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Did that really happen? 14 years of chaotic Tory government | General election 2024

Come with me to another country, far, far away, where things are a little bit different. In this fantastical land, young people can live and work in any country in Europe. You can swim in a river without catching Weil’s disease, or see your doctor.

Things aren’t perfect in this country, but 40,000 people rely on food banks instead of 3.1 million. People live half a year longer. Five-year-olds are taller.

Reader, you’ll never guess what. That country is Britain! Or it was until 2010, when a parade of five Conservative prime ministers, seven chancellors and eight home secretaries (two of whom were Suella Braverman) climbed behind the wheel of Britain’s temperamental but mostly reliable family hatchback, and drove it into a hedge.

What the hell just happened? If you’re feeling nostalgic, or just possibly a little angry, here is a recap of the lurches, plunges and nausea of 14 years on the Tory rollercoaster.


A coalition?

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamNick Clegg surrounded by roses, with a graduate mortar board falling off.

Nick Clegg
Clegg-180 Composite: Getty/Guardian Design Team

On 6 May 2010, the first of what would become a succession of shock exit polls predicted a hung parliament, ushering in frantic horse-trading before Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats emerged the winners as kingmakers. (Or just possibly, judging by the party’s near wipeout five years later, the losers). They joined David Cameron’s Conservatives to form the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s. It would be characterised, their leaders said in a loved up Rose Garden appearance, by “freedom, fairness and responsibility”. Which may or may not be how you recall that particular government.

A significant and historic achievement was the legalisation of gay marriage. One notable victim of the coalition arrangement, on the other hand, was the Lib Dem pledge on tuition fees, for which the party is still apologising more than a decade later.


Austerity – don’t blame us

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamDavid Cameron holding a letter that says ‘I’m afraid there is no money’.

David Cameron
Cameron-460 Composite: Getty/Guardian Design Team

Talking of saying sorry, whose abject apology for their “crass”, “stupid” and “bloody offensive” actions made them “burn with shame” for years afterwards? No, not Cameron and Clegg for imposing the biggest slash’n’burn deficit-reduction programme of any advanced economy since the second world war, but rather Labour’s Liam Byrne, whose ill-judged joke to his successor as chief secretary to the Treasury was still being flapped about by Cameron five years later. Byrne’s one liner – “I’m afraid there is no money” – became the coalition’s figleaf to blame Labour for an ideological programme to slash public services, with savage social consequences.

We’re all in this together,” George Osborne, then chancellor, told the Tory party conference in 2012. Odd, then, that austerity hit disabled people nine times harder and slashed the incomes of the poorest by a tenth, while – oh look! – making no difference to the richest.


London’s burning, London’s hosting the Olympics

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamBoris Johnson zooming past on a zip wire, dropping the UK flag.

Boris Johnson on a zip wire.
Boris Johnson on a zip wire. Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

A year after the capital and other parts of England rioted following the police shooting of Mark Duggan, prompting agonised handwringing about the state we were in, London hosted the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, allowing everyone to decide that actually, weren’t we great?

The rosy glow didn’t quite spread to the politicians – Osborne was roundly booed while presenting medals – but 29 golds and new national heroes in Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis cemented Britain, we absolutely, definitely knew, as a modern, outward-looking, internationalist nation, forever committed to its NHS and delighted by its multiculturalism. Right?

Also, Boris Johnson, then the city’s mayor, made a prat of himself dangling on a wire. Oh, how we laughed.


Scotland the brave?

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamUnited Kingdom popping up and after Zcotland cleaves off and spins away

Scotland splitting from the UK
Scotland splitting from the UK Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

Should Scotland be an independent country, yes or no? Keep the pound or kick the PM? Better off together, or eff off Westminster? A febrile and at times ill-tempered referendum followed, in which Scots were warned they would lose many BBC services and the pound, Labour MPs commandeered a train, and oil-rich Shetland threatened to secede from Scotland if it left the union. Commentators seriously discussed whether the second pregnancy of the then Duchess of Cambridge could tip it for the no vote. And who knows, maybe it did – as ultimately, Scotland opted to stay in the UK.

Cameron had allowed an independence referendum to avoid “an almighty and disastrous battle” with the Scottish parliament after the Scottish national party won a majority there, he said, proving he had learned the lessons of the Battle of Bannockburn, 700 years earlier. Never let it be said Britain hasn’t got its finger on the pulse.


