Seven moments over 14 years that destroyed the Conservative government

The five prime ministers during 14 years of Conservative government - David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak.
The five prime ministers during 14 years of Conservative government - David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.

When Boris Johnson was elected in 2019 with a Conservative majority of more than 80 seats, smashing Labour’s stronghold on its northern ‘red wall’ heartlands, the path back to Labour victory looked long and winding.

But just four-and-a-half years later this majority was swept away in a historic landslide in Labour’s favour, handing Keir Starmer the keys to 10 Downing Street and condemning the Conservative Party to electoral oblivion.

Today, the party holds 121 seats - down from 365 in 2019. It has lost a host of high-profile MPs and is searching for a new leader after Rishi Sunak announced he was standing down.

We take a look at the seven moments that brought down the Tories.

Boris Johnson says he’d rather “let the bodies pile high” than call another lockdown

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures at a remote press conference to update the nation on the covid-19 pandemic, inside 10 Downing Street in central London on September 30, 2020, the 100th coronavirus briefing since the pandemic hit the UK. - New restrictions are being introduced as infection rates rise again, with some 16 million people now subject to some kind of localised rules across the UK, including bans on meeting other families. (Photo by Jack Hill / POOL / AFP) (Photo by JACK HILL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson faced criticism over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, from reportedly making inappropriate comments to being slow to take action on lockdowns. (Getty Images)

The accusations that the prime minister uttered this fateful phrase - which he denied, but multiple sources say they overheard - confirmed in voters’ minds what the UK’s sluggish response in the early days of the pandemic had already suggested.

When Covid-19 first swept Europe, Johnson was slow to act on scientists’ recommendation for a full lockdown, acting to shut the country down a week later than advisors had urged. As a result the UK had one of the highest death tolls in Europe from the first wave of the virus.

By the time Johnson made these memorable comments later that year, the mishandling of hospital discharges by the then health secretary Matt Hancock had led to a large number of deaths among elderly people as the virus spread from wards to vulnerable care home residents.

Meanwhile, a review of Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative, designed to kickstart the hospitality economy once pubs and restaurants reopened, found that it had caused the second wave of the virus to spread more rapidly in the early autumn of 2020.

File photo dated 07/08/20 of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak placing an Eat Out to Help Out sticker in the window of a business during a visit to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, Scotland. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are awaiting the results of a poll of Conservative Party members deciding which of them has been selected as the new party leader, and will become the next Prime Minister. Issue date: Monday September 5, 2022.
The Eat Out to Help Out scheme launched by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak - who later became Prime Minister - was found to have helped kickstart the second deadly wave of Covid-19 cases. (Getty Images)

The Queen sits alone at Prince Philip’s funeral

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II sits alone in St. George’s Chapel during the funeral of Prince Philip, the man who had been by her side for 73 years, at Windsor Castle, Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. Prince Philip died April 9 at the age of 99 after 73 years of marriage to Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. (Jonathan Brady/Pool via AP)
This image of the late Queen Elizabeth II sitting along in St George's Chapel during the funeral of Prince Philip on 17 April 2021 became a symbol for her resilience and sense of national duty. (Jonathan Brady/Pool via AP)

In April 2021, due to social distancing rules, a frail Queen Elizabeth II sat alone in an empty pew at the front of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle paying her final respects to her husband and companion of over seven decades, Prince Philip. The heartbreaking image captured the stoicism of our longest-reigning monarch at a time of national crisis.

But from November that year, when the partygate affair broke, the photograph came to represent something else too: the gulf between the monarch’s sense of national duty and a prime minister who had presided over a government that had both set the rules for others and then broken them behind closed doors.

Over a series of weeks, it emerged that at least 10 parties were held inside Downing Street or by Conservative Party staff during the months that London was under some form of restrictions. One was held on Boris Johnson’s birthday in June 2020, for which at least three attendees received a police fine.

Damningly, two parties were held by Downing Street staff on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral. The shot of Her Majesty alone at her husband’s funeral became a symbol of the hypocrisy that would ultimately bring down Boris Johnson.

Chris Pincher sexual misconduct scandal forces multiple ministers to resign

Minister of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) Christopher Pincher in Downing Street, London, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson reshuffles his Cabinet. Picture date: Tuesday February 8, 2022.
Christopher Pincher was appointed a minister despite then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson being aware of allegations over his conduct. (Getty Images)

Chris Pincher, the former Tory deputy chief whip, was accused of assaulting two people at London’s exclusive Carlton Club in June that year. It was Johnson’s poor handling of the affair - during which it emerged that Pincher had already been investigated internally for his conduct three years earlier - that angered voters and his own ministers, many of whom resigned in protest.

An investigation into the case found that the prime minister had been made aware of this earlier allegation before he appointed Pincher to the government whip’s office. Downing Street first denied being aware of the earlier allegations, but Lord McDonald went public to confirm that Johnson had been briefed “in person” about a complaint dating back to 2019 leaving Johnson to claim he had forgotten about it.

It was the final straw for a prime minister whose government had been dogged by sleaze scandals. In 2022, Tory MP Neil Parish had been forced to quit his seat after admitting to watching pornography on his phone while sitting in the House of Commons.

