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23 March 2024updated 26 Mar 2024 12:08pm

No one is prepared for the upcoming Tory wipeout

The polls keep saying the Tories are on course for their worst electoral result ever. So why aren’t we talking about it?

By Jonn Elledge

One of the many problems with the mechanics of news production is that things that have ceased to shock also cease to get prominence. Collapsing councils, declining living standards, public services in crisis – these things rarely lead the papers for long, if at all, because they no longer surprise us. They’re merely the background drumbeat of What Britain Is Like in 2024. The result, though, is that we struggle to fully grasp what they mean. So the economy is now so bad that 3.7 million are now facing food insecurity, an increase of nearly 70 per cent in a single year? God. Boring. That’s not news.

The increasingly frequent signs that the public has made up its mind about whom to blame for all this now seems to be suffering from the same phenomenon. This week brought yet another poll showing a vast lead for the opposition, as YouGov put Labour on 44 per cent and the Tories on just 19 per cent. Labour is not reaching the heights it was during the Liz Truss weeks; but the Tories are frequently plumbing the same depths.

This should be shocking: more than twice as many voters going for Labour as Tory; the governing party on less than 20, only four points ahead of Reform. The problem is that shock new polls suggesting the Tories have hit record lows are now more frequent occurrences than Wednesdays. It’s not quite true to say that nobody paid attention: such polls are reliably cause for much excitement online, and are almost certainly a factor in some Tories seriously considering whether it might be worth changing leader for a third time this parliament, on the grounds that it surely can’t make things any worse. None the less, it’s hard to believe that the body politic has fully internalised what all this means. Tories hit new polling low; again the world continues to turn.

Here’s what it means. Plug the numbers from that YouGov survey for all the parties in England into the New Statesman’s Britain Elects model (others are available), and Labour comes out with 466 seats: a genuinely absurd majority of 282. (Tony Blair’s was 179.) The Tories, meanwhile, would win just 96, a wipeout much worse than 1997, when they held 165. Reform, thanks to the joys of first past the post, would win just one seat.

This would not just be a bad result for the Tories. It would displace 1906, when it won 156 seats, as the party’s worst result ever. It would give Keir Starmer as prime minister an unprecedented degree of political power, and would almost certainly leave the Conservatives – the “natural party of government” – struggling to put together a shadow Cabinet or fill select committees. In theory, the party would still be the opposition; in practice, that role would more likely fall to other bits of the Labour Party.

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Oh, and the Britain Elects model doesn’t take account of tactical voting: given everything we know of both past elections and recent electoral history, it is entirely possible the Tories would not win as many as 96 seats at all. (They likely won’t do so badly as to cease to be the opposition, but the fact that that even needs saying is telling.) And although this YouGov survey was among the worst for the Tories, it was not radically out of step with the trend. Polls are snapshots, not predictions. None the less, if the election was held today, the best data we have suggests the result would be a Tory wipeout.

Yet it does not feel as if most of us are expecting this to happen. Sure, there are parts of the internet where breathlessly reposting such polls, or plotting paths to a “Canada, 1993” result – one in which a governing party is wiped out so badly it can never recover – is people’s idea of fun. But if your only engagement was to read the politics pages or watch the Sunday shows, you’d likely have no idea what could be coming.

There may be all sorts of reasons why everyone is downplaying this increasingly plausible outcome: media bias in favour of the Tory party, existing contact books, the status quo. Then there’s the fact that everyone – Tories, Labour, the press – is better served by portraying the election as competitive. A widespread if poorly grounded belief that the polls will narrow because, well, they just do, don’t they?

But they don’t always. And I can’t help but think that another reason we aren’t seriously discussing a Tory wipeout is because we struggle to imagine it. The Tories have dominated British politics for more than a century, and their internal power struggles have been shaping our lives, alas, for the past 14 years. The idea that they could be defeated so badly that it’s not clear they could even survive is unthinkable.

A Tory wipeout may not be the most likely outcome (although, frankly, it’s getting increasingly hard to find polling to support even that contention). But at this stage it shouldn’t be a surprising one. By this time next year, it is quite possible that the Tories will have been consigned to irrelevance, and Keir Starmer will be the most powerful prime minister in British history. Shouldn’t we at least start thinking about that?

[See also: Ousting Rishi Sunak would make a bad situation worse]


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Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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