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by Kirsteen Paterson
29 May 2024
Brexit, Covid, and three prime ministers: The rollercoaster years since the last UK general election

Rishi Sunak announces the general election |Alamy

Brexit, Covid, and three prime ministers: The rollercoaster years since the last UK general election

The four and a half years since the last UK general election have been characterised by crisis and change.

We’ve had Brexit, Covid and three prime ministers. We’ve been plunged into a cost-of-living crisis and seen health services on their knees. And the fortunes of our dominant political parties have undergone eyebrow-raising shifts.

All of this will have a bearing on the outcome of the 4 July vote.

Johnson’s Brexit gamble and Corbyn’s crash

There has been an astonishing number of byelections during what can only be described as a rollercoaster five years.

A grand total of 23 ‘new’ MPs have been elected since Britain went to the polls in December 2019.

That snap contest was called by Boris Johnson amidst fierce debate about what the Brexit deal would look like as the deadline for leaving the EU neared.

The love-him-or-hate-him leader had only been in the job a few months, following the resignation of Theresa May, and faced major challenges over Brexit when he called the December vote.

The gamble paid off as his party made 48 gains, securing more than 43 per cent of the vote. And the result shored up his parliamentary authority as Labour’s share tumbled by 60 seats under Jeremy Corbyn.

Image: Alamy

It was Labour’s worst result since 1935 and saw the Red Wall seats in England’s Midlands and northern areas turn blue. It was an unsurvivable situation for the left-wing leader and he announced his resignation, triggering the internal contest that would be won by Sir Keir Starmer.

The SNP, which had suffered bruising losses in the 2017 election, celebrated gains across 13 Scottish constituencies, with young candidate Amy Callaghan knocking Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson out of her East Dunbartonshire seat. Nicola Sturgeon’s clenched fist celebration of that result went viral.

Byelection battles

There have been 23 of these since the last general election, two of which were in Scotland.

The first, for Airdrie and Shotts, was called when the SNP’s Neil Gray announced his intention to stand down in order to fight for a Holyrood seat. It was a decision that would lead him on a path to becoming Scotland’s health secretary and saw partymate Anum Qaisar, a former Labour activist, elected in his stead.

But the SNP was far less fortunate in the second, losing to Labour in Rutherglen and Hamilton West, where keen runner Michael Shanks finished first. Covid scandal MP Margaret Ferrier was removed from office by her constituents in a recall petition in August 2023. While elected as an SNP MP, Ferrier lost the whip when it emerged that she’d travelled to London while awaiting the outcome of a coronavirus test, then taken a train home when her positive result came in.

Prosecuted and found to have breached standards for MPs, she was suspended from the Commons for 30 days, a duration that automatically triggered the recall petition.

Michael Shanks wins in Rutherglen | Alamy

In England, it was a byelection that saw veteran politician George Galloway re-elected as an MP, this time for the Workers Party of Britain.

His success overturned a pattern of local Labour wins, with Starmer’s party succeeding in every other such contest – including that caused by the resignation of Conservative figurehead Nadine Dorries –  since October 2023.

Ex-PM Johnson also forced a byelection when he stepped down in July that year. Fellow Tory Steve Tuckwell succeeded him in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

And there was no shortage of parliamentary scandal. Amongst others, a lobbying sting led to the resignation of Conservative Scott Benton, his partymate David Warburton stood down after admitting drug use, and Peter Bone went amidst bullying and harassment claims.

And so as people in affected seats prepare to go to the polls again, specific local factors could influence their voting.

Covid

The UK went into lockdown in March 2020, taking citizens into a system of self-isolation, social distancing, working from home and variable tiers and phases as the global pandemic took a heavy toll on all aspects of society.

Around 232,000 have died with Covid-19 listed as one of the causes on their death certificate.

Covid testing | Alamy

Rishi Sunak, then chancellor, launched a job-saving furlough scheme that would turn out to be affected by fraud and billions were spent on PPE, some of which was arranged via a VIP referral channel for MPs with business contacts. Almost £10bn of public cash spent would turn out to have been wasted on defective and unsuitable equipment or items that would not be used before their expiration date.

And out of the crisis would come the Partygate scandal. Pictures emerged of Johnson and his family holding a rule-breaking gathering in the garden of Number 10, reports came of drink-filled suitcases being taken into government offices for “wine-time Fridays” and it transpired that staffers had held two parties the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, at which the Queen sat mourning alone, in accordance with Covid guidance.

Her own state funeral would take place in September 2023 following her death at Balmoral, which was not Covid-related.

Sunak was amongst those fined for rule-breaking after attending a birthday party for Johnson.

A UK inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is ongoing, as is a separate Scottish probe.

Changing faces

Johnson was facing an investigation into whether he lied to parliament over partygate when he stepped down in June 2022.

Liz Truss won the resulting Conservative leadership race, but her tenure lasted only 49 days, during which the UK economy nosedived as a result of her government’s interventions.

A Johnson comeback was mooted but Sunak succeeded her and pledged to turn the public finances around.

Liz Truss | Alamy

Meanwhile, Truss entered the US conservative speaking circuit and has defended her premiership, saying she wasn’t given enough time by her party to make things work.

Meanwhile, the SNP has also switched leaders twice since the last election. After Sturgeon’s shock resignation in February 2023, Humza Yousaf triumphed in the party’s leadership contest, but it was a slim victory of just four percentage points and a short-lived one too, because he also bowed out in March.

The collapse of the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Greens at Holyrood had left his jacket on a shoogly peg and former deputy first minister John Swinney stepped forward to pick up the mantle.

He’ll have been in that role for under two months by the time the general election comes round. Meanwhile, his party continues under the cloud of Operation Branchform, the police probe into its finances. Ex-chief executive Peter Murrell has been charged with embezzling money from the party and the investigation remains open.

Poll position

If pollsters are to be believed, this general election is Labour’s to lose. Results point to gains for Starmer’s side from both the SNP and the Conservatives.

The Scottish Greens are standing a record number of candidates and Alba is looking to woo pro-independence voters. Reform UK is running in constituencies across Britain and the LibDems aim to build back and become the third party in the House of Commons once again.

Being held in the first week in July, the election comes before the English school holidays but after pupils in Scotland finish up, meaning many families will have headed off for their summer break. Postal voting will therefore have an important part to play in the outcome of this contest.

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