Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Polling
23 October 2023

There’s now almost nothing that can save the Tories

Conservative voters simply aren’t enthusiastic enough about Rishi Sunak – or negative enough about Keir Starmer – to deliver victory.

By Ben Walker

The largest numerical majority to be felled in by-election history (Mid Bedfordshire). And the largest percentage point majority to be felled in postwar by-election history (Tamworth). 

This isn’t standard midterm blues for the government of the day. This is indicative of everything I’ve been writing about for the past year and a bit.

Exhaustion. Apathy. Indifference. Stop the world, I want to get off. All of these sentiments capture the state of politics and why Labour picked up ultra-safe Conservative seats last week. And this is likely to crystallise into something awfully dramatic for the Tories at the next general election.

Exhaustion with the cost-of-living crisis. Concern for this issue continues to transcend any other across every stratum of society. It matters in the Red Wall, in the Blue Wall, as well as in Scotland (making Labour’s victory in the recent Rutherglen by-election all the less surprising. As long as the cost of living is king, exhaustion will define the mood at the next election. Britons aren’t ready to move on – nay, Britons can’t afford to think of much else. Immigration may excite those on the edges, but largely those who typically care for little else. And while cynicism about boats, borders and refugees endures among the median Briton, those who make it their political priority remain few.

[See also: Danger still lies ahead for Labour]

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Apathy is the state of feeling among most Conservative voters. In 2019 they came out for Boris Johnson in order to “get Brexit done”. Now, little enthusiasm remains for the pale imitation that is “Action Man”. Less than half of 2019 Tory voters believe that Sunak unveiled a strong set of policies at the Tory party conference last month. 

At present around 45 per cent of the base say they’ll vote Tory, around 30 per cent are unsure or wouldn’t vote, and 10-20 per cent say they’ll switch Labour. Tory strategists rightly point out that apathy is inevitable when you’re the party of government – when promises collide with practicality. But Tory apathy doesn’t just exist in isolation. Labour has a convincing poll lead as the best party to manage the economy – to tackle the issue that most animates voters. The opposition might not be trusted to solve the cost-of-living crisis, but relative to the government? Without question, it is more. “They couldn’t do a worse job,” as the customary focus group participant would put it.

Indifference. This interacts in a crucial way with apathy. Normally the apathy felt by the governing party’s supporters morphs into tacit enthusiasm as the election draws closer. It did in 1992, in 2005, in 2015, and at other times where the midterm polling position had suggested defeat for the government.

The reason to think this time will be different is the level of indifference towards a Keir Starmer premiership from… the Conservative base. Just half of them find the prospect dissatisfying, while a quarter feel the reverse and the rest don’t know. Tory campaigners hoping to rally the base through “New Labour, new danger”-style messaging are likely to be disappointed.

Stop the world I want to get off. This captures it all. More than two thirds of voters regard the next election as a moment for “change”. Sunak’s bid to claim this mantle in his Conservative conference speech showed he’s at least alert to this overarching sentiment, but he lacks the ability to turn it to his advantage. Unless the cost-of-living crisis loses its status as the pre-eminent political issue – unless it’s replaced by immigration or an issue on which the Tory reputation isn’t in tatters, I ask you: how can you overcome this? Unless public anxiety recedes as incomes improve – and are felt to improve – then once more, I ask you: how can you overcome this?

[See also: The Tories still think voters are the problem, not them]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article :