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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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MPs Insist 1992's Narrow Tory Victory Is A Blueprint For Rishi Sunak To Cling To Power

Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

5 min read

Hope and belief that Rishi Sunak can pull off a 1992-style Conservative general election victory is gaining traction among his MPs — in their public statements, at least — despite opinion polls continuing to show large, double-digit leads for the Labour Party.

Tory MPs are drawing parallels between Sunak and Major, who defeated Neil Kinnock's Labour in 1992 after thirteen years of Tory government, despite Conservative MPs having only recently ousted Major's predecessor Margaret Thatcher at a time of recession and public discontent.

During a Cabinet away day at Chequers last week, the former Tory party leader Sir William Hague, who succeeded Major after Labour's 1997 landslide and led the party in opposition until 2001, told senior ministers that defeat at the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024, was not inevitable, according to The Sunday Times.

Hague, who is a close ally of Sunak, said that while the current situation facing the Tories was undeniably difficult, they still had time to reverse their fortunes and emulate Major's narrow victory just over thirty years ago.

"All is not yet lost, but it’s up to you," he reportedly told the room.

Hague's message was echoed by Conservative MPs at a reception held by the Tory Reform Group on Monday evening.

Guy Opperman, a minister in the department for work and pensions, said he did not believe the Tories were heading for a 1997-style landslide defeat, despite Labour's huge leads in the polls, because the party is much more prepared for the fight than they were leading up to their wipeout by Tony Blair.

"We were very complacent, bluntly, in 1997. I do not think we have anything like that complacency now," said Opperman, the Conservative MP for Hexham.

"Everybody understands the enormity of the task. Everybody [has] the desire to make a difference. I genuinely believe there is a desire to get behind Rishi."

Opperman was keen to stress that the Tories went on to win a sizeable majority at the 2019 general election having finished a humiliating fifth in European Parliament elections held earlier in the year, and the subsequent party unrest over Brexit that sparked then-Prime Minister Theresa May's resignation.

"It was not a good time," he said. "And yet in nine months, we are winning an 80 majority. The lesson is obvious: a week is a long time in politics, a year is a long time in politics."

He added: "If I go to any kind of polling, the Labour Party are twenty to thirty points ahead. I genuinely do not think that's the case in my constituency. I don't believe it's the case in many, many constituencies. 

"Bluntly, there is a massive cohort of the electorate who are dying for us to make the case for Rishi Sunak and that the Conservatives are providing the answers to the very complex questions that are out there."

Laura Farris, the Tory MP for Newbury elected in 2019, told the TRG reception that while the Conservatives were in the midst of "one of the most difficult times" it had ever faced, it is "impossible to say with confidence" how the public will feel by the time of the next election.

"It [politics] is an inherently and profoundly unpredictable thing to be involved in and it is impossible to say with confidence what people will think in a year or two year's time," she said.

"Of course it could get worse, it could get better. An unforeseen shock could happen. But it's always really important to remember that you're dealing with an unpredictable environment."

While Sunak rose to prominence when he was made Chancellor in 2020 and quickly became a household name as part of the government's pandemic response, Farris felt that Sunak was still introducing himself to the British public after little more than 100 days as Prime Minister. 

She had detected a "curiosity" about him that she had not expected in conversations with constituents. "He's a character who people feel quite interested in. Part of that is because he's quite young," Farris added. 

But in private, many Conservative MPs do not share this optimism.

Speaking to PoliticsHome last week, one former secretary of state said the party has reached "the end of the cycle" after being in office for thirteen years this spring. "There’s nobody stomping around angrily, but nobody thinks we’ve got a hope in hell of rescuing the situation," they said.

Recent polling suggests that Sunak has a significantly bigger mountain to climb if he is going to pull off a Major-style victory over Keir Starmer's Labour.

An Ipsos MORI poll published on Monday put Labour 25 per cent ahead of the Tories and Sunak's net favourability at -29 per cent. A poll published by the same company in 1991, around three months into Major's leadership, gave the Tories a narrow, three per cent lead of Labour and the then-prime minister a net favourability rating of +44 per cent.

Labour meanwhile appears to be taking full advantage of the apparent existential crisis among some Tories as they try to sustain such a lead. 

As Conservatives at the TRG event considered how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat last night, Labour Leader Keir Starmer sought to charm international business leaders at his own Westminster event. 

Capitalising on the recent economic chaos that was unleashed by Sunak's predecessor Liz Truss who spooked markets with unfunded tax cuts, as well as ongoing disquiet among UK exporters over Brexit, Starmer pointedly insisted that his party was a "reliable partner" for global business. 

He spoke alongside The Premier League trophy, which was on display at the reception.

“That trophy is here as the perfect symbol of Britain’s global reach, and I think this room serves as the perfect symbol of Labour’s growing reach," Starmer said. "A vision of a changed party.”

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