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  1. The Weekend Report
22 June 2024

The Conservative wipeout

How the Tory party campaign came apart.

By Rachel Cunliffe

The Conservative election campaign is in freefall. Following weeks of gaffes and mishaps, the party now finds itself embroiled in a gambling scandal, with Tory figures close to Rishi Sunak being investigated for placing bets on the election date. The Tory campaign director has had to take leave of absence two weeks before polling day, while the Prime Minister claims to be “incredibly angry” yet refuses to disavow the candidates in question or offer straight answers on who knew what when.

The scandal is a microcosm of the way the campaign has disintegrated: chaos, humiliation, and internal decisions so misguided they almost look like sabotage. It exposes a party that has been damaged beyond all expectations. It is difficult to communicate the full extent of that damage, but three large-scale MRP (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polls, published on 19 June, offer a revealing picture.

Of the three, the best result for the Tories was the More in Common survey, which put the party on 155 seats; the worst, conducted by Savanta, gave them 53. Crossing the “psychological Rubicon” of the party’s calamitous defeat to Labour in 1997, in which the Tories were left with just 165 MPs, now seems inevitable. What had been considered the floor of Conservative support looks more like a ceiling.

Asking Tory candidates, strategists and advisers to sum up this campaign in one word or phrase yields some colourful results – from “calamitous” to “shitshow”. One former prime ministerial aide described it as “political Dignitas” and “electoral seppuku” (referring, respectively, to the Swiss clinic for assisted dying and the ritualistic suicide of Samurai warriors in ancient Japan). Another simply replied: “I haven’t found a bleak enough word yet.”

Labour cannot believe its luck. The threatened assault on Keir Starmer’s record as director of public prosecutions and scaremongering about a party so recently led by a man who opposed Britain’s nuclear deterrent has come to nothing. Back at the party conference in Liverpool in October, the question still being raised was whether the next election would be “1992 or 1997”; now, the scale of Labour’s majority forecast by the Savanta MRP poll is more than double Blair’s 1997 landslide. And all this, while outright enthusiasm for Starmer remains relatively modest.

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Something seismic has happened to the Conservative Party. Something has been broken. Looking back over the campaign two-thirds of the way in, with postal votes already being sent off and polling day less than two weeks away, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment it all went wrong.

The answer I was most frequently given by Tory insiders from across the party was 22 May, the day Sunak made the shock decision to call the election for 4 July. This went against the advice of his campaign director Isaac Levido and others in his senior team. It meant facing the electorate before the impact of falling inflation was felt; before the Bank of England had cut interest rates (now expected to happen at the monetary policy committee’s August and September meetings); before Nigel Farage had jetted off to America to distract himself with the presidential election there; and, most importantly, before the Conservative ecosystem of local associations, candidates, activists and strategists were ready.

The suggestion of calling an election in spring or summer, dangled by Jeremy Hunt with his National Insurance-cutting budget, was, I was told, supposed to be a bluff, intended to keep Labour busy panicking about an imminent election while the Tory party had time to properly prepare for autumn. By changing his mind, Sunak managed to catch his own party off guard while ensuring Labour would be ready.

But the 22 May answer, while tidy, obscures something deeper: the Conservative Party was broken before Sunak called the election. Conservatives just hadn’t noticed it yet.

One of the strange things about this campaign is how suddenly the Tory messaging U-turned from warning of a hung parliament – with the vote share from the local elections on 2 May suggesting Labour might not be able to win an overall majority – to raising the spectre of a “supermajority” where Labour would have virtually unchecked power.

Neither of these warnings make a huge amount of sense. As was robustly pointed out at the time, the main takeaway from the May results was not the possibility of a hung parliament but the sheer strength of anti-Tory feeling, which distributed votes for Labour and Liberal Democrats across the UK with alarming efficiency. 

“Supermajorities”, meanwhile, mean very little in British politics: a government can theoretically force through whatever legislation it likes through the Commons with a majority of one, and a large number of MPs doesn’t help much if there are challenges in the Lords, or indeed the courts.

