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8 May 2024

The Tory doomscroll

Dismayed by the local elections, Conservatives fear the party faces not only electoral defeat but a crisis of identity.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Local elections are usually a political Rorschach test: what you read into them depends on what you already think. There are so many contests – councils from Sunderland to Plymouth, regional mayors, police and crime commissioners, even the odd by-election – that there is always a result or two that you can spin to your advantage.

The elections held on Thursday 2 May are unusual in that the picture they present is such a coherent one. The Tories are doomed.

Projected vote-share analysis by Sky News offered the tantalising prospect of Labour falling short of an overall majority in a general election – a narrative Rishi Sunak seized upon, insisting on 5 May that “these results suggest we are heading for a hung parliament” – but it wasn’t long before the mirage evaporated. Ben Houchen may have defied the toxicity of his party to win a third term as Tees Valley mayor, but Andy Street had lost the West Midlands mayoralty by 1,508 votes and Sadiq Khan had won London comfortably. The hung-parliament apparition faded away as soon as the sheer efficiency of the anti-Tory vote and the collapse of the SNP in Scotland were taken into account.

The bloodbath in the Blackpool South by-election – the third biggest Conservative-to-Labour swing since the Second World War, in which Reform lost out on second place by just 117 votes – points to the utter disintegration of Boris Johnson’s 2019 coalition. The loss of councils in places such as Rushmoor, Adur and Dorset reveals it isn’t just the Red Wall seats won from Labour four and a half years ago that are at risk: the Blue Wall is being chipped away at too. Clear defeats in the contests for the new mayoralties in the East Midlands and in York and North Yorkshire – Sunak’s backyard – further darken the outlook.

The Sky vote-share projection rested on low enthusiasm for Labour in areas where it is unlikely to make a difference, ignoring the fact that where voters had the chance to get rid of a Conservative incumbent, they did so with gusto. In the end, the Tories lost almost half the seats they were defending, and won fewer councillors than the Liberal Democrats.

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As one Conservative adviser put it to me, the message from these elections was clear: “Abandon all hope, ye Tories.”

Looked at one way, the results teach us very little we didn’t already know. For half a year, the polls have told a consistent story of Conservative decline. Some are more sensationalist than others. On 15 January, the Telegraph ran a YouGov survey warning of a “1997-style wipeout” in which the Tories won just 169 seats, with Reform playing a pivotal role in 96 losses. A subsequent mega-poll published by Survation over the Easter weekend had the Tory party winning just 98 seats, its worst result ever, with the Prime Minister’s own constituency at risk. Reform has been polling consistently at 10-15 per cent – hypothetical support we saw translated into concrete vote share in the locals, averaging 15 per cent in the seats where it stood, with 17 per cent in the Blackpool South by-election. At the next general election the Tories face the prospect of being hammered by Labour in the north and Midlands, and squeezed by the Lib Dems in the south – as well as by the Greens in the Tories’ rural heartlands, where the government’s environmental record, particularly on sewage, is a key factor.

What has changed, however, is the outlook within the Conservative Party. There is no more pretence that things aren’t as bad as they seem. “The blinkers are off,” one MP told me. “Downing Street has been insisting ‘the polls will narrow’ ahead of election day. Well, they should have started narrowing by now. And they’re not.”

In fact, since the “vaccine bounce” of May 2021, the trend line of Tory support has been steadily dropping each month. Excepting the sharp plummet under Liz Truss and the partial recovery when Sunak first became Prime Minister, it’s a remarkably consistent picture. “No prime minister wants to call an election they know they’ll lose,” a party strategist told me. “But waiting for something to turn up isn’t neutral. The longer we wait, the worse it gets.” Another used the analogy of a train crash. “You can see it coming, but the train is on the rails – there’s nothing you can do to avert it. You just have to watch it happen.” Tory MPs are left doomscrolling, paralysed and powerless to avert the catastrophe that awaits.

Just one parliamentary term after Boris Johnson’s historic 2019 majority, the Conservative Party faces electoral Armageddon. How did it all go so wrong?

The narrative beginning to take hold is that it is down to the betrayal of the Brexit promise – sunlit economic uplands, low immigration – and the subsequent rise of an insurgent party that can challenge the Tories on the right. When I spoke to Richard Tice, leader of Reform UK (which was founded by Nigel Farage as the Brexit Party), he was buoyant about his party’s local elections performance.

