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18 June 2024

Tactical voting could spell electoral Armageddon for the Conservatives

Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt are among the high-profile Tories in danger.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The pro-EU campaign group Best for Britain yesterday published its guide for how to vote tactically to have the best chance of ousting the Tories in any given constituency. What exactly tactical voting might mean for the fate of the Conservative Party is worth considering at this stage of the campaign – postal votes land on doorsteps today, and the deadline to register to vote is coming up fast (11.59 tonight, Tuesday 18 June).

With the latest polls showing the gap between the Conservatives and Labour widening rather than narrowing as expected (why this narrowing without much evidence to support it was expected is a question for another day), it’s not as though tactical voting will play a defining role in who forms the next government. But given how strong the anti-Tory sentiment on the doorstep is, there is reason to believe it could be the difference between a bad defeat for the Conservatives and Armageddon.

We know tactical voting can make a huge impact in by-elections. While there have not been any official pacts between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, some of the historic majority-overturning wins we’ve seen in recent years – in North Shropshire (Tory to Lib Dem), Tiverton and Honiton (Tory to Lib Dem), Selby and Ainsty (Tory to Labour) – were helped by a tacit understanding that the two opposition parties would focus their resources where they had the greatest chance of beating the Conservatives and give the others a clear(ish) run.

It is also coming up on the doorsteps. In conversations with volunteers in constituencies across the country, I’ve been told time and again of voters in currently Tory seats opening the door and asking canvassers who they ought to vote for to have the greatest chance of getting the Conservatives out.

How much impact all this will have is up for debate. A poll for Best for Britain says that 40 per cent of people would vote tactically to have the greatest chance of voting out the Tories. Of course, the people likely to respond to such a poll will probably be more politically engaged than the average voter (the group also says that two in three people can’t name which party is likely to come second in their area). But in the local elections in May, council seats won by Labour and the Liberal Democrats exceeded the parties’ national vote share. That suggests voters were already thinking tactically when they filled out their ballots.

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Since then, with the Conservative election campaign in freefall, seats that would normally be considered safe Tory holds have suddenly come into play. Best for Britain’s analysis suggests that, should tactical voting take hold, Jeremy Hunt won’t be the only high-profile Tory at risk. Penny Mordaunt, Grant Shapps, James Cleverly and Robert Jenrick are also vulnerable. With a big enough effort, suggests the group, Suella Braverman and even Liz Truss might also worry. (Truss is facing an independent challenger in the form of former Tory James Bagge – interviewed by me last month.)

As for Rishi Sunak himself, his Richmond and Northallerton constituency in North Yorkshire is also looking unexpectedly susceptible to a Labour win. Or it would be were the satirical candidate Count Binface not muscling in on the Prime Minister’s patch, in the hope of siphoning off a few hundred protest votes. How ironic would it be if, come 5 July, Sunak owed his seat to a self-professed “intergalactic space warrior” splitting the anti-Tory vote?

Two final notes about tactical voting. One: as the New Statesman’s data genius Ben Walker likes to point out, voters are becoming less tribal and more promiscuous. Having access not just to the internet but snazzy data modelling tools like those used by Best for Britain gives voters more opportunity than ever to tailor their votes to make the greatest impact. Whatever role tactical voting plays in three weeks’ time, it isn’t going away. Labour should be wary: the same models voters are using now to send a message to the Tories will be just as useful in punishing a Labour government in future elections.

Two: it’s not just the left who can play at this game. There are dozens of seats – over 100, according to some polls – where Reform could make the difference between a tight Conservative hold and a Labour win. CCHQ has been funnelling its resources urging Tory-leaning moderates in such places to back them. But a shock MPR Survation poll at the weekend showed Reform winning in seven seats: Clacton (where Nigel Farage is standing), along with North West Norfolk, Great Yarmouth, South Suffolk, Exmouth and Exeter East, Mid Leicestershire, and Ashfield. Taking account of boundary changes, all of these went Tory in 2019.

That makes seven constituencies where centrists – or, indeed, those on the left – who are appalled at the Conservatives’ record of late have a tough choice to make. If they want to keep out the threat of Farage and give the Conservatives a chance to rebuild as the party of the sensible right, which can see off fringe populists, tactical voting suggests they hold their noses and vote Tory.

[See also: Labour’s manifesto is quietly radical]

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