The UK General Election, 2024: Greek Tragedy

8 mins. to read
The UK General Election, 2024: Greek Tragedy

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Julius Caesar (1599), Act 1, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Chronicle Of A Death Foretold

A personal reflection. On 22 May, I was holed up in a charming hotel in South Devon, digesting the news that one of my oldest friends was very seriously ill. I was googling the telephone numbers of a critical care unit in central London on my mobile phone when my newsfeed suggested that there was speculation of a momentous announcement. I switched on the TV and watched Rishi Sunak emerge to his lectern in Downing Street – and get drenched. Despite the delightful surroundings, I succumbed to a terrible sense of foreboding.

Why had Rishi gone for a summer election when he could have waited until October or November when the economic backdrop might well be much brighter, given lower mortgage rates and higher consumer confidence? Tories everywhere will continue to ask this question for some time – though they will never get a convincing answer. We realised that the prime minister had become detached from reality. We learnt that he didn’t even have the good grace to visit HM The King formally to request a dissolution of parliament (which remains part of the royal prerogative). Instead, he had called him on his iPhone. What was The King supposed to say?

We Tories knew what the outcome would be from Day One – yet we had to endure six weeks of cack-handed campaigning. Mr Sunak’s early departure from Omaha Beach on 07 June during the 80th anniversary of D-Day, leaving Lord Cameron incongruously forming a quartet with Presidents Biden and Macron and Chancellor Scholz, seemed unforgivable. He had apparently left proceedings early to undertake a recorded interview with ITV. Some of us could not understand how Mr Sunak’s closest political advisors – amongst whom James Forsyth, who was once thought to be the most incisive political minds available – could have let this entirely unnecessary let-down happen. Morale amongst the pavement-troopers plummeted and never really recovered.

Overall, the campaign, from the Conservative perspective, was lacklustre. Rishi Sunak marginally outgunned Sir Keir Starmer in the TV debates by replaying the leitmotif of higher taxes. But that was never decisive because most people know that the tax-take after 14 years of Tory-led governments is back to levels last seen in the 1940s. Low-income earners (and potentially recipients of the State Retirement Pension) pay income tax at the basic rate of 20 percent on all earnings above £12,570. And British people pay 40 percent income tax on any income above £50,275. Medium-level clinicians and super-teachers are considered “rich” in this country. Allowances have been frozen. In the USA, such people would pay approximately half our level of income tax – even though their salaries are much higher.

Lacklustre may be a term too glamorous. In fact, Sunak versus Starmer mostly sounded like a tedious argument between the Accounts Clerk and the Assistant Purchasing Manager. (“We are completely out of paperclips and the draughtsmen have no pencil sharpeners”. “Well, that’s because there was a stationers’ strike – encouraged by you”). The true nature of our financial precarity – the lingering fiscal deficit, rising government borrowing and demographic headwinds – was never unpacked.

Where was the vision? The inspiration? The sense of mission? The hope for national betterment? One can forgive politicians for being number-blind (though Rishi is a numbers man): but one cannot forgive a lack of purpose. Where is this nation going? Does anybody know?

It was only on the penultimate day of the campaign (Tuesday, 02 July) when Boris Johnson swanned back from yet another holiday in the sunshine to take the podium. His electrifying speech reminded Tories up and down the land of what they had lost – and why the conspiratorial backbenchers who had unseated him were the proximate cause of their own undoing. How Shakespearian is that?

Long Night’s Journey Into Day

The IPSOS exit poll announced at 22:00 hours last night suggested that Labour would win 410 seats, the Conservatives 134, the Lib-Dems 61, Reform 13 and the SNP 10. This extraordinary reversal of fortune for the Tories was more or less in line with expectations. But as the night wore on, we realised that this was much worse than 1997 revisited. The Tories would be humbled but not obliterated. This would be their worst result in nearly 200 years – but better than the earlier predictions of apocalypse, with less than 100 seats. Or with the Tories behind the Liberal Democrats who aspired to become His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

As the results unfolded in the wee hours, the Labour victories were more or less predictable. But what was striking was that Reform was out-polling the Tories in their heartlands, coming second in many seats that Labour won from the Tories such as Swindon. As dawn broke we realised that the Tories were doing worse than the exit poll had predicted and the Lib-Dems better. Reform manged only to secure four seats of the promised thirteen – but Messrs Farage and Tice were home and dry. No doubt we shall hear much more from them.

While the one-and-only George Galloway lost his seat in Rochdale, four independent members were returned in England to make the case for Palestine. In Scotland, the SNP were humbled, losing 39 seats. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein emerged as the leading party. All of these outcomes are hugely consequential.

Just to put Labour’s victory into a recent historical perspective, yesterday they polled many fewer votes than Boris Johnson’s 13.966 million in 2019 – equal to 43.6 percent of the popular vote. Sir Tony Blair won a thumping majority in 1997 with 43.2 percent of the votes. Yesterday, Labour won just 36 percent of all votes cast. Sir Keir Starmer’s personal majority in Holborn and St. Pancras was well down on 2019. And yet, as I sign off, Labour has 410 seats and the Tories just 119. The Lib-Dems are cock-a-hoop with 71 seats.