“People said our support wasn’t real – well we’ve knocked that into a cocked hat. We are replacing the Tories in certain key areas, like Sunderland and Barnsley,” he said. “We were within just 60 people of defeating the Tories for second place in the Blackpool South by-election. In many areas of the north we are now becoming the main opposition to Labour.”

January’s “1997-wipeout” poll – the projection that spurred the Liz Truss ally Simon Clarke to publicly call for Sunak’s removal – was predicated on the damage Reform could do to the Tories.

Already, the Conservative right is under increased pressure to agree a more robust offering on immigration, tax, net zero and leaving the European Convention on Human Rights in order to neutralise the threat from Reform. MPs are casting about for ideas and champions. Truss, who recently launched a new Popular Conservatism (“PopCon”) group, has spent the last month touring right-wing media outlets with her book Ten Years to Save the West, warning of catastrophe if conservatives don’t fight the establishment status quo. The former home secretary Suella Braverman, having travelled to Brussels in April to make her case at the National Conservatism Conference, responded to the UK local elections by urging Sunak to “change course” or “at this rate we’ll be lucky to have any Conservative MPs at the next election”. David Frost, Johnson’s Brexit negotiator and now considered a “king across the water” of the Tory right, wrote that “the Conservative Party needs total renewal… genuine Conservatives must now face the fact that we must prepare for disaster”.

More radical still is the possibility, mooted hopefully by some particularly disaffected MPs, of a merger with Reform, with Farage riding in to lead the united party. His celebrity at October’s Conservative Party Conference and the PopCon launch in February, drawing crowds of adoring Tory members, has not gone unnoticed (although Farage himself has remained mischievously coy about his plans).

As narratives go, this is in some ways a comforting one: that disaster can be averted by turning back the clock to 2019, when the party had a clearer message and Farage decided not to stand in Johnson’s way in battleground seats. But as perspectives go, it is myopic. In the local elections Reform won only two councillors. Virtually no one outside the party expects it to win any seats at a general election, or even hold the one it acquired when Lee Anderson defected. (“If Farage were to stand again in Clacton, maybe he’d have a shot,” a pollster told me. “But I can’t see him risking it. No one else has a chance.”)

According to Paul Goodman, an MP from 2001 to 2010 and editor for nine years of the website ConservativeHome, which regularly takes the temperature of Tory members, the fixation on Reform is not healthy for his party. In the event of a general election wipe-out, “We’ll have 150 to 200 MPs and will have an existential debate about whether to merge with a party that has no MPs,” he told me when we met shortly before the locals.

The Reform narrative ignores the march of the Lib Dems, who wrested Dorset council from the Conservatives, and the Greens, who are threatening rural Tory heartlands. It also disregards the attempts Sunak has made to throw red meat to Reform voters, placing immigration at the top of his policy agenda and ramming the controversial Rwanda legislation through parliament the week before the local elections. This has not changed the polling. Nor have two rounds of tax cuts or the partial reversal of net zero measures.

“Conservatives should beware the ‘right-wing entertainment complex’,” Goodman warned. The term was coined by the American conservative David Frum in 2012 to describe a Republican Party driven mad by its preoccupation with Fox News. Now, Goodman suggested, the Tories face the same challenge from GB News, where the likes of Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the erstwhile Tory party vice-chair Lee Anderson hold court. But what is good for viewing figures is not necessarily good for the party.

To put it another way: if every person who backed Reform in the Blackpool South by-election had voted Conservative, Labour would still have won by 4,506 votes.

What if there is something deeper amiss in the party’s psyche that cannot be explained just by the emergence of Reform? Even the most Pollyannaish Conservatives are now resigned to the inevitable: a general election defeat, after which the party will need to consider not only its future, but its very reason for existence. There is, one despairing strategist warned, a real chance that the party could fall short of the “psychological Rubicon” of the 1997 result: 165 MPs.

Tory MPs are engaged in a frantic effort to hang on to their seats and minimise the damage, whether by taking the Houchen approach and running hyper-local initiatives, or by urging voters not to hand Keir Starmer a super-majority. But in the bars, restaurants and WhatsApp groups of Westminster, the question is more stark: is this it?

“The Conservative Party is not like a malfunctioning machine,” I was told by the Conservative commentator and former speechwriter Tim Montgomerie. “It’s like a decaying organism. A poison has entered the soil in which the Conservative Party has grown out of. It’s not just the main crop of electoral success [that] is dying; it’s the covering canopy, it’s the seeds of the next generation. It’s like everything is dying on a huge scale because somehow the habitat has collapsed.”

