Could the Tories win the next general election? What follows is a reported thought experiment. Every experienced commentator, including this one, agrees that Labour is overwhelmingly likely to be victorious. Yet in politics, as in life, “everyone knows” can be a red flag.
For Rishi Sunak to win seems mission impossible. Come on! After that huge budgetary mistake, with its lingering premium on mortgage rates? After those extinction-level polls? After a dozen years of weak economic growth, deteriorating services, and public boredom with the Conservative Party’s internal feuds? No, no, no.
Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, with their children and Labradors, can enjoy a fascinating couple of years in Downing Street. But win an election? That is, to twist a phrase, fairy-tale politics.
Yet the Conservative Party, one of the most successful electoral machines in European history, doesn’t give in easily. Even now, a hardened and determined inner team are planning to win the next election. How? I’ve been talking to some of them privately and here is their thinking.
The first factor in the Tories’ favour is time. We all experience the acceleration of news, and the way our memories cope by ruthlessly filtering out past events. Around four weeks ago, Kwasi Kwarteng was still chancellor. The pound was plunging. Gilt yields were spiking. It wasn’t clear whether Liz Truss could hang on as prime minister – and utterly unclear who might replace her. Four weeks. It seems an age. There are roughly 113 weeks until a general election must be called – polling day must be held before 11 January 2025. That’s a political lifetime. “The Bank’s central expectation is that inflation should be reasonably low and falling by 2024. Ukraine, who knows?” said one of the Prime Minister’s advisers. “Two years of undramatic competence could have a dramatic impact.”
The next factor is geography. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has roughly the same number of seats, around 200, as David Cameron’s Tories had before the 2010 election. Cameron deprived Labour of power but was short of an overall majority and had to form a coalition. And geographically, Labour has a harder task now. As another Sunak adviser said, to win Starmer must take seats from the Tories in many different parts of the country: “He will take a lot of the Red Wall but not all. He’s going to need “blue wall” seats as well, shire seats; he needs to flip seats on the train ride from Waterloo to the south coast. And Wales – which is going quite well for him – and Scotland, which isn’t.
“He needs the market towns that Michael Howard won for the Conservatives in 2005 and Cameron won in 2010. There are a lot of them, so it’s a wide and varied task. There are probably 150 battleground seats now, and that makes the battle ahead very different.”
Conservatives speak of the “sophomore surge”, an American term that describes how constituencies, when they’ve changed party, tend to support the new MP for at least one more election. If so, that suggests Labour may win fewer Red Wall seats than expected. None of this deflects a powerful national mood for a change of government, but it may change the way the argument plays out.
As another adviser pointed out, just as in the last general election the Conservatives persuaded long-term but increasingly sceptical Labour voters in the north of England and Midlands to finally vote Tory, the south is full of voters from traditional Conservative families whose economic interests and values “should” put them in the Labour or Liberal Democrat columns. For cultural reasons or unease about the hard left, they haven’t yet switched: if they do now it’s game over for the Tories.
So, finally, to policy. If both the Conservatives and Labour look in different directions at once, their policy positions must be more locally attentive and less focused on the big picture. Truss, for instance, might have starkly prioritised economic growth over environmental protections, whereas Sunak’s survivalist, defending party just can’t. Sewage in rivers and on beaches; the erosion of natural spaces; house building in rural areas – these are too effective recruiters for the liberal enemy.
The migrant issue alarms Tory strategists who see Nigel Farage and Richard Tice’s Reform Party attacking from the right. “If Farage achieves 10 points [in the polls] he will finish the Conservatives off,” said one No 10 aide. Hence Sunak’s rush to Egypt to meet with President Emmanuel Macron at Cop27; hence his reluctance to ditch Suella Braverman.
Needing to look both ways, something inherited from Johnson’s 2019 shape-shifting appeal, explains the apparent confusion about the new cabinet’s direction. Pro-energy security but abandoning fracking? Tick. Rethinking enterprise zones even though they have been among the Prime Minister’s prior enthusiasms? Cautious tick. Keeping Braverman and her controversial policies, while welcoming the Asian Britons who are joining the Sunak Tories in large numbers and donating too? Tick.
Neither space nor time, nor neat footwork, will help the Tories if they can’t hold a parliamentary majority together. “The absolutely necessary threshold for success,” said one member of team Sunak, “is that the parliamentary party have looked over the precipice and into the grave and are now willing to play ball. If they aren’t, frankly, nothing else matters.”
The Prime Minister faces a crumbling coalition inside the House of Commons as well as across the country. The Conservative Party has counted 80 “malcontent” MPs who won’t forgive Sunak for “knifing Boris Johnson – and let’s be honest, he did”. Post-2019 MPs from varying parts of the country have different interests. One experienced MP admitted: “What you might call the Brexit/Corbyn coalition has fractured.”
This means that apparently trivial Westminster stories remain relevant to the bigger picture. If Matt Hancock’s fun on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in Australia leads to a lost by-election. The fall of Gavin Williamson for bullying, his third resignation under three prime ministers, rams home the impression that in his hurry to shape an inclusive government of all the Tory good, bad and ugly, Sunak’s judgement about individuals is shaky. There are other examples, and ever forget that each obliterated parliamentary career can lead to a by-election and another loss. Then there is Boris Johnson’s peerage list – potentially another four losses. And in this way, a strong paper majority in the Commons begins to crumble.
First it will crumble, then splinter. Labour MPs are looking forward to Tory MPs concluding that they need to make a career outside of politics, and provoking a further erosion of authority, by-election after by-election. As a scribbler who has predicted Labour will win the next election; and that it might come sooner than expected, nothing I’ve heard in the last fortnight has really made me reconsider.
Labour, however, does underestimate subtle Tory strengths at its peril. None of the recent unforced errors – over Williamson and Hancock, say – will matter if Sunak and Hunt unveil a plan that, if brutal, moves market sentiment in their favour and is received as broadly fair. The two men have forged a strong partnership: when did we last have a chancellor who was more experienced than his neighbour but didn’t want his job? “If we get back to running the government calmly and quietly, people will look at us again,” said a friend of Sunak.
And indeed, peace and quiet are underrated. Most voters ignore politics a lot of the time. The stream of stories coming out of Westminster is an irritant. Team Sunak, emphasising the importance of “doing the simple things well”, see Truss as the Tories’ Jeremy Corbyn, a restless instigator of disruption.
It wasn’t what people wanted. After all, the subtext of “Get Brexit Done” was that the Tories would take politics out of people’s lives. In fact, the reverse happened: “Now, they just want stable stuff.”
The public also want strong public services and affordable mortgages. Sunak is “a man in a hurry”, apparently eager to discuss the longer term; but for the electorate it’s now about getting through to Christmas, and then Easter. His team take comfort from his early performances against Starmer, who they described as looking slow, cumbersome and less dynamic than the younger man. One of Sunak’s inner circle told me: “Keir is a guy who has come to politics too late in his life. He’s come from a career which is process driven, and he finds it hard to turn fast on his feet.” Tory internal polling reportedly finds little overt enthusiasm for Starmer among the Conservative voters who would be most likely to switch to Labour.
On policy the Tory attack strategy is to keep describing Labour as lacking any plan, while simultaneously stealing the opposition’s ideas such as windfall taxes and an expansion of wind energy, a shake-up of education and NHS reforms. This makes it harder for Labour to appear fresh, and is certainly unfair, but it may also work. The more Labour emphasises fiscal responsibility, the harder it is to offer a real difference: one key Sunak adviser even thinks that the Truss disaster now puts more constraints on Labour than on the government. The closer the two parties are, the brighter the appeal of a fresh face.
Keir Starmer is formidable and strategic. But if Rishi Sunak can stop his parliamentary party from collapsing, reduce the cost of living and govern for six months without everyone in No 10 running around, dropping their trousers and randomly screaming, then Labour must be wary. I still don’t think the Conservatives can do it. I don’t think they truly believe they can, either. But under Sunak they are quietly determined to have a damn good go.
This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink