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The Tories’ death spiral

Rishi Sunak has failed to provide his party with the coherent leadership it needs.

By New Statesman

The Conservatives became one of the Western world’s most successful parties through pragmatism and continuous reinvention. In 2019, as they embraced the cause of Brexit, they won their highest share of the vote at any general election since 1979. This was a remarkable feat. But the party is now marooned. Rishi Sunak, the Conservatives’ fifth prime minister since 2010, has struggled to renew the party. As much was confirmed by the local and mayoral elections on 2 May.

Despite setting expectations low ahead of the elections, the Tories still fell beneath them. They lost nearly half of their existing council seats (474) and nine of the ten metro-mayor elections. Only Ben Houchen, a big-state Tory, survived – and the swing against him (16.7 per cent) in the Tees Valley means the Conservatives would lose all five of the constituencies they hold in the region.

Faced with this debacle, Mr Sunak clung to the notion that the results suggest a hung parliament at the next general election. Had the entire country voted, professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher calculated, Labour would have won just 34 per cent of the vote to the Tories’ 27 per cent. But this analysis excludes the factors that point to a majority for Keir Starmer’s party.

First, the efficiency of Labour’s vote: it is winning in the bellwether constituencies that traditionally determine general elections, such as Redditch, Tamworth and Nuneaton, rather than piling up wasted votes in safe seats.

Second, the return of anti-Tory tactical voting: in seats where Labour is the strongest challenger to the Conservatives, the party will be able to squeeze the Liberal Democrats and the Greens (as Sadiq Khan did in the London mayoral election).

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Third, Labour’s recovery in Scotland, where the party is hopeful of winning as many as 20-25 seats and where the troubled SNP, now on its third leader in a year (John Swinney), is losing support.

Mr Sunak’s emphasis on the possibility of a hung parliament has two principal aims: to discipline his restive party by suggesting that victory remains possible, and to amplify the claim that a Labour government would be “propped up” by smaller parties. The Prime Minister is seeking to revive the “coalition of chaos” charge that David Cameron deployed successfully against Ed Miliband in 2015, when support for the SNP surged and the Liberal Democrats collapsed.

It will prove ineffective, not only because the polls point to a comfortable Labour majority but because of a more obvious coalition of chaos: the Conservative Party itself. The Tories are perilously divided between three factions: the National Conservatives, free-market libertarians and One Nation centrists.

Mr Sunak, who has sought to straddle all three groups, has failed to provide his party with the coherent leadership it needs. He denounced Liz Truss’s tax cuts but has spent more than £20bn on a quixotic quest to abolish National Insurance. He supported Brexit but has largely treated it as a cost rather than an opportunity. And he hailed Mr Houchen’s victory but has disowned the cause of levelling up that the mayor champions.

Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, has argued that the Conservatives should move further right in a bid to combat the threat posed by Reform UK. But as Rachel Cunliffe writes on page 20, this comforting narrative ignores the rise of parties to the Conservatives’ left: not only Labour but the Liberal Democrats and the Greens (who are advancing in the Tories’ rural heartlands).

Paul Goodman, the Conservative peer and former editor of the website ConservativeHome, warns his party that it must beware the “right-wing entertainment complex”: the term coined by the US conservative David Frum to describe how the Republican Party became magnetised by Fox News.

If there is a future for the Conservative Party it may lie in the politics represented by the former West Midlands mayor Andy Street (who lost to Labour on 2 May by just 1,508 votes): moderate, competent, pro-business, committed to infrastructure investment and to bridging the Brexit divide. Such an agenda has the potential to unite both the southern “Blue Wall” and the northern “Red Wall”. But for now, the party is locked in a death spiral.

[See also: Scotland declares independence from the SNP]

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This article appears in the 08 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Doom Scroll