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The Oldest, Most Successful Party in Europe Is Headed for a Wipeout

At 3 a.m. one day last December, a 78-year-old volunteer for the British Conservative Party was reportedly woken by a call from Mark Menzies, the Conservative lawmaker she worked for. He said that he was being held somewhere by “bad people” who demanded £5,000, or $6,300, to release him. The volunteer, a former campaign manager for Mr. Menzies, paid the sum out of her own savings. She was later reimbursed out of party funds.

Mr. Menzies, who was suspended from the party last month, denies that allegation and others, which include using £14,000 from party funds for personal medical bills. The ins and outs of his improprieties are neither here nor there, though he is no stranger to scandal. Yet the affair epitomizes a Conservative Party in crisis. The Tories have been up to some very strange antics, and you could say that the party itself has been held captive by bad people. After 14 checkered years in government, it looks to be finally getting its comeuppance.

For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government, defeat seems inevitable. Local elections last Thursday were almost uniformly disastrous for his party: Across England and Wales, the Conservatives lost 474 council seats and were defeated in every mayoral election but one. The results confirmed polls that for many months have given the opposition Labour Party a lead of 10 to 20 points, suggesting something like a wipeout in the general election that must be held by January of next year.

Before the elections, there were the usual mutterings in the Tory ranks about deposing Mr. Sunak. But the rebels have drawn back, maybe feeling some rare sense of the ridiculous. Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher led the Conservative Party for more or less 15 years. By comparison, we have already had five Tory leaders — and prime ministers — in the past eight years. One more, months before an election, would only confirm the view that this historic party is now, like some of its lawmakers, lamentable, lurid and ludicrous.

There has been something called a Tory party for 350 years, even if there’s very little in common between the royalist Cavaliers of the reign of King Charles II and the motley crew of the reign of King Charles III. Rebranded as the Conservatives by Sir Robert Peel in the 1830s, the party has often known internal ruptures and in the past century suffered three disastrous electoral defeats, at the hands of the Liberals in 1906 and Labour in 1945 and 1997.

But the Tories always managed to recover and return to office. The Conservative Party is not only the longest-lasting political party in European history but also the most successful. On their own or in coalition, the Tories have held office for 98 of the past 150 years, endlessly adapting themselves to new circumstances and confounding so many hopes or fears that the 20th century in Britain would belong to the left. They’ve won a plurality of the vote in the past four general elections, culminating in 2019, when they won the largest parliamentary majority in 30 years.

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