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19 May 2023

Why the Tories can’t take hope from 1991

There are good reasons to think there is no overcoming Labour’s lead this time round.

By Ben Walker

Polls change. In 1991 Labour led the Tories by 15 points, as they do today. That lead then rapidly narrowed and the Tories won a majority in 1992. Today’s Labour lead may also collapse. Mention 1991 to a Tory loyalist and they will write you an excited column in the Telegraph – as Gordon Rayner did this week – about how the Tories can win the next election.

But there are major reasons to doubt this optimism. For one, the Conservatives are out of options at the top. In 1991 the party recovered by getting rid of Thatcher. Today, after the self-immolations of 2022, it is stuck with Rishi Sunak. Even under the calmer leadership of the respected former chancellor, the party trails Labour on the question of who would best manage the economy.

Without changing leader, it would be unprecedented for the Tories to recover by as much as they need to win a fifth term. Yet it would also be unprecedented for Labour to recover in one parliament from its dire 2019 result, and to win a substantial majority.

How can the government win when six in ten people think it’s time for a change? How do you overcome that without a dramatic improvement in public feeling about the fall in living standards, which is unlikely to have been reversed by the time of the election 12 or 18 months from now? And how can the governing party cling on when its brand is the worst rated of them all – worse, one should note, than the Faragist outfit Reform UK.

The nation’s dislike for the Conservative brand is now overwhelming. Sunak himself is not greatly disliked, but he is not – at present – popular enough to overcome his party’s ratings. Contrarianism is alluring, but there is good reason to believe in the consensus narrative, that Labour is heading back to power.

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[See also: Is Keir Starmer a secret conservative?]

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