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20 January 2024

Why the Conservatives can’t accept their coming electoral wipeout

The party will soon regret the bias of the British media.

By Jonn Elledge

In 1984, Canada’s Progressive Conservatives, known as the Tories – a fixture of politics right back to confederation in 1867 – won one of the largest majorities in the country’s history, winning 211 seats, three quarters of the House of Commons. Nine years and two elections later, they won just two seats.  

There were many reasons for this unprecedented collapse, one of the worst ever experienced by a leading party in a Western democracy. Some of these are unnervingly resonant for Britain’s own Tories today – a right-wing challenger party named Reform; the presence of a short-lived blonde prime minister in her 40s. Yet many of them were unique to Canada at the time, and no matter how much trouble Rishi Sunak is in, his situation seems unlikely to be worsened by questions about what the constitutional status of Quebec should be. Nonetheless, tracing the Conservatives’ possible paths to a “Canada 1993” result has become a favourite pastime among liberal-left political commentators and, while it remains an unlikely outcome, the fact it’s a topic of discussion at all should be terrifying to the governing party.

Meanwhile, the uniformly terrible polling data does keep coming. On Monday 15 January the Telegraph splashed on an exclusive poll from YouGov, which found the party was on course to retain just 169 seats: “Tories facing 1997-style wipeout”, read the headline. Three days later, another exclusive poll from that same promiscuous polling firm, this one in the Times, showed Labour with a 27-point lead; support for the Tories stood at just 20 per cent, a number last seen when (this isn’t a great sign) Liz Truss was prime minister. Sunak shrugged all this off, with the comment, “There have been lots of polls over the last year.” He didn’t mention that not one of those polls had shown him keeping his job.

Even the more optimistic end of polling suggests there will be a repeat of the historically dreadful 1997 election. Yet it feels like the Tory bubble is struggling to internalise this new reality. The shocked reaction to Monday’s Telegraph splash suggests that many right-wingers have not seen a single poll since late 2021. At that night’s meeting of the 1922 Committee, Sunak set out what was described as a “1992 election strategy”. The next day’s papers breathlessly reported the comments from his Australian political strategist Isaac Levido, that the “narrow path to victory” was still there if only the party would unite behind it. If anyone would like to offer me a job in which I tell you comforting lies, and you give me your money then tell everyone I’m a genius in exchange, my DMs, as the kids say, are open. 

A wipeout of the sort experienced by the Canadian Tories back in 1993 may be very unlikely. But the worst result in the Conservative Party’s history – worse than 1906, when it won just 156 seats – seems entirely plausible. During Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the political scientist Will Jennings has noted, the press featured frequent discussion over whether the Labour party could even survive, yet there is no equivalent discourse today about the Conservative Party. Why might that be?  

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One reason must surely be that, while the Liberals collapsed and the Labour Party has often flirted with the cliff edge, the Tories have been the “natural party of government” for longer than any of us can remember; unprecedented things are simply harder to imagine. Another reason may lie in the mechanics of reporting itself. If you are a lobby correspondent, reliant on the willingness of government sources to talk to you, it’s probably not in your interest to remind those sources that not only are they going to be out of a job before the year is out, but they may also be presiding over the death of their party.   

Yet a big part of the problem must surely be good old-fashioned media bias. There are simply more newspapers, and thus more journalists, whose role is to reflect the Tory view of the world – prioritising Tory in-fighting, accepting Tory framing – rather than to question it. And newspapers, through their impact on broadcast coverage and their simple availability on the parliamentary estate, retain a level of influence on our political discourse, even as their readership, and direct influence on voters, has declined.

All this has been made worse by the rise of GB News, a minority-interest TV station on which, in a slightly too on-the-nose fashion, government MPs quite literally talk to themselves. But large chunks of so-called legacy media are little better. How else would you describe the near orgasmic levels of excitement over financial policies that proved almost as repellent to the bond markets as they did to the voters? (“At last! A true Tory budget” read the Daily Mail splash on 24 September 2022.) Or the frequent suggestion, not supported by polling, that the Channel boats crisis matters more to the electorate than the state of their wallets or the NHS? Or the indulgence of the party right-wing’s so-called Five Families in their misguided belief they are serious political players, not a handful of embarrassing eccentrics?

Little wonder many Tories remain deluded about exactly what is going to hit them this year. But I sometimes wonder if there’ll come a time when they feel angry towards their chosen media about how little it did to inform them of this. The day after the general election, after all, all those right-wing lobby correspondents will still have jobs.

[See also: The myth of Tory pragmatism]

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