But the about-turn in messaging tells us something interesting about the mindset within CCHQ of late: it is only very recently that those at the top of the Conservative Party realised quite how badly they were going to lose.

The narrative of the election campaign so far is that Tory support has “collapsed”. Judging by the shock – from the media but more importantly from the Conservatives themselves – when each new poll lands with the latest dire forecast, you would be forgiven for assuming that something had gone badly wrong in the past few weeks. “I cannot believe we are still going backwards,” one former party strategist despaired.

And much has gone wrong. From Rishi Sunak’s rain-soaked election announcement accompanied by a protester blaring out a recording of New Labour anthem “Things Can Only Get Better”, to his decision to leave an international D-Day commemoration event early, it has felt at times like the Tory campaign is being scripted by writers of a political sitcom. Sillier but even more absurd gaffes, such as Sunak’s speech at the Titanic Quarter in Belfast on 24 May when he was asked about sinking ships, or, more recently, footage of David Cameron and the Prime Minister haplessly trying to feed a flock of fleeing sheep, have only accentuated the sense of ineptitude.

But if Conservative support has collapsed, the bulk of that collapse happened long ago. Conservatives can argue about whether the start of the death spiral occurred once Sunak was Prime Minister, or beforehand with the Liz Truss mini-Budget, or during Boris Johnson’s months-long partygate saga, but the damage was there for all to see.

In February 2023, the New Statesman’s Britain Predicts model was forecasting a Labour majority of 198 – and that was kind. An Electoral Calculus MRP from the same month put the number of Tory seats at 45. Labour has enjoyed a lead of nearly 20 points in the polls for more than a year. 

Conservative support has never recovered from the Truss era. Sunak’s own popularity first slipped below his party’s at the start of 2023. The latest MRP polls are shocking because they refer to an election being held in two weeks, but they do not say anything markedly different from other polls run over the past 18 months.

What has been so surprising in this campaign is not that the Conservative vote has cratered, but that it has not recovered as expected. Which raises the question: why were so many Conservatives so certain it would recover in the first place?

In conversations with senior Conservatives over the past few months before the election was called, I heard a range of reassurances. The polls always narrow closer to election day; there is no enthusiasm for Keir Starmer, just apathy towards the Conservatives; Tory voters picking “don’t know” in the polls will change their minds on polling day and turn out. These assumptions were at the heart of the hung-parliament narrative following local elections.

Now, with less than two weeks to go and Tories facing the possibility of annihilation, this confidence doesn’t look misplaced so much as delusional. But that is what the strategy was based on: blind faith that things couldn’t possibly be as bad as the evidence suggested. And this optimism has prevented a serious conversation until now about the party’s inherent fragility and its causes.

According to the former Tory minister David Gauke, the demise is the belated consequence of Brexit, with the party refusing to admit how toxic the issue is to its traditional base and to younger voters. Others point even further back. When I spoke to the Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie ahead of the local elections, he referred to the party as a “decaying organism”, a poisoned tree suffering the “political equivalent of Dutch elm disease”, with everything from candidate selection to the way ideas are debated declining over the past 14 years.

Another long-standing political adviser agreed that the current campaign meltdown is the result of the hollowing out of the Tory ecosystem that pre-dates Sunak. They also suggested that Boris Johnson’s 2019 triumph had masked deep-seated problems within the party. His cheerful boosterism and promise to end the Brexit saga, along with the collapse of Labour under a deeply unpopular and untrusted leader, won him an 80-seat majority and allowed the party to avoid confronting its own failings: on housebuilding, productivity, living standards, public service provision, and on resolving the inherent contradictions of Brexit itself. When the Boris gloss wore off during the partygate scandal, those failings were exposed. The party panicked, descending into infighting and eventually selecting Liz Truss as leader. Sunak inherited something that was already irreparably broken.

