A Global Lesson from Britain’s Crumbling Conservative Party

“We did it,” Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, announced to a rapturous crowd of supporters on Dec. 13, 2019. “We pulled it off.”

Johnson was referring to the Conservative Party’s landslide electoral victory, which gave it an 80-seat majority in Parliament. But it seemed at that moment that the Conservatives might have also pulled off a trickier maneuver, one that many other parties of the mainstream right had struggled to land: consolidating a broad-based conservative majority despite an insurgent far right.

The unity of the Conservatives, often known as the Tories, had for years been threatened by an anti-E.U., anti-immigration movement that prioritized social concerns over economic ones. Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016 was in many ways a triumph of the hard right over the center, and it led to the resignation of David Cameron, a more centrist Conservative prime minister.

But on that December day, it appeared that the Tories under Johnson, a Brexiteer who promised to crack down on immigration while also pledging to boost public services, had managed to fend off the threat.

Less than five years later, things look very different. Last week’s local elections in England suggested the 2019 coalition has shattered, and many analysts believe the Conservatives could be headed for a wipeout in a general election expected in the fall. What happened?

The answer offers lessons not just about British politics, but also about the dynamics that have fueled the far right in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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