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4 July 2024updated 05 Jul 2024 12:12pm

An existential defeat for the Conservatives

The party did better than expected, but this is no normal loss.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The exit poll puts the Conservatives on 133 seats. It is at the top end of the wide range of forecasts published by pollsters in recent weeks – some of which had the party falling to just 60 seats and being overtaken by the Liberal Democrats.

But it is still, in a word, catastrophic.

A small number of Conservatives may be breathing a sigh of relief right now. Recent expectations have plummeted so low that anything over 100 seats is, now, a rather rosy prediction. But this still represents the complete and utter crumbling of a party that five years ago looked set to enjoy another decade in power. In 1997 the Conservatives won 165 seats – and that, then, was considered a nadir. Now it seems not so bad at all. While so many seats are up in the air, including the prime minister’s own, the Tories are tonight set to cross the “psychological rubicon” of Tony Blair’s Labour landslide. Indeed, if the exit poll is to be believed, they will fall below the party’s worst ever election performance of 156 MPs in 1906.

This election campaign has forced the party to confront reality. Before Rishi Sunak called the snap election, and stood solemnly outside No. 10 in the rain, the consensus was that the data couldn’t possibly be right – surely, they would do better than the numbers had predicted; they would lose, but not this badly. They maintained hope: Labour would implode, the polls would narrow, those feted “shy Tories” would come out of the woodwork.

They were wrong. The “natural party of government” has imploded. And all of this was, of course, aided by what must surely be one of the worst campaigns in history. There will be glimmers of hope throughout the night as results come. Some Conservatives will be surprised to keep their seats. There may even be greater shocks – especially given the surprisingly high number of Reform wins forecast in the exit poll. But assuming the figures are broadly correct, this is not a normal defeat. This is existential.

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