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Veteran Political Strategist Says Tory Party's Biggest Enemy Is "Themselves"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on a campaign visit to BAe Systems Submarines in Barrow-in-Furness (alamy)

5 min read

Frank Luntz, an Influential political strategist, has said the Conservative Party’s worst threat is “themselves”, as the Tories continue to struggle in the polls and face significant losses at the next general election.

Luntz has worked in politics for three decades and is renowned for helping conservative politicians resonate their ideas with the public. His best-known advice includes telling former US President George Bush’s government that they should use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming”, and he famously coined the term "death tax" as an alternative to "inheritance tax" in political campaigning. 

Speaking to PoliticsHome as the UK prepares for a general election to be called this year, with a set of local votes taking place as soon as May, the veteran American pollster said he believed the reason the Conservatives were facing such heavy defeat was that they had failed to connect with the public.

But he felt the greatest threat to the current ruling party was "themselves", and that a lack of vision was making defeat increasingly inevitable. 

“Elections are not about the past, they are about the future. But the public has had enough of Conservative rule,” he said.

“You can see in all the surveys, in all the focus groups, that they want something different that apparently is not being heard by MPs. [Government is] going to face a very hostile electorate probably six months from now."

Luntz has said he believes that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is a “talented politician”, particularly after observing him at the Conservative Party conference in October last year. But he felt that the Government has offered too much of the “status quo” to voters and not enough “fundamental change”.

“[Sunak] needs to offer a meaningful, measurable alternative, not just to Labour but the last 14 years. And I don’t think they get that,” he continued.

The Conservative Party has trailed Labour in the polls for over a year, and remains significantly behind in all age groups apart from those aged 65 and above. Polling released by YouGov on Thursday showed the Tories support had fallen below 20 per cent for the first time since Sunak took office in October 2022, with 44 per cent of respondents saying they intended to vote Labour. Reform UK was at 14 per cent and are only five points behind the party in the opinion polls.

Luntz said how Sunak ended up as Prime Minister, after Liz Truss was ejected by MPs following a chaotic 49 days in Downing Street, was “ridiculous” and an “embarrassment” which the Tory Party would not fully recover from until after the next general election.

“Whoever is going to replace him will have to do it after the next general election. I'm sure that the jockeying will start now because the writing's on the wall," he added.

“You can’t spin this. It's not spinnable, and the people involved in the campaign know this. They should have dealt with it 18 months ago and not today.

“All you have to do is look at the by-election results. And that is the screaming warning sign that the party [has] ignored month after month, year after year.” The Conservatives have lost a spate of by-elections to Labour and the Lib Dems over the last year, some in seats where they previously held large majorities. 

When he addressed the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs in June last year, Luntz warned that those with majorities of 15,000 or less were likely to lose their seat, The Sun reported at the time. 

He declined to comment on the figure and said it was a number which should have never been leaked, as it was part of a conversation discussed in a private meeting.

A number of opinion polls have indicated the Tories could lose every single seat they won from Labour at the 2019 general election, when the party won a historic 80-seat majority, including seats in regions that did not traditionally vote Tory. An Electoral Calculus MRP poll published in February has suggested the party may only receive 22 per cent of the national vote share – and will be left with 80 MPs.

Luntz suspects the number of Tory safe seats could actually be higher than this figure – but not by much. “I think they're 150 [safe seats]. That’s not many,” he said.

His advice to Tory MPs, who were in marginal seats, and wanted to save their careers, was to remind their own voters of the personal relationship and connection they have with them. 

“It's not a matter of saving the Conservative Party. It's a matter of reminding them who they are as individuals,” he said.

“It's only worth a couple of per cent. But there are going to be 30 seats that will be decided by a couple of percent.”

But he said that the “double-edged” challenge for the Conservatives would be getting voters to the polling station in the first place, with fears that low turnout among apathetic voters could cost the Tories. 

There is some concern in Westminster that the US and UK election could coincide, with Americans going to the polls on 7 November and the UK election widely expected to be held in the autumn. 

But Luntz dismissed the idea that any US result could influence voters in the UK. “I don't see a single British person voting based on the outcome of the American election,” he said.

The American strategist’s core message for MPs heading out to campaign, was to avoid “negativity” which he felt had become commonplace within American politics. 

“Britain needs to keep the American negativity out of its election system. Do not copy us. Because we're a mess. And we've done a lot of damage to our democracy," he added. 

“I hope that Britain can retain its democratic independence.”

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