Jul. 09, 2024 |

The bill comes due. Voters in the United Kingdom gave the Labour Party an enormous victory in general elections on July 4, with 63 percent of seats in Parliament. Opinion polls forecast a Labour win for months, but the Conservative Party’s final loss of support is stunning—from 43.6 percent of the vote in the last election, in 2019, to 23.7 percent now. How’d this happen?

The Conservatives’ political performance hasn’t helped. In power since 2010, they’ve been through several years now of scandals and failures: After Boris Johnson was forced to resign as prime minister in July 2022, his successor, Liz Truss, managed the shortest tenure of any PM in modern British history. 

Meanwhile, though, Britain’s economy has been regularly lagging behind the rest of Europe and the U.S.—ever since the U.K. left the European Union in 2020. And the Conservatives’ electoral decline almost perfectly mirrors the decline in public support for their handling of the economy: In March 2020 polling by the Pew Research Center, about 47 percent of respondents said that Conservatives were best at handling the economy. That number had dropped to 21 percent by this June. Brexit, which Johnson had championed, also became a major problem for the party. In April 2021 public-opinion polling, Britons looked favorably on the decision to leave the EU, with 46 percent saying it was the right move and 43 percent saying it was wrong. But by April of this year, 55 percent now said it was wrong to leave, and only 31 percent said it was right.

In November 2021 and July 2022, Matthias Matthijs examined the U.K.’s unstable trajectory after Brexit. As Matthijs sees it, Johnson’s backing for Brexit won over many Labour voters to the Conservatives. But, Matthijs says, Johnson and other Tory elites knew that withdrawing from the European Single Market and EU Customs Union would create new barriers to trade on the continent—meaning, for whatever other benefits Brexit might bring, real economic costs. Since leaving the EU, the U.K.’s currency has weakened, and it’s experienced higher inflation than its European neighbors.