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U.K.'s Conservative Party suffered its worst-ever defeat. What went wrong?


Britain has a new prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer. His Labour Party won a landslide election victory, while the Conservative Party, which had held power for 14 years, suffered its worst-ever defeat. And outside 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak offered an apology.


RISHI SUNAK: To the country, I would like to say, first and foremost, I am sorry. I have given this job my all, but you have sent a clear signal that the government of the United Kingdom must change.

SIMON: Robert Shrimsley is a U.K. chief political commentator and executive editor at the Financial Times. He joins us from London. Mr. Shrimsley, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Historic defeat for the Conservative Party. What happened?

SHRIMSLEY: Well, a number of things happened. First of all, it's important to remember they'd been in office for 14 years. No British government has ever won five consecutive election victories on the bounce. So the odds were stacked against them. On top of which, they'd been very difficult years. We had a period of austerity, which saw big cuts to public services. We had Brexit, which was obviously terribly divisive. And then, in the wake of the pandemic and the Ukraine war, we've had bad inflation, the cost of living crisis and further strain on public services.

On top of that, we had two prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, who alienated the public. Boris Johnson by holding - his Downing Street staff holding lockdown parties during the COVID pandemic, having set a rule for everybody else - his people didn't obey themselves. And then Liz Truss, who was very briefly prime minister, held a disastrous mini-budget, which shattered the Conservatives' reputation for economic confidence. So all of those things together meant that the country was just fundamentally sick of them.

SIMON: And politically, were they outmaneuvered on the right by Nigel Farage and the Reform Party?

SHRIMSLEY: It certainly didn't help that you had this split on the right, which ate terribly into their vote. I mean, historically, in Britain, there has only really been one important party of the right, and that's the Conservatives. Whereas, the parties of the left have been split between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats in particular. Well, this time, there was a major party of the right, which took 14% of the vote and did untold damage to the Conservative Party across the country. The question that's not entirely clear and we'll only begin to understand in the months ahead is whether that's a permanent feature now or whether that was simply a manifestation of the anger felt by former conservatives, and those people might over time be coaxed back.

SIMON: Parties on the right seem to be in ascendance in much of the rest of Europe, notably, of course, with France. I wonder, did that affect the Conservative Party?

SHRIMSLEY: Well, I think the point is that there's been an anti-incumbency element to what's going on across Europe, and obviously, the incumbents in Britain were the Conservatives. Therefore, the natural alternative historically has always been the Labour Party. The question now is whether Britain's Conservative Party, which has been a broad coalition of right-wing groups or sort of moderate right moving rightwards - whether that now becomes more like some of the parties that you're seeing in the European Union or, indeed, in the Republican Party in America, whether they move towards being that more nationalistic radical right grouping or whether they attempt to stay as a sort of broad coalition.

SIMON: How do you see the Tories remaking themselves?

SHRIMSLEY: That's an extremely good question and one that we're all watching with interest. And there will be a big debate now. They've lost a lot of leaders in this election. So a lot of people who might have been potential leadership contenders have lost their seats. There will be a big debate as to the real causes of their defeat. Those on the right will argue that they lost because they opened up space for Nigel Farage. They betrayed conservative principles, and they need to get back to them and take his votes from him.

Others in the mainstream will say they essentially lost because they lost their reputation for competence, for governing well and because people in Britain were not feeling better off. That's the debate that's got to be had. And, of course, there's a bit of truth in both. I veer very much towards the second explanation that, fundamentally, they lost because the country thought they were doing a very bad job and was fed up with them. But that debate will focus which way they go in terms of their future leadership and, obviously, their future direction more generally.

SIMON: Robert Shrimsley is chief political commentator at the Financial Times. Thank you so much for being with us.

SHRIMSLEY: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.