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  1. The Weekend Interview
25 March 2023

John Curtice on how the Tories are “stuffed”

Britain’s TV polling icon on spats with Labour, the UK reversing Brexit, and why the Union is “in trouble”.

By Anoosh Chakelian

To the British press, John Curtice is a “polling guru”, “cult hero” and even “the man who won the election”, when he accurately predicted that Theresa May would lose her majority in 2017. For a nation that has “had enough of experts”, we’ve always had time for one: Professor Sir John Curtice. The man himself, however, prefers “fool”.

“We are licensed jesters, OK?” he insisted, with the modest flick of first-person plural he used throughout our interview when discussing his profession. “We have a certain freedom to say things that are not being said. But, of course, all fools in any court can always be ignored.”

Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, is the best-known of Britain’s handful of academics who analyse elections for the broadcasters. Since 1992 he’s been involved in the general election exit polls, perfecting the method to declare accurate predictions from 2005 onwards and delivering his insights from on high (the BBC studio balcony).

A student of David Butler, a BBC election night veteran who invented the “swingometer” in the 1950s, Curtice in his phlegmatic style has upheld Britain’s grand tradition of the Telly Boffin. A Twitter account called @johncurticeontv simply posts screenshots of him popping up on our screens. It has more than 12,000 followers.

[See also: Exclusive poll: Britons still don’t know what the point of Brexit was]

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“I live with it,” he sighed, of his celeb status. “I’m not particularly interested in talking about myself, but you can give it a try.”

Grey-suited and spotty-tied, shirt cuffs fraying and black-and-brown lace-ups scuffed at the toes, Curtice, 69, fits the aesthetic of dishevelled don. We sat at a table between the oak doors and mighty fireplace of a converted Georgian vicarage in Islington, north London: the HQ of the National Centre for Social Research, where he’s a fellow.

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Tipping back in his chair, rocking on its two back legs, he lent forward and slammed his hands on the table when making particularly impassioned psephological points. His blue eyes held mischief, and flickers of impatience for things that didn’t interest him (when I asked, for example, which snacks fuel him and fellow exit pollsters through hours holed up in their secret room in London, phones confiscated, on polling day).

He prefers working from his study at home in the west end of Glasgow. His wife, Lisa, who retrained during lockdown as a voluntary priest, works in the front room. They “say hello for lunch and for tea” in the working day, and share the cooking. They have one daughter, a senior civil servant.

Curtice is not so much talking head as a headache for spin doctors. His snap verdicts on election results and dramatic polls explode through carefully choreographed party lines. A sulky briefing from Labour, after the party won Wakefield in a by-election last June, challenged the cult of Curtice: “People here are furious about him yet again setting the narrative totally unchallenged. There should have been an internal inquiry at the Beeb after his nonsense during the locals and now he’s at it again.” (He had said that the 2022 local election results were not as rosy as Labour made out.)

[See also: Rishi Sunak, not Keir Starmer, is now the leader under pressure]

“You can argue with the criteria I used to evaluate the performance, that’s fine, that’s a reasonable debate – but play the ball on that, is all I would ask,” he told me. “I disturbed the Labour Party’s narrative that night, they didn’t accept it. I’m terribly sorry, it is not our job to fall in with the narrative.”

Instead, he sees his job as a public service – to question politicians and preconceptions. “Anyone who appears on a BBC election night programme, you should be aware: we are listening,” he warned, his ever-animated eyebrows levitating. “We can say things a BBC-employed person, or ITV or Sky, cannot say quite so easily. There’s a degree to which journalism is controlled by the narrative, and you have to say what Labour says and the Conservatives say – well, frankly, I don’t care what either of them say. Tell us what’s actually going on!”

So what is actually going on?

The next general election “definitely could” be another 1997 for Labour, Curtice reflected. After Liz Truss’s government collapsed, the “prospect of a Labour overall administration came into view for the first time, and it’s certainly a non-trivial probability”. But he’s not sure. “The electoral system is not operating in Labour’s favour, so even a 20-point lead may not get you to Blair landslide territory.”

And the Tories’ prospects? “If you’re 20 points behind in the polls, and we saw anti-Conservative tactical voting kicking in last year – if all that remains, then surely the Conservatives are on a hiding to nothing,” he said. “The economic position looks terrible. We’re back to the 1970s, concertina-ed into 12 months. We have industrial unrest, high inflation, fiscal crisis, a dramatic fall in living standards – oh, and by the way, even though we’ve got record taxation and public spending, the service levels are crap.”

Although governments presiding over a financial crash are usually defeated in the next election, Curtice observed that this is the first time a party has switched leader in the wake of such a crash: “Rishi Sunak has a certain amount of economic credibility.”

[See also: Lucy Easthope: “We are all disaster survivors now”]

A hung parliament is “still in the game”, he added, but as the Tories “don’t have any friends inside the House of Commons” they have little chance of forming a minority government. “Unless they can get about 320 seats, they’re stuffed.”

Curtice, brought up among the white-capped peaks of clay pits in St Austell, Cornwall, remembers his home morphing from working-class mining town to tourist spot. His father was a carpenter and mother a market researcher. They let him stay up late for the first hour of the 1964 general election at ten years old, his first memory of an election. A Labour-supporting uncle became an independent councillor and his mother a Lib Dem councillor, and there were “some family arguments” about politics. He doesn’t reveal his own.

As a teenager he read David Butler and Donald Stokes’s Political Change in Britain, and went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. “I’m classic in my generation, that first generation of people who profited from the beginning of the expansion of the university system, which was still an elite system at that stage.”

Some universities later, he ended up in Scotland (on time to watch the “amazing constitutional experiment” of devolution play out) – and stayed there. There will be a second Scottish independence referendum “at some point”, he said, although “it may be quite a while”, and in his view the “Union is in trouble”. “Half the public want out. If you want to save the Union, you have to change public opinion, but making the case means explaining why Brexit is to Scotland’s advantage. Good luck!”

He also believes another EU referendum will come “at some point”, though he predicts “it might take 20 years”.

Whenever these reruns happen, generational change may well lead the Union to break up and the UK to return to the EU, he argued. “If you look at the demographics, it doesn’t look good” for the unionist or eurosceptic causes. “It’s older people who are in favour of the union, and who were in favour of Brexit. You can already see the people who couldn’t vote in 2016 are very strongly in favour [of Remain]. Today’s middle-aged people will have to be persuaded, or these things will become decidedly unpopular.”

Perhaps the only certainty is that we’ll have John Curtice, or whoever’s next in line to the BBC balcony, to decode what on earth we decide next.

[See also: Why “stop the boats” won’t save Rishi Sunak – State of the Nation]

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This article appears in the 29 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special