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21 October 2023

The Tories still think the voters are the problem, not them

As they deny the evidence in front of their eyes, the Conservatives are heading further right.

By Jonn Elledge

It can be hard to gauge an election result purely from what everyone says about the mood on the doorstep. Those with the best data concerning that mood will inevitably be the activists being told to sod off from such doorsteps. But different parties are prone to radically different temperaments. Many Tories seem cheerfully to assume the voters are with them, even when the polls suggest otherwise; Labour activists, by contrast, seem permanently shrouded in pessimism, assuming the worst and being rarely disappointed. Throw in the tendency for everyone to spin like crazy in an attempt to manage expectations, and it can be all but impossible to work out what’s actually going on.

All of which means that I went to bed on Thursday night convinced Labour would probably take Tamworth, on the grounds that even Tories seemed to have accepted as much; but believed that the party winning two by-elections requiring a 20-point swing in instinctively hostile territory seemed just a bit unlikely. My talent for predicting election results remains on a par with that of Matthew Goodwin or Mystic Meg, though, and I woke to find I’d been wrong. It was brilliant. 

Not everyone was quite so happy, alas. On Friday morning, lobby journalists reported “astonishment” among those Tory MPs who were finally realising that, just maybe, the voters didn’t like them very much. That in itself feels like a mark of quite how much trouble the party is in. Polls have shown Labour with a 20-point lead for over a year now, and almost every election result except one – the Uxbridge by-election – has shown an overwhelming public urge to get these people out. (I keep imagining how it must feel today to be the person who decided it was a good idea to ditch all Tory green policies on the basis of one narrow win in what should have been a safe seat.) And yet, a significant minority of the Conservative Party is still genuinely surprised to find that – amid collapsing public services, a cost-of-living crisis and rising mortgage rates – the voters are not actually very happy. 

[See also: Danger still lies ahead for Labour]

If the party had any sense, it would spend the weekend agonising about how it ended up this out of touch, and working out how to fix it. Discounting reports from any newspaper that was instinctively favourable to the Conservative agenda, and seems to see its role as to present the interests of the party to the public, and not the other way around, would be a good start. So would switching off GB News, a comforting bubble in which the party’s MPs quite literally talk to themselves. In all these places, the party thinks it’s looking at a country made in its own image, when what it actually sees is a mirror. 

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But of course the Conservative Party doesn’t have any sense, which is how it got into this mess, and so it’s not doing that. Instead, obsessive Liam Byrne fanboy Greg Hands has been on the television to claim that the conversations he’s had with voters in Tamworth and Mid Beds suggest that “people were happy with the job that Rishi Sunak is doing as prime minister”. (You wouldn’t know them, they go to another by-election.)

Meanwhile, previously unknown junior ministers such as Andrew Bowie have been popping up to suggest the result showed that “voters are reserving judgement”, on the grounds that these “weren’t gigantic defeats”. ( The result in Tamworth was the second-biggest swing from the Conservatives to Labour at a by-election since 1945; the win in Mid Bedfordshire was the largest Conservative majority overturned by Labour at a by-election since 1945.) “What that tells me,” he went on, “is people are supportive of what we are doing: they just aren’t prepared to come out and vote for us.” Even leaving aside that people being prepared to come out and vote for you is not a small matter when it comes to election results, it’s not remotely clear what the evidence for this public support is supposed to be. He might as well claim his imaginary friend still backs the Prime Minister.

The idea that this is just standard mid-term blues, that at a general election those missing Tory voters would inevitably come crawling back, that these seismic defeats can be explained by specific local factors – these are all standard forms of denial and are, at least, unlikely to make things any worse. Other coping strategies might. Already, there are Tory outriders going around claiming that the problem is that the party has not been conservative and culture war-y enough, and given the insatiable hunger for such policies from the weirder parts of the Tory commentariat, there must be a fair chance the party convinces itself its best option is to move even farther to the right. 

The dramatic swing to Labour, and the absence of any sizeable protest vote for Ukip or Reform, though, suggests few Tory MPs will be saved by such a strategy, no matter how flattering the right-wing press is about it. It can be hard to gauge an election result from the mood on the doorstep. Being unable to gauge public mood from actual election results, though: that takes real talent.

[See also: Labour’s two by-election victories put the party in landslide territory]

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