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Tory Voters Say The "Broken" Party Has Turned The UK Into A "Sinking Ship"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting BAE Systems, Barrow-in-Furness (Alamy)

9 min read

A broad majority of voters have described the Tory party as broken, out of touch, and lacking in credibility, in a comprehensive new study that seems to foreshadow the reckoning that likely awaits Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the next general election.

A major Mood of the Nation survey by Thinks Insight & Strategy, the findings of which have been shared exclusively with PoliticsHome, interviewed over 2,000 voters of all political persuasions nationwide between 22-24 March — around a fortnight on from the Spring Budget, and with the 2 May local elections on the horizon.

When asked whether they believed the UK has "lost its way", exactly three quarters of respondents (75 per cent) said it had, while just eight per cent of people disagreed with the statement. That included 71 per cent of 2019 Tory voters and 80 per cent of those who supported Labour.

It found that over half of people (57 per cent) felt worse off now than they were five years ago, compared with 36 per cent who said they felt better off, while more people disagreed than agreed with the statement "I feel proud of the UK" (38 per cent to 30 per cent). Forty six per cent of 2019 Tory voters said they were proud of the country, while 25 per cent disagreed. Nearly half of people who voted Labour in 2019 (48 per cent) said disagreed that they are proud of the UK, while 23 per cent agreed.

To accompany its nationwide survey, Thinks Insight & Strategy conducted two focus groups, comprised specifically of 2019 Tory voters based in the towns of Basingstoke and Bolton, which didn't offer much hope for the government either. PoliticsHome observed both focus groups, which took place online on 19 March.

When participants were asked to describe how they feel about the country using a film title, Matt, 30 and living in Basingstoke, said Titanic. It "just seems like a bit of a sinking ship", he explained.

Having backed Boris Johnson's Conservatives when the country last voted in a national election five years ago, each of the participants said they planned to switch to different parties at the next election or were undecided how they will vote when the country goes to the polls. None were explicitly supportive of the Conservatives or Sunak, who must call a vote before the end of the year.

Taken together, the survey and focus groups underline the scale of how unpopular the Conservative party has become after 14 years in power and the strength of the general public's desire for change. One Tory strategist responding to the research summarised the situation the party finds itself in as follows: "The economy is shit, the NHS shit, and the borders are shit."

But the Conservatives may garner a shred of optimism from participants' doubt over what Keir Starmer's Labour Party is offering as an alternative. Fifty per cent of respondents agreed that they "don't really know what a Labour Government led by Keir Starmer would do differently". 

Regardless, Labour has been well ahead of the Conservatives across all credible polls for over a year, and is widely expected to win the next election. 

“I've always voted for the Conservative party," said Tony, 45, who lives in Basingstoke. "I just think that they've lost their way as a party. How in touch they are with us, what they actually achieve. We talk about our country being broken. The party is broken.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria (Alamy)

Despite Sunak's efforts to rebuild his party's position in the opinion polls, and as he attempts to boost party morale, the Tories continue to trail Labour by large, double digit margins.

Data shared with PoliticsHome by More in Common earlier this week found that 58 per cent of people, including nearly half of 2019 Tory voters, felt that the Conservatives deserve to lose the next election. Polling veteran John Curtice this week told Politico he believes Labour has a "99 percent chance of Labour forming the next administration".

Ongoing cost-of-living pressures loomed large over the focus groups. While some participants said the strain had started to ease, they stressed that the general picture remained very difficult, and offered examples of where they had been forced to make cut-backs.

"I’ve become like the heating police in the house, sat here with my big hoodie on," explained Gemma, a 35-year-old in Bolton. "Because I'm the one who's like, we don't need the heating on now. I'm conscious that the bills are really expensive". 

Dominic, 54, who also lives in Greater Manchester was particularly feeling the squeeze in the supermarket. "Even Aldi seems expensive," he said.

Bolton-based Francine, 57, said Sunak "can't physically be able to get his head around that, being a multi, multi-millionaire".

Years of Conservative party infighting and controversy had also significantly shaped participants' views on who to vote for. 

The partygate scandal of Covid lockdown gatherings in Downing Street, which played a big part in Johnson's eventual downfall as prime minister in 2022, was cited numerous times as a reason why the participants were planning to ditch the Tories at the next general election. For Matt, “credibility just went straight out of the window as soon as you start not implementing the own rules that you set in”. 

The short and chaotic stint in Downing Street put in by Sunak's immediate predecessor Liz Truss, which triggered panic in the financial markets and caused interest rates and therefore mortgages to rise, also provoked strong reactions.