What Montgomerie calls the “political equivalent of Dutch elm disease” is not unique to the Tories. Other long-established parties – in the US, across Europe, and including the UK Labour Party – are facing the challenge of adapting in an age of social media, increased polarisation, shifting geopolitical trends and demographic change. (Labour haemorrhaged support in Muslim communities, as a Tory MP pointed out to me, although this is unlikely to make much of a difference to the next election.) But, as the local elections demonstrated, the Tories’ demise is further advanced.

“It’s not just the poll ratings; it’s like a complete decay of an institution,” Montgomerie warned. “We’re like a monoculture, trained for one political climate. Then the political climate changes and we find that actually we’re so siloed: so good at one particular temperature range, range of precipitation, [but] then the weather changes, the climate changes, and we collapse.”

Contrary to the “follow Reform” narrative, this analysis suggests that in recent years the party has become a victim of its own success and damaged its ability to renew its offering to voters. Indeed, the urge to look right has, one moderate MP told me, blinded the party to the risk it faces from the centre, with voters as likely to be put off by Reform-friendly dog whistles as attracted by them. “The most successful Tory politicians in the UK currently are Andy Street and Ben Houchen – centrists who delivered for their areas. The idea that tilting to Reform does anything other than lose mainstream votes and satisfy losing ideologues is both politically illiterate and innumerate.”

MPs, former MPs and advisers cite a range of alternative factors for the decline, including complacency after Johnson’s landslide majority; his purge of the “grown-ups” that left the parliamentary party lacking experience and diversity; the rigid groupthink of the 2019 intake; and a lack of intellectual debate within the party that dates back to the Cameron era.

“After these elections you have to ask what base is left,” said a despairing Tory strategist. Sunak’s veneer of technocratic competence has for too long obscured the reality that the party is in profound crisis. Partly this is to do with age: just 14 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds intend to vote Conservative at the next election, below 1997 levels. Partly it is the failure of the “levelling-up” promise. And partly, some argue, it is the fault of Sunak himself, a Prime Minister who was so convinced he could find the right answer by obsessing over spreadsheets and focus groups that he missed the bigger picture until it was too late.

Now, the pervading sense is one of panic. The efforts to oust Sunak have run out of momentum, not because faith in the PM has been restored but because none of the potential challengers wants the job this side of an election. Even Simon Clarke has stopped agitating for change. The spectre of Reform haunts the party, drowning out those pushing for a more pragmatic, less ideological realignment epitomised by Ben Houchen’s victory and Andy Street’s near miss.

The longer Sunak waits to call a general election, the worse it will be. Yet the hope that something may come up – the Labour Party imploding over Israel-Gaza tensions, a shock change in the polls if Donald Trump wins the US election – fools him into limping on, zombie-like, until the last possible moment.

“It’s like the Sibyl and Rome,” a party insider warned. In classical mythology, the last king of Rome was offered the chance to buy nine books of prophecies from the Sibyl. He thought the price was too high; she burned three of the books and offered him the remaining six at the same price. He tried to haggle again, so she burnt three more and made the same offer. He bought the final three books at the cost of the original nine. Sometimes, waiting hopefully for your fortunes to recover risks making them worse.

This is unlikely to be the death of the Conservative Party. It has survived throughout 190 years, universal suffrage, the demise of the British empire, two world wars, eight monarchs, the internet and multiple realignments of UK politics. It has governed for two-thirds of the past century, by continuously regrouping and reinventing itself.

But for the party to survive, it will need to find a way to heal the poisoned ecosystem, restore diversity and dynamism to the wider conservatism movement, and encourage ideas about the issues of the future – technological advancement, demographic change, housing – rather than remaining obsessed by Brexit. It will need to find a way to unite the right while resisting the temptation to indulge the right-wing entertainment complex, and it will need to reach out to voters where they are, rather than where the loudest Tories think they should be. It cannot do that with Rishi Sunak in charge, or with the ghosts of the 2019 coalition offering false hope. There is only one way of interpreting this Rorschach test that is not based on delusions.

“You can avoid reality,” a long-time Tory adviser told me, alluding to a quote by Ayn Rand, the libertarian philosopher beloved of the Conservative right. “But you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

This article appears in the 10-16 May issue of the New Statesman magazine

[See also: Labour has triumphed but it should reflect too]

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