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Boosted Tories Are Optimistic Of A Comeback, But An Election Win Remains "A Long Way Away"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt purchase sweets in Accrington (Alamy)

6 min read

Rishi Sunak has made it through Budget week without a major hitch, continuing his recent momentum and boosting hopes among Conservative MPs that he is starting to drag his party back to a position where it has a fighting chance at the next General Election.

"Boring", was how one veteran Tory MP summarised Jeremy Hunt's statement on Wednesday, which will be music to the Chancellor's ears after the chaos caused by his predecessor last year.

“I suspect we will move on very quickly, and that will be a good thing,” they added.

There were few surprises in Hunt's Spring Budget announcement to the Commons on Wednesday, with most of the details having made their way into the press in the days and weeks leading up to the big day, and with Prime Minister and the Chancellor seeking to maintain economic stability following the upheaval of the shortlived Liz Truss regime.

Hunt's only real surprise announcement – that the government would abolish the lifetime pensions allowance in a bid to encourage over 50s to rejoin the workforce – risked being politically toxic for the Conservatives, with Labour quick out of the traps to describe the policy as a "tax cut for the well off".

Tory MPs were bullish about the policy immediately following the Chancellor's statement, and since then the Labour attack line doesn't appear to have had a great deal of cut through.

But one former minister was reluctant to get too get carried away, warning there had been many examples of major government announcements landing well, only to unravel in the following days.

“The real question is where we are come PMQs," they told PoliticsHome.

"If it’s all still landing positively, it will be a turning point for the PM. But I have learned to always wait for Monday morning. I remember going out to defend the pasty tax," they added, referring to George Osborne's wildly unpopular decision to add 20% VAT to hot takeaways in his "omnishambles" Budget of 2012. Osborne U-turned on the policy shortly after.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt

Snap polling carried out by Savanta on Budget Day made positive reading for Sunak and Hunt.

Nearly half of people surveyed (49 per cent) on Wednesday said they supported the economic package, compared with one in five who opposed it. Headline policies like extending some energy bill support for three months and expanding 30 hours of free childcare to children over nine months also received high levels of public backing, with Savanta finding 79 per cent and 69 per cent support respectively.

In separate Savanta polling for PoliticsHome, more respondents said Sunak had done "well" as PM since the beginning of 2023 than those who said "badly", by a margin of 48 per cent to 42.

On the question of how confident they were that PM Sunak will have improved the issues facing them by the end of the year, 46 per cent said they were confident compared to 47 per cent who were not.

According to Chris Hopkins, Savanta's director of political research, the findings are the latest evidence of Sunak becoming more popular with the general public in recent weeks. 

“If we had asked that second question in January, I am pretty sure it wouldn’t have been neck and neck. It definitely wouldn’t have been that when he replaced Truss in October," he told PoliticsHome.

Since finalising the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland late last month, settling a long-running dispute between the EU and UK, Sunak has enjoyed perhaps the strongest period of his leadership so far. Days later the PM also reached an agreement with French President Emmanuel Macron to step up efforts to prevent Channel crossings. Earlier this week the UK, Australia and US signed a deal to provide Australia with submarines in an update to the AUKUS pact.

The government finally seemed to be making headway on tackling long-running issues at home this week too. On Thursday, ministers reached a pay offer with health unions that could bring most NHS walkouts to an end, and which could potentially pave the way for strike-ending settlements elsewhere in the public sector.

“What is really encouraging people is this drumbeat of delivery," said one backbench Tory.

"On the Northern Ireland deal, small boats, the deal with France and AUKUS, it is just solid stuff."

This momentum looks to have strengthened unity within the parliamentary Conservative party, with MPs who have previously been more critical of Sunak starting to show more willingness to get behind him. “There’s no real love for the PM, but people just want stability and for things to calm down," said one.

PM Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron speaking in Paris
PM Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron speaking in Paris

But while Sunak's recent success has helped his personal ratings, his party is yet to see a major shift in voter intention, with Keir Starmer's Labour continuing to enjoy large, double-digit leads in the polls.

Leading pollster Sir John Curtice, a Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research, said that being able to "fundamentally change the perception of the Conservative party" was the huge challenge facing Sunak and his MPs between now and the next General Election, which must be called before the end of 2024.

"The problems are fundamental," he told PoliticsHome.

"First, there's partygate. Then there's the Truss administration. Thirdly, the economy is in a bad place and as the Office for Budget Responsibility set out this week, living standards are set to decline severely. Fourth, public services are in trouble."

Curtice said that while it was "reasonable" for Conservative MPs to expect that the gap between the two parties in the opinion polls will narrow in the coming weeks and months, being in a position to win the next election remained a "very long way" for them.

“Given how the electoral system works against the Labour Party, I wouldn’t say an overall majority for them is guaranteed," he continued.

"But we have to get real: there's a difference between a 20% Labour lead and a 3-4% Tory lead, which they would need to win a majority.

“When people are asked how they feel about the prospect of a Labour majority, they say ‘eh, I suppose it would be alright’, whereas when it comes to a Conservative majority it’s: ‘shit, that would be awful’."

Curtice stressed that unlike in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats agreed to form a coalition government with David Cameron's Conservatives, the Tories would "have no friends" this time around if they woke up the morning after election day the largest party in Westminster, but with too few seats to form a majority government. 

Savanta's Hopkins offered a similar outlook, telling PoliticsHome that right now the Tories could realistically aim to deprive Labour of a majority, but not win their fifth consecutive general election.

“We are already starting to see movement in the polls. Throughout Sunak’s tenure, we have had Labour leads in the twenties, but now we are in the mid to late teens," he said.

"Winning the next general election is a long way away for the Tories, but depriving Labour of a majority is not. It very much relies on everything going right for Rishi Sunak, but he is starting to do the right things to show to the public that he isn’t a continuation of Conservative party chaos.”

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