In 2020, former Deal MP Charlie Elphicke was imprisoned after being found guilty of three counts of sexual assault against two women. A year later Rob Roberts, MP for Delyn, was found by a parliamentary panel to have made repeated inappropriate comments and sexual advances towards a member of staff. He was suspended for 12 weeks but then allowed to rejoin the party. Johnson’s failure to handle recurrent allegations of sexual misbehaviour in his party, culminating in the Chris Pincher affair, led directly to his resignation and appointment of Liz Truss as prime minister.

Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng performs an abrupt U-turn on his plan to axe the 45p upper tax rate

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng delivers his keynote address on the second day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, on October 3, 2022. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)
Together with former Prime Minister Liz Truss, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng became responsible for destabilising the British economy with their disastrous budget. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP)

After Liz Truss was elected Conservative leader by party members and took the keys to 10 Downing Street she appointed long-term friend and confidante Kwasi Kwarteng as chancellor. The pair drew up a disastrous budget which involved making huge tax cuts without finding alternative support for public services.

The drastic move spooked the money markets and destabilised the British economy, with immediate effects for voters, including a sudden and rapid rise in mortgage borrowing costs. It also exposed how divorced Truss apparently was from her own party.

As Truss attempted to restore economic stability, Kwarteng reversed his plan to axe the upper rate of tax, which sits at 45p in the pound for anyone earning over £150,000 a year. It wasn’t enough to repair either the economy or Truss’s administration. She held the post of prime minister for just 46 days, before being replaced with Rishi Sunak by party members.

Nothing encapsulated the brevity of her tenure than the comparisons made to her time in office with a lettuce by the Daily Star. The tabloid did a livestream of an iceberg lettuce next to a framed photograph of the prime minister. This followed an opinion piece in The Economist which compared her expected tenure to a lettuce.

NHS junior doctors and consultants stage an unprecedented joint walk out over two days

Junior doctors and consultants Medical consultant on the picket line outside University College Hospital, London, amid their dispute with the Government over pay. Picture date: Wednesday September 20, 2023. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)
Ongoing disputes with junior doctors and medical consultants, who have walked out in strikes numerous times, continue to plague Conservative ministers. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

Tensions between Conservative ministers and public sector unions have raged since the pandemic, with workers struggling to cope on wages that have been suppressed since 2010 when David Cameron and George Osborne launched the first Tory austerity drive.

Strikes hit multiple industries causing delays and frustration, as teachers, paramedics, midwives, nurses, train drivers, tube staff, civil servants, academics and staff in the passport office all staged walk outs over pay and conditions. By January 2024, strikes in the NHS alone had cost the country £1.5bn, according to The King’s Fund.

In September last year, junior doctors and consultants walked out over two consecutive days. It was the first time that consultants had staged a strike and represented a new low in the relationship between government, public services and their staff, and the nation’s voters. At the time of writing, the dispute with junior doctors was still ongoing.

Rents rise by 7 per cent in just one year in London as the cost of living crisis bites

turning the boiler down
Soaring energy bills forced many to choose between 'eating and heating'. (Getty Images)

In 2023 voters began to see how failure to address a number of social issues were affecting their lives. It was not only homeowners who found their housing costs rise under the Conservatives after Liz Truss’s disastrous budget; those in private rented accommodation are facing unprecedented rises too due to intense demand for a shrinking number of properties.

The situation is worsening since landlords with mortgages are finding their business costs increasing too - which they are either passing on to tenants, or forcing their hand to sell up.

Meanwhile energy costs have remained high despite an end to government support for households in meeting high bills, and food prices have also rocketed in the last five years. Although inflation - which hit highs of 9 per cent in 2022 - has now come down to under 3 per cent, the cost of living based on the consumer prices index is still climbing.

Wages are now slowly growing but voters are still feeling the pinch.

Rishi Sunak leaves D-Day celebrations early to take part in a TV interview

VER-SUR-MER, FRANCE - JUNE 06: President of France, Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak attends the UK Ministry of Defence and the Royal British Legion’s commemorative event at the British Normandy Memorial to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day on June 06, 2024 in Ver-Sur-Mer, France. Normandy is hosting various events across significant sites such as Pegasus Bridge, Sainte-Mère-Église, and Pointe du Hoc, to officially commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings that took place on June 6, 1944. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Rishi Sunak with Emmanuel Macron at the D-Day commemorations, before he left early sparking a major backlash at home. (Getty)

After announcing the surprise election date of 4 July in the rain without an umbrella, the prime minister then went on to suffer an appalling first three weeks of campaigning. One of the first events he attended was a visit to Belfast’s Titanic Quarter - which for a prime minister about to be sunk by a surging opposition with a 20 point poll lead, demonstrated an embarrassing lack of foresight and opened the door for endless jokes on social media.

He made a more grave error, miscalculating the public mood in choosing to leave the international celebrations marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings early in order to record a television interview as part of his election campaign efforts.

Although he apologised, the move appeared to highlight elements of his personality that voters felt were unsuited to the role of prime minister. It also contrasted with the actions of both Keir Starmer and former prime minister, now foreign secretary, David Cameron who took part in the full ceremony.