

Beyond the numbers, the benefits system, run by the Department for Work and Pensions, has been the subject of constant scrutiny. As the Big Issue has reported extensively, those living with the benefits system say it is “soul destroying”, “oppressive”, and “fuelled by decades of disability hate”.

Schools, however, have been an area of success. The PISA rankings – a global ranking used as an international benchmark for 15-year-olds’ attainment – show the UK has risen from 27th for maths in 2009 to 11th in 2023. We have risen the rankings to 13th for both science and reading. Education secretary Gillian Keegan claimed this showed England is “now firmly cemented as one of the top performing countries for education in the western world”.

Yet austerity and cuts to local authority funding are coming to bear. Teachers and education workers have warned of a crisis in special needs funding.

Communities – and the services they have access to – have changed. Nearly 800 libraries have closed. Between 2010 and 2019 more than half of magistrates courts closed. Real terms spending on prisons has decreased by 5.3% from 2010 to 2023.

Under the Conservatives, the UK has committed to reaching net zero by 2050. But in terms of delivering on that, the Climate Change Committee has reduced its confidence that the UK will meet those targets, criticising “worryingly slow” progress. The government also promised to get all the UK’s electricity from low-carbon sources by 2035. Again, however, there have been widespread warnings that this will not be achieved.

Energy security rose up the agenda after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine sent energy prices soaring, prompting an expansion of oil and gas exploration in the UK.

What have been the Conservatives’ biggest achievements?

There has been progress amid the wider economic stagnation. What do the public give the Tories credit for? The Covid vaccine rollout, equal marriage, managing the Covid pandemic before the vaccine, increasing employment, and getting a good Brexit deal, according to polling by FindOutNow.

The UK was the first country in the world to approve a Covid vaccine for use, just eight months after the Vaccine Taskforce was established.

The first same-sex marriages took place in England, Wales, and Scotland in 2014, and in Northern Ireland in 2020.

Yet Brexit has not been an unqualified hit for the Conservatives. Polling in February showed 72% of Brits think it hasn’t been a success.

What has been the biggest change?

Ultimately, how will the era be remembered now the Tories have lost the election? One view is that austerity heralded the rise of anti-establishment politics – Brexit, Corbyn, the rise of Reform, and government ministers railing against “elites”.

“If austerity had not happened, or if it had played out differently, the UK might have remained in the EU,” a study from academics at Warwick University argued.

The legacy of austerity is seen too in a public services omnicrisis, argued Iain Begg of the London School of Economics and Political Science. There is a “pervasive sense that ‘Britain isn’t working’, not dramatically so, but in a broad erosion of things we used to take for granted,” said Begg.

“Potholes unfilled, medical appointments becoming so much harder to obtain, failure to curb discharges of sewage by water companies, the sheer difficulty of contacting public agencies and resolving problems (typified by HMRC, the body charged with tax collection), frequent interruption of rail services… and so on.”

Then there is the crisis of trust and respect in politics. Following Partygate, PPE scandals, and broken promises, trust in politics has fallen to record lows.

“Across the last 14 years there has been a rapidly growing sense that politicians of all kinds simply do not respect ordinary people enough – and that the priorities of those in charge do not reflect the priorities of everyday voters as a result,” said Marc Stears, director of the UCL Policy Lab.

Stears added: “The image of the Queen mourning her husband alone, while the government hosted parties in Downing Street will stay with people for a very long time.

“And perhaps most of all, people think there is a disrespect at the heart of the continual breaking of promises. For years, the government has promised to cut immigration to “tens of thousands”, for example, when clearly the opposite has happened.

“All of this means the challenge for the next government will be to rebuild the relationship between everyday people and the politicians – rebuilding a sense of trust, respec, and service. 

“That will probably be very hard, especially as there remain huge and expensive challenges to face, but the success of the new administration will depend on it.”

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