The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

British Conservatives have long won by dumping unpopular prime ministers

Will this tried-and-true tactic work again?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London on July 20. (Matt Dunham/AP)
6 min

On July 7, amid a cascade of denunciations by his Conservative Party colleagues, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his intention to resign. Johnson is a shambolic yet charismatic figure, and it’s tempting to attribute his spectacular downfall to his idiosyncratic qualities. Three decades earlier, while covering the European Commission in Brussels for the conservative Daily Telegraph, he regularly penned fabulous dispatches warning of, among others, European plans to abolish British sausages, regulate banana curves and standardize condom sizes. These outrageous columns exhibited two qualities that later defined Johnson’s premiership: Europhobia and deceit.

Yet while Johnson’s fall can be explained in part by his personal qualities, it is also a product of the Conservative Party’s instinct for knowing when to cut and run. Since 1979, Britain has had five Conservative prime ministers: Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), John Major (1990-1997), David Cameron (2010-2016), Theresa May (2016-2019) and Johnson (2019-2022). Only Major ever suffered national defeat, yet none of the other four left office on their own terms. Cameron resigned when the country voted for Brexit in 2016, while Thatcher, May and Johnson were each sent packing by their Conservative allies in Parliament — despite their undefeated record in general elections. This willingness to purge unpopular leaders helps explain how Britain’s Tories — despite a reputation as the country’s “Nasty Party” — remain by some measures the most successful political party in world history.

Thatcher’s downfall set the pattern. Her 1979 election inaugurated the contemporary political era, when the language of politics shifted from deploying the state to rolling it back. Under Thatcher, the Conservatives also won in 1983 and 1987, but with every passing year popular grievances accumulated. By 1990, after a botched effort to change local taxation, a number of her colleagues deemed Thatcher more liability than asset. Daring to do what the voters had not, they turned on the “Iron Lady.” Her coerced resignation forestalled a likely Conservative defeat when Major snatched a win in 1992. Major carried on until 1997, by which time the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had accommodated the terms of Thatcher’s Britain enough to finally capture power.

In 2010, after 13 years on the opposition benches, the Conservatives regained office in a coalition led by Cameron. Five years later they won victory outright, in part because Cameron guarded their right flank by promising Europhobic voters a referendum on membership in the European Union. In 2016, that promise came due. Despite Cameron’s personal opposition, the British public voted to leave the E.U., prompting another Conservative prime minister to resign despite not losing a general election.

The negotiation of Brexit fell to May, whose few victories as prime minister included an inglorious win — but a win all the same — over Labour in 2017. Yet colleagues to her right undermined May’s Brexit negotiations, mistrusting her deal’s retention of mutual obligations between the United Kingdom and E.U. They favored a “hard Brexit” instead, regardless of the consequences — a position that found its champion in Johnson. When May could not steer her deal through Parliament, she was forced to resign — a third recent instance of a Conservative victorious at the polls felled by her Tory colleagues.

Repeatedly since 1990, then, Conservative prime ministers have been vanquished not by the voters, but by their “honorable friends” behind them. And in the first three of those cases, these steely decapitations enabled rebounds and, eventually, victory at the polls.

Johnson’s demise, for all its backstabbing drama, fits this pattern. Soon after a thumping election victory in December 2019, his government did manage to see Brexit through. But the arrival of the pandemic soon brought a series of burdensome lockdowns, culminating in the painful “cancellation of Christmas” across South East England. Yet subsequent reporting revealed that Johnson continued to host social events — including, most outrageously, a boozy Christmas party. A stream of investigations, reports and fines into “Partygate” dominated the first half of 2022, producing a staggering 126 police citations against figures at the heart of Britain’s government. The political fallout saw the Conservatives drop a pair of special elections in June. Finally, after one last ugly scandal (standing by a chief deputy whip accused of sexual misconduct), ministers began resigning from the government at a rate unprecedented in modern times. Johnson desperately clung to power, but his options had run out.

What now? The Conservative Party’s leadership election will dominate the rest of August, culminating in the appointment of a new prime minister on Sept. 5. This process is notable less for its searching policy debates than for the machinations of what has been dubbed “the most duplicitous electorate in the world.” But while this summer’s contest has not showcased much policy diversity, it has been notable for diversity of another sort.

The Conservative Party’s membership — the “selectorate” now choosing the country’s prime minister — is older, Whiter and wealthier than Britain as a whole. Yet of the eight contenders in the first round of voting, half were women (Kemi Badenoch, Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss) and half claimed non-European descent (Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi, in addition to Braverman and Badenoch), while just a quarter were White men (the swiftly dispatched Tom Tugendhat and Jeremy Hunt). With the field now whittled down to two, Truss and Sunak, Britain’s new prime minister will either be a woman (the country’s third) or a descendant of South Asian immigrants.

Yet despite the tried-and-true Tory tactic of sacrificing wounded leaders to reset their public standing, this time could be different. While the Conservatives have had three different leaders win elections in just the past seven years, Labour has only seen four leaders win general elections — ever. Their current leader, however, might be the man for the moment. Like Johnson, Keir Starmer faced investigation for violating lockdown when he had a beer and a curry with his staff. Unlike Johnson, however, Starmer promised to resign if he were fined. A day after Johnson quit, Starmer was fully cleared. Stilted, stiff and charisma-free, Starmer carries himself like a man who has swallowed a coat rack. But British politics has lately suffered from an excess of charisma, whereas Starmer’s obvious integrity may better suit the times.

So as Truss, Sunak and their respective allies devote August to bloodying one another, Starmer stands offstage offering a contrast with the circus. At the moment, judging by the polls, he has grounds for cautious optimism. The Tories, meanwhile, hope their strategy of sacrificing leaders today for victories tomorrow might pay off one more time.