But others point to another “f*** factor”: Sunak himself, and the certainty in his cheerleaders that he would be an asset on the campaign trail.

Again, all the evidence pointed to the contrary. First elected as an MP in 2015, Sunak was not in a key public-facing frontbench role in either 2017 or 2019 and had limited experience in the glaring eye of a national campaign. His interactions with the public did not suggest any great communication skills. Rather, the PM had a noticeable tendency to come across as condescending or “tetchy” when challenged. In December, I reported on concerns among Tory MPs that the pressure of an election campaign might break Sunak, with words like “tantrum” and “meltdown” being used.

Sunak has not yet been caught on camera losing it completely, but his petulance has come through. He pulled out of the Tory party’s fundraising black and white ball this week, sparking anger, just to shake with fury in front of a hostile Question Time audience; he was also aggressive and patronising to callers on an LBC radio phone-in.

The Prime Minister’s personal popularity has dropped to an all-time low during the campaign, making him even less popular than his party. He has a lower popularity rating than Jeremy Corbyn in 2019, or that of Labour’s doomed leader Michael Foot in 1983.

In terms of charisma – that raw ability to connect with people as displayed by Tony Blair, Boris Johnson and even Nigel Farage – he falls markedly short. So the decision to attempt a presidential-style campaign, with Sunak at the heart of it, has been a serious misstep. “We’re trying to run a personality-based election campaign with a leader who has none,” one exasperated Tory insider told me.

“The fish rots from the head,” they continued, when I mentioned the deeper, long-standing challenges faced by the Tories. “Rishi fundamentally doesn’t understand the party. He’s been involved for less than ten years.” Indeed, the announcement on ConservativeHome of Sunak’s selection as the Tory candidate to succeed William Hague in Richmond in 2014 makes revealing reading: among the list of his career and educational accomplishments, there is no mention of any tie with the party.His newness to politics has meant he was entirely unsuited to the task of rebuilding a crumbling party he had little history with.

His judgement has also come under attack. People I spoke to cited a variety of moments when the Prime Minister made decisions in favour of avoiding infighting rather than improving the party’s electoral standing: opting not to condemn Liz Truss and her economic experiment until the last moment; reappointing Suella Braverman as home secretary; pinning everything on the Rwanda policy; indulging the populists in an attempt to neutralise the threat of Reform that has failed utterly, while giving the Liberal Democrats the chance to sweep in. “You can’t out-Farage Farage,” as one source put it, arguing that this campaign would be looking very different if Sunak had chosen to shore up the vote in southern Tory heartlands rather than continuing to insist he could retain the Red Wall with a stronger anti-immigration line. The decision to call the election early, in the hope of avoiding a showdown within the party over leaving the European Court of Human Rights in order to enact his Rwanda policy, was just the latest in a long line of blunders.

All of this has been compounded by an inexperienced team around the Prime Minister who think (or, until very recently, thought) he is far more adept at politics than he actually is. Loyalty has morphed into “delusion”, one source told me. Sunak’s baffling decision to leave the D-Day event early in order to record a TV interview that wouldn’t air for another week would never have happened had he had more assertive people around him able to question his misjudgements. According to a source close to the campaign: “He thought it was fine so they thought it was fine.” It was not fine.

Perhaps the sensationalist MRP polls are overblown. Or perhaps now the Tory death spiral has begun, it will continue – who knows how big the election-date gambling scandal will become, or what further debacles lie in wait. Whatever the exact result on election day, Labour will be taking over from a party that has managed to all but destroy itself. The blame game will become frenzied as a bitter leadership contest begins. Sunak will jet off to California while whichever MPs that remain fight over the scraps he has left behind. Things will, I was told by multiple people, get worse before they get better.

But as the survivors conduct the autopsy of this campaign, they would do well to remember that, however disastrous, the six weeks before polling day is not what broke the party. That was just the moment when the extent of the damage that Rishi Sunak and so many around him have been insisting is fixable, became impossible to ignore. 

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