Tories, uninterrupted

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamConservative Logos pilling ontop of each other

Conservative logos
Conservative logos Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

Another election, another surprise: not a win for Labour’s Ed Miliband, possibly in coalition, as the polls had suggested, but an outright majority for the Tories. Miliband had been undone by a bacon sandwich, his multiple kitchens and his own oversized gravestone, though the wholesale collapse of Labour’s Scottish vote didn’t help.

His replacement, by Jeremy Corbyn, delighted Labour’s left – and many Tories. Five unbroken years to come of Cameron and Osborne, this time unhindered by coalition partners! Voters had voted for stability with them, rather than chaos with Miliband. What could possibly go wrong?


Brexit vote

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamAll of the European Union country flags moving away to reveal United Kingdom’s flag alone.

British and European flags
Brexit Flags Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

So – that stability.

There’s nothing like winning one referendum to convince you you can breeze through another, although a bucketload of Etonian self-confidence doubtless doesn’t hurt. Euroscepticism had convulsed the Tories for decades, but Cameron believed he was the man to finally stop them “banging on about Europe” with a referendum on Britain leaving the EU.

To be fair, when he confirmed the date in February 2016, bookies were offering odds of 2/7 that the UK would stay, and even as results were coming in after the vote, many thought a leave win was inconceivable. But EU inflexibility, remainer complacency and Johnson goofing around the country in a big red bus covered in lies worked their magic.

And an MP, Jo Cox, was murdered with a week to go.

Leave won, surprising campaign outrider Nigel Farage who had briefly conceded defeat, and arguably even Johnson, who was booed outside his house the next day. Cameron said toodle-oo, and a lot of people reposted his stability tweet thinking they were the first (RTs to date: 51,000).


The Maybot

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamTheresa May doing the robot dance

Theresa May dancing
may-sprite Composite: Guardian Design Team

Who would be Tory prime minister No 2 (don’t worry, they speed up)? Not Johnson, after former supporter Michael Gove declared him unfit, not Gove, after everyone else declared him an absolute bastard, and not Andrea Leadsom, though she came close. Ultimately it was Theresa May who would survive the Tories’ (first) Red Wedding and inherit the throne, for a few episodes at least.

May said she would lead a “one nation” government and unite the country, which was a nice aspiration, and went to Washington to hold Donald Trump’s hand, which was as weird as her dance moves.

Faced with an enormous Brexit challenge, however, and leading by 20 points in the polls, inspiration struck on one of her favourite walking holidays, and she called an early general election. Which, it turns out, is not always a good idea.


The worst election decision ever (part one)

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamThe Conservative logo with three DUP logos dancing ontop.

Conservative logo with DUP logo
Conservative Logo with DUP Logo Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

“At this time, more than anything else, the country needs a period of stability,” May said as results were coming in from her snap election. Pity that. It turned out the polls had – yet again – been wildly wrong. May had lost her small majority of 12, and had now found herself forced to suck up to “our friends and allies in the Democratic Unionist party” to have a working majority. They, quite reasonably, thought they were about to have some things go their way. Bless.


Brexit negotiations

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamLorries pilling behind each other over rolling hills.

Lorries pilling behind each other Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

What’s your favourite deal – Australian-style, Canada plus, Norway or no? Do you prefer your votes indicative, meaningful or people’s? Windsor framework or Chequers deal? Article 10 or article 50? And could somebody please explain the backstop?

Did anyone actually understand the complexities of Brexit? The electorate certainly didn’t (as it happens neither did Johnson, according to Whitehall officials; we’ll get to him soon enough). May did her best to knit a deal out of the tangle of options, but was thwarted by her party zealots, an EU that had run out of patience, ceaseless manoeuvring from her rivals and her own lack of political deftness. Unable to forge an agreement she could get past parliament, May tearfully resigned in May 2019.


Johnson omnishambles begins

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamBoris Johnson putting papers into an oven

An oven
Boris-oven-460-sprite Composite: Getty/Guardian Design Team

How to sum up the three-year Johnson premiership? Well, one of his first acts as PM, you’ll remember, was to unilaterally prorogue parliament, which the supreme court would later call “unlawful, void and of no effect”, and one of his last was to admit he had known a Tory whip was an alleged groper when he had appointed him, despite having previously said he hadn’t. It took the resignations of a mere 57 of his ministers before he finally agreed to step down.