"I think the nail in the coffin for me was Liz Truss’ four weeks of work experience, which just completely turned everything upside down," said Emma, 46, in Basingstoke.

Former prime minister Liz Truss speaks to the Institute for Government think tank (Alamy)

Dominic also brought up the erstwhile prime minister. "How the hell she got the job is just beyond me," he said. She was just terrible, and she just really kicks off a really bad moment for this country. You thought, how could it be worse? But she was it. We’re still suffering from what she did.”

Responding to Thinks Insight & Strategy's survey, 65 per cent of people who don't plan to vote Conservative at the next election agreed there was "nothing" that the Tories could do to persuade them to vote for them. Just 12 per cent disagreed with that statement.

The announcement of a further two per cent National Insurance cut in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt's Spring Budget seemed not to have had much of a positive impact on respondents' perception of Government. Twenty one per cent said they didn’t pay attention to the budget and 26 per cent said they couldn’t remember anything about it. Seventy-three per cent of respondents were closer to describing Sunak and Hunt's headline tax cut as making "almost no difference" to their personal finances, while just 18 per cent were closer to describing it as having a "big" difference.

Despite the survey having identified a moderate belief that some individual policies announced earlier this month would leave people feeling better off, like freezing fuel and alcohol duties, more people said the Spring Budget as an overall package would leave them worse off than better off (23 per cent to 15 per cent). Nearly half (44 per cent) said it would make no difference.

Seventy-four per cent said ministers were cutting taxes to "try and persuade people to vote for them" rather than "because they believe it is the right thing to do" for the economy (18 per cent selecting).

This was a sentiment expressed in the focus group by Anthony in Bolton, 49, who said the further 2 per cent cut to National Insurance cut "feels like a bit of a bribe without any common sense behind it".

Labour leader Keir Starmer with new Welsh First Minister Vaughan Gething (Alamy)

The research wasn't wholly positive for Labour either, illustrating the challenge facing Starmer to give voters a clear impression of what his party would do with power if elected to office later this year. 

Exactly half of survey respondents agreed that they "don't really know what a Labour Government led by Keir Starmer would do differently," while around a quarter (24 per cent) disagreed.

Grace in Bolton, 27, described Labour as the "lesser of two evils".

Dominic felt similarly. "It's not that they [Labour] are so amazing," he explained. "It's just that the Conservatives are so bad that they surely can't be as bad as the Conservatives."

Anthony recalled an "absolutely buzzing" atmosphere in the country when Tony Blair's Labour party won the 1997 general election, but said this time around it would be "more [a feeling of] relief" if the Conservatives were removed Conservatives from office.

Cat Smith, the Labour MP for Lancaster and Wyre, defended what she described as her party's "values"-based strategy when the findings were put to her on the latest episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown.

"It's a fair claim to say that people are ready for change, annoyed with the Tories, but waiting to hear Labour's offer. That's a fair claim," said the former shadow minister.

"But I'd argue it's very difficult for the Labour Party to set out in detail when we don't know when the election is going to take place. Potentially, it could be, though I think it's unlikely, that it's in January next year, in which case setting things out ten months out is asking for trouble.

"I do think my party's front bench is probably right to keep some things under their hats at this stage but voters are certainly ready to hear and ready to listen."

But Labour nevertheless led the Conservatives in all but one of fifteen qualities tested by the survey, including competence, sound economic management, and putting British people first. Starmer's party has a particularly sizable lead when it comes to who best "understands ordinary people's lives" (47 per cent over 8 per cent) — which along with honesty is the quality people most want to see from the next government, according to the Think Insight & Strategy poll.

What was especially clear from Thinks Insight & Strategy's research was that people were ready to give the opposition a go at Government. "It’s just time for change," Francine in the northwest focus group said.

Sixty-one per cent of survey respondents said the UK needs a new government, compared with 32 per cent who said it wouldn't make a difference. Forty-five per cent said they were "excited" by the prospect of a change of government, while 22 per cent disagreed.

According to Thinks Insight & Strategy, one of the possible reasons why optimism levels are up 16 per cent on its last survey in the Autumn (though pessimistic remains the prevailing mood by 58 per cent to 35 per cent who feel optimistic) is the more likely prospect of a change in government.

Anthony said that while he was feeling pessimistic about the state of the UK, he would "couch it" with the possibility that political change was on the horizon.

"By the end of this year, hopefully we're in a bit of a better position in terms of feeling a bit more optimistic,” he said. 

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