Twelve years of the Tories: the good, the bad and the ugly

Party’s time in power marked by austerity, Brexit and the pandemic

Conservative PM David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg
David Cameron and Nick Clegg become coalition partners in 2010
(Image credit: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images)

Today marks 12 years since the Conservative Party came to power, leaving MPs and political pundits reflecting on the party’s achievements – and most bruising failures.

The Tories entered government as part of a coalition following the 2010 general election, ending 13 years of Labour rule. Here, The Week looks back at the highs and lows of their tumultuous time in office so far.

Cameron moves into No. 10

After the 2010 general election ended in stalemate, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed the UK’s first coalition government since 1945.

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Striding into power amid the fallout of the 2008 financial crash, 43-year-old David Cameron became the youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812. At the time he promised to lead a “bold and reforming” government that would “put aside party differences and work hard for the common good”.

Austerity years

Within a month of coming to power, Cameron described the nation’s economic plight as “even worse than we thought” and warned of “difficult decisions” to come as part of an austerity programme that proved controversial.

Labour accused Cameron of being out of touch when he launched the so-called “bedroom tax”, but he was widely praised for introducing same-sex marriages in England and Wales in 2014.

A coalition led by Britain and France launched strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in 2011, which led to the Libyan leader’s overthrow. Later, a UK parliamentary report severely criticised the intervention.

Cameron became the first prime minister since 1782 to lose a foreign policy vote in the House of Commons when MPs rejected proposed military action in Syria.

And a Scottish independence referendum in 2014 saw the winning “no” side get 2,001,926 votes, while the “yes” team attracted 1,617,989 votes.

Brexit referendum

In 2013, Cameron said the British people must “have their say” on Europe as he pledged an in-out referendum. The PM canvassed for the Remain side during a divisive campaign, while Boris Johnson decided to join the Leave side.

In 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. Within hours of the result, Cameron announced he would stand down, telling the nation that “fresh leadership” was needed.

Enter Theresa May

After six years as home secretary, Theresa May won the party leadership contest on 11 July 2016 after Andrea Leadsom dropped out, leaving May as the sole candidate.

Becoming the nation’s second female prime minister, she promised to fight “burning injustice” in British society and create a union “between all of our citizens”.

However, she lost the party’s majority when she called a snap election the following year, leaving her dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and suffered a series of humiliations as her Brexit deal was rejected.

May’s premiership was “dominated by tortuous negotiations in Brussels and vicious infighting within Tory ranks over the terms on which the UK would leave”, said ITV.

Johnson replaces May

“British government is clearly set to experience a very different kind of prime ministerial leadership,” said David Klemperer at the Institute for Government after Boris Johnson was voted in to replace May in July 2019.

He immediately got to work on Brexit, controversially proroguing parliament and then losing his working majority after Tory MP Phillip Lee crossed the floor and defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Johnson withdrew the party whip from 21 Tory MPs after they defied him in the Commons and eventually pushed MPs into a general election. The move paid off, as he returned to Downing Street in December 2019 with a big majority.

Leading his campaign on a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson upheld his promise and the UK promptly left the EU.

Covid pandemic hits the UK

As the Covid-19 pandemic took hold across the world, Johnson’s government was initially criticised for “moving too slowly” and “relying on hopes of herd immunity” as other countries brought in strict measures in response to the crisis, said The Independent.

But despite reluctance at the top of government, Johnson would eventually put the country under lockdown restrictions in March 2020. During a televised address to the nation, he called Covid-19 “the biggest threat this country has faced for decades”.

In May, the government launched what it called a “world-beating” track-and-trace system at a cost of £37bn, promising the public it would prevent another national lockdown.

Meg Hillier, Labour chair of the public accounts committee, later criticised the scheme, arguing that despite the “unimaginable resources” the project had received, it could not “point to a measurable difference to the progress of the pandemic”.

The government fared much better with the roll-out of its vaccination programme, which quickly became “the biggest and fastest in Europe”, said the BBC.

But its Covid record has since been marred by a series of scandals.

Former health secretary Matt Hancock resigned after he was found to have broken social distancing rules by kissing a colleague in May 2020, while the prime minister, his wife Carrie Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have all been fined by the Metropolitan Police for attending law-breaking events during lockdown.

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