Between those dates, after winning a majority in yet another general election, Johnson did manage to get a Brexit bill past parliament and finally steer Britain out of the EU, winning him lingering adoration in sections of the Tory right and costing the country £100bn a year in lost economic output.


Covid, Cummings, PPE

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamDominic Cummings driving in a car with a Barnard Castle sign in the background.

Dominic Cummings driving in a car
Dominic Cummings driving in a car Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

A few other things happened too. It was Johnson’s curse and Britain’s great tragedy that when a terrible new virus emerged, he was the person in charge. Once he could be persuaded to pay attention, he ignored the risks, delayed lockdown, flirted with “herd immunity” and scandalously failed to protect older people in care homes.

His chief adviser Dominic Cummings broke the rules, but was roundly backed by his boss, detonating the government’s credibility to enforce them for anyone else. The urgent scramble for PPE, of which health workers were woefully short, was tackled by setting up an (unlawful) scheme which favoured politicians’ mates with multimillion pound contracts.


Party, party, party

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamA briefcase of booze opening and booze wiggling from side to side

Suitcase full of ice and booze
party-gate-2-sprite Composite: Getty/Guardian Design Team

“All guidance was followed completely.” “People in this building have stayed within the rules.” “I certainly broke no rules.” “Those people [drinking together in the garden] were at work.” Johnson’s denials of rule-breaking parties at Downing Street were repeated and emphatic, even as evidence mounted of more and more (and more) boozy leaving dos and knees-ups.

The parliamentary privileges committee would later find Johnson had deliberately misled MPs in his denials, and been complicit in a “campaign of abuse and attempted intimidation of the committee” when they tried to investigate him.


Liz Truss v the lettuce

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamA lettuce rolling intro frame and then out again

A lettuce
Lettuce rolling into and then out of frame. Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

As the new King Charles put it when as he held his first audience with Johnson’s replacement as prime minister: “Back again? Dear oh dear”. A little over 80,000 Conservative party members had imposed Truss on the nation after Johnson’s eventual removal; two days after appointing her as PM, Queen Elizabeth died.

It meant Truss’s first significant act was to read a lesson at the funeral; her second, four days later, was to present with her chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, a radical mini-budget so wild it plummeted the pound to its lowest ever level against the dollar, sparked a catastrophic surge in mortgage rates earned a stinging rebuke from the International Monetary Fund.

She has blamed the “deep state” and “groupthink” for the fiasco, but after 49 days she was gone, forever now associated with a Daily Star stunt that livestreamed a slowly wilting lettuce to see which of them would last longer. It was a win for the greens.


Ready for Rish!

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamPlane wheels held down by red rope.

Plane wheels wrapped in red tape
Rwanda-180-sprite Composite: Getty / Guardian Design Team

And so, it was the man even Tory members rejected who Britain was lumbered with next – multimillionaire plus one Rishi Sunak. Would the saviour of food bank Britain, a country in which 8 million adults and 3 million children are going hungry, prove to be a former investment banker who is richer than the king? Hmm.

In the sense that he has already lasted 12 times as long as his immediate predecessor, Sunak at least steadied the ship. He has reiterated the UK’s firm support for Ukraine and trumpeted falls in inflation as proof his policies are effective.

But rising migration numbers to the UK and relentless pressure from his right flank saw Sunak double down on Tory plans to export people seeking asylum to Rwanda. The supreme court dismissed the wheeze as unlawful, ruling Rwanda wasn’t a safe country. The government then introduced a new law to declare that it was.

The scheme will cost £1.8m per person sent to Rwanda, official figures show; so far precisely no one has been compelled to leave.


The worst election decision ever (part 2)

Paper Animation by Guardian Design TeamBoris Johnson

Cat paw moving over keys
Cat paw moving over keys Composite: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

Or will it be? Sunak’s decision to go to the country six months earlier than he had to provoked his MPs’ fury, but maybe he knows something they – and every poll that puts his party a consistent 20 points behind Labour – do not. If the pollsters are right, it could finally be goodbye Tories on Thursday.

If we have learned anything at all from the last 14 years, however, it is that nothing is predictable. And it is certainly not the case that things can only get better.

Images: Shutterstock/Getty/Guardian Design Team.

Design, development and production: Harry Fischer, Pip Burkett, Bruno Haward and Chris Clarke.

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