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  1. Election 2024
10 June 2024

The Conservatives have become a zombie party

Rather than fighting a genuine campaign, the Tories can now only stagger towards their fate.

By George Eaton

During Labour’s troubled 1983 general election campaign, the party’s general secretary Jim Mortimer announced without warning at a daily press conference: “The unanimous view of the campaign committee is that Michael Foot is the leader of the Labour Party and speaks for the party.”

This farcical scene – unrivalled for 41 years – has now been matched. History will record last weekend as the moment that cabinet ministers were forced to deny that Rishi Sunak would resign ahead of an election that he called. “Absolutely, there should be no question of anything other than that,” replied Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Secretary, when asked whether Sunak would still be leading the Conservative Party on 4 July.

Journalists only got the chance to ask Sunak himself this today after he avoided TV interviews for 48 hours (following this fraught encounter with Sky News’ Sam Coates over his D-Day exit). This is just one of the morbid symptoms now afflicting the Conservative Party.

An aide to the Tory chairman Richard Holden interjected during another Sky interview as Holden was questioned on why he chose to stand in Basildon and Billericay, Essex (Tory majority: 20,412) so distant from the marginal North Durham, which is replacing his previous seat of North West Durham. The party, meanwhile, has suspended all social media campaigning owing to financial woes. So low is morale that some of its activists are on a de facto strike. 

At the outset of the election, a Labour insider observed to me: “The government controls the timing of the election but you would think we control it.” This impression has only deepened in the weeks since. A snap election that was intended to revive Tory fortunes has seen Labour’s poll lead increase from an average of 20 points to 22 points.

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One of the Western world’s most successful parties now faces perhaps the worst defeat in its history. First past the post – as the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Labour can testify – ruthlessly punishes parties that shed support across the country.

In 2005, on the eve of Labour’s third consecutive election victory, Geoffrey Wheatcroft published The Strange Death of Tory England. Expect to see this title invoked in the weeks ahead.

Yet there is arguably nothing strange about the Tories’ near-death – the culprits are well known. The party elected Boris Johnson – a man whose colleagues repeatedly described him as unfit to be prime minister. It then elected Liz Truss, a free-market ideologue who wanted to govern a country other than Britain

In the manner of someone lighting a match in a petrol station, both leaders set fire to their party’s majority. Sunak has since failed to douse the flames and has lit a few matches of his own.

Most elections are won or lost before a campaign begins. It wasn’t the Sheffield rally that denied Neil Kinnock victory in 1992 and it wasn’t the bacon sandwich or the “EdStone” that cost Ed Miliband in 2015 (both men were already destined for defeat). Similarly, though the correlation will be irresistible to some, it wasn’t the D-Day debacle that doomed Sunak. It was, however, a moment that crystallised why the Prime Minister is losing: poor political judgement; a remote and distant style; an impatience with much of humanity.

Parties can sometimes lose an election but win a campaign (recall Labour’s “brilliant defeat” in 1987 or its 2017 insurgency). The Conservatives, however, are currently losing both. They now resemble a zombie party: one no longer truly human which can only stagger to meet its fate on 4 July.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; receive it every morning by subscribing on Substack here.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s comedy of errors]

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