French Connection

This is the first time in living memory that legislative elections have taken place simultaneously on both sides of the English Channel aka La Manche. Except that in the UK the legislature determines the shape of the government while in France it just legislates because ultimate executive power resides with the directly-elected president.

What both countries denote is the decline of liberal conservatism – generally labelled by political types as the centre-right. The fate of the UK Conservative Party is mirrored by that of the right-of-centre pro-market Republicans in France, themselves the direct descendants of De Gaulle’s movement which founded the Fifth Republic in 1958. Both political parties have haemorrhaged support to the radical right – aka the “hard-right”. (Though I don’t think that term is illuminating. There are huge differences between France’s RN and Germany’s AfD – but let’s not drill down into that here now).

As traditional conservative shibboleths – the traditional family, the nation, lifetime employment – have been eroded, so those who still abide by them find “progressive” conservatism problematic. In France, the Republicans are trying to work out how to deal with the Rassemblement National (RN). In the UK, henceforth, the Conservatives will be focussed on how to bring Reform to heal – because they know that unless the right-of-centre vote unites they will be out of power forever.

I’ll have more to say about the unfolding political crisis in France shortly.

Losers and Shakers

Amongst the Tory cabinet ministers and big beasts who lost their seats and offices of state were Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Defence, Alex Chalk, Penny Mordaunt, Robert Buckland, Tobias Ellwood, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and ex-PM Liz Truss. (The latter in my own constituency of Norfolk South West, which has gone Labour for the first time in years). There was no single Portillo moment – rather a great slow-motion shipwreck of the notables.

Oh, Jeremy Cobyn! Having been expelled from the Labour Party by Starmer, he won as an independent in Islington North. Do not underestimate the radically inclined allotment keepers of North London. They will not be shunted aside. If the future of the right is debatable, the future of the left is also in play.

Starmer’s Peril

Will Sir Keir Starmer still be PM in five years’ time? He will be 62 in September this year, and 66 (bus pass time) five years hence. Meanwhile, there are many ambitious younger fish in his aquarium, some of whom are far more ideologically left-wing than he is. And this morning, we have no idea who the nearly 250 neophyte Labour MPs are. Some of them may turn out to be quite sensible. And some of them might turn out to be threats to national security. All will be revealed in the fullness of time.

I approve of Sir Keir’s plan to take Friday evening’s off in order to have dinner with his family as the Sabbath falls. And I hope for our sake he sleeps the sleep of the just in the six hours of slumber that he allows himself. But he will be aware of plotters early on.

Let me have men about me that are fat –

Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.

He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2.


There are many citizens of our nation who still believe in hard work, providence, self-help, mutual respect, courtesy and civility, citizenship, the magic of markets, self-improvement, the benefits of faith and monarchy, and are aspirational to own property and other assets for their own benefit and that of their children. They cherish freedom (which, by the way, includes the unrestricted freedom of adults to love one another).

And the great blessing of the union of what is these amazing United States of Britain. I met many of them when I was in Scotland a few weeks ago, campaigning for John Lamont. (Now happily re-elected as MP for Berwickshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirk with an increased majority). John’s team was a benchmark in smooth, well-organised, tireless conviction. That is why the Conservative Party will survive – no matter how dark this dawn.

And thanks for asking. My old friend is slowly getting better, tended by his wife and daughter. It’s going to be a slog – but they have a future together. One must always get things into perspective. That is the pre-requisite of hope.

This morning, as we wait for Sir Keir Starmer to return from his audience with The King, the UK markets are as flat as pancakes. Life goes on.

Comments (3)

  • Peter Odds says:

    I enjoyed the article and I thought the quote from Julius Caesar very apt.

  • Matthew Richardson says:

    I wish your friend and his family all the best.

  • andy hancox says:

    We have to thank this author yet again for his unrivalled political insights:

    • A summer election was clearly a disastrous error as he suggests. Fourteen years is hardly long enough to judge a government; the extra six months would have made all the difference to the public mood;
    • An autumn election would clearly have given more time for the Conservative economic miracle to take effect. And also, for more investment in innovative, though undoubtedly expensive, policies such as the Rwanda scheme to transform the electoral calculus;
    • And of course he is right to bemoan the loss of Johnson. Truth, standards competence, hard work and sense of public duty are much over-rated qualities in public life. Politics is about entertainment after all;
    • He is also entirely correct to point out that at 61, Starmer will be eligible for his bus pass in five years’ time. Johnson, at 60, is much younger, fitter and more dynamic;
    • The outlook is decidedly gloomy. All we have to look forward to is higher taxes and economic mis-management under Labour. The huge achievements of the last 14 years will be reversed and the country will be at risk of being returned to the dark days of the Blair era. It’s time to move to France!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *