Tory MPs Told To Get Out More And Win Back Voters
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a Coronation celebration (Alamy)
Conservative MPs will be urged to spend more time campaigning in their constituencies after the bruising local election results left senior Tory figures worried that the party's ground game could be a "weakness" at the next general election.
There is a feeling at the top of Conservative party that the 2019 intake of MPs in particular need to spend more time on doorsteps, as the Covid pandemic and "air war" nature of the last general election, which saw party leaders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn at the forefront of messaging, have resulted in many lacking sufficient campaigning experience.
“For a combination of reasons, some MPs have not laid as much groundwork for their personal profiles locally as much as optimally they would have," a senior Tory source told PoliticsHome.
This growing concern that some Conservative MPs are playing catch up when it comes to their local presence has prompted a Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) drive for MPs to step up their campaigning.
In 2019, Johnson won an 80-seat majority on a promise to "Get Brexit Done", which saw a significant number of MPs enter parliament for the first time. One Tory figure worried that because several of those MPs didn't truly expect to win their seats, they didn't do a great deal of campaigning in the run-up to polling day, meaning they'll be on the back foot next time around.
The concerns have emerged at the highest levels of the Conservative party, where senior figures are conducting a post-mortem into last week's local election results which saw the Tories lose over 1,000 council seats, and the control of local authorities in their heartlands.
There are also complaints from some Conservative MPs, however, that they did not receive enough support from CCHQ in the run up to last weeks local elections, with back benchers complaining about a lack of ministerial visits to their areas. Concerns about the operation were raised with party chair Greg Hands at a 1922 Committee meeting of Tory MPs this week.
As the party seeks to regain support of voters before the next general election, which is expected to take place before the end of 2024, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is not expected to stray from his flagship five pledges. These focus on cutting NHS waiting lists, tackling illegal immigration, and improving the economy, and Sunak remains confident that delivering on these promises will give his the party the best chance of winning a fourth term in government.
"Keep calm and carry on," is how one No. 10 figure described the strategy. They believed that the Conservative party had a 20-30% chance of winning the next election, but that the best route to growing that percentage was through making good on Sunak's pledges.
Next week the government is expected to put final touches to its legislative agenda for parliament's fourth session, which will get underway later this year when MPs return from the summer recess.
Those familiar with the Prime Minister's thinking say the agenda will be lean due to the limited time he has to get it through a parliament already stretched by meaty legislation before the next general election. No.10 is also keen for Conservative MPs to spend as much as time as possible campaigning between now and then.
Henry Hill, deputy editor of Conservative Home, told this week's episode of PoliticsHome podcast The Rundown that it was "perfectly sensible" for Sunak to stick to his five pledges as he tries to narrow comfortable, double-digit leads for the Labour Party in the polls.
"The question with a change of tack is: to what?" he said.
"With Rishi Sunak’s five pledges, one of the reasons he’s drawn them up, is that except perhaps for small boats, they are all relatively deliverable.
"When you’ve only got about 18 months until you have to go to the polls, that’s important because you want to be able to go in saying you’ve hit these targets. In that sense, the strategy is perfectly sensible.”
But he suspected the Prime Minister was starting to face questions over his "grand vision" for the country, reflecting concern among some Conservative MPs that while Sunak has successfully brought stability and competence to No.10, he is yet to communicate a clear positive offer.
"The public priorities are important, but what’s the narrative? If you handed Rishi Sunak a magic wand, what would Britain look like?" asked Hill.
He felt it could be difficult for Sunak to put together a "coherent, optimistic" vision when the parliamentary Tory party lacks agreement on some key issues, such as housing. This week has seen MPs blaming both too much house building and not enough of it for the disastrous local election results.
Other MPs are more forgiving, and say Sunak has done as well as realistically possible in No.10 given the mess he inherited when he succeeded short-lived PM Liz Truss in late October, and given the limited time he has to turn the party around before the next general election.
James Sunderland, the Tory MP for Bracknell, said he now "thinks the world" of Sunak having originally supported Penny Mordaunt in last year's Conservative party leadership contest.
“This is a guy who is reading his brief, he’s in the detail, he’s highly competent and above all, he’s very, very clever. He’s got all the big calls right since becoming PM," he told The Rundown.
"He’s leading from the front and don’t judge a man by anything other than what he delivers."
Sunak is showing no sign of changing course, despite the shock of last week's local election losses. Conservative MPs remain largely behind his delivery-focused strategy, too, but the PM will likely face pressure to offer something more if Labour's large polling leads persist.
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe