Can the Tories hold off a Labour landslide at the next election?
Ginger Rogers may be better known as a movie star than as a political strategist, but since Liz Truss trashed its already badly-tarnished brand last autumn, the Conservative Party has had little choice but to follow her advice.
“Nothing's impossible I have found,” sang Rogers in the appositely-named Swing Time, “For when my chin is on the ground, I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.”
Sure, by the time they fight the next general election the Tories will have spent 14 years in power. And sure, they’re currently miles behind Labour in the opinion polls. But they’ve got a new leader, and they’re not giving up hope just yet. So are they right to think nothing’s impossible?
There’s a serious risk that Sunak ends up overpromising and under-delivering
The precedents, we should remember, aren’t entirely discouraging. In 1992 and 2015, most pundits were predicting defeat for John Major and David Cameron respectively. Yet both men pulled off unexpected victories.
Moreover, Labour has a massive mountain to climb if it’s to win a majority in 2024. True, it might not need the 13-point swing that some claim, but – as the polls begin to narrow as we approach the election itself – even the seven or eight point lead some analysts calculate is required could begin to look like a big ask.
Then there’s the way that Rishi Sunak is busy “scraping the barnacles off the boat”. With Jeremy Hunt’s help, he’s undone at least some of the damage done to the government’s reputation by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. High-profile industrial disputes look as if they might be on the way to being resolved, too. And with the signing of the Windsor Framework, Sunak has improved relations with the EU at the same time as inflicting a humiliating parliamentary defeat on the self-styled Spartans of the ERG, as well as on Boris Johnson and assorted has-beens on the back benches. Meanwhile, Johnson’s woeful performance in front of the Privileges Committee seems to have finally put paid to damaging leadership speculation.
As a result, Sunak’s personal ratings are on rise – not spectacularly so but enough to put him in touching distance of Keir Starmer, whose own ratings, remember, are hardly stellar. Voters’ evaluation of party leaders aren’t the be-all and end-all but still count for something.
So, of course, do their evaluations of the economy, and these are likely to improve as the government hits its laughably modest targets on growth and inflation and then doles out a few tax cuts next year. Meanwhile, Sunak’s “Stop the Boats” pledge might bring back a few proverbial Red Wall voters into the fold – particularly if broadcasters can be encouraged to follow the Tory press which still does so much (too much, some say) to set their agenda.
For all that, however, the fundamentals don’t auger well for the Tories. The Budget ensured that most of us will find ourselves paying far more tax this year, while polling suggests that voters didn’t think it did much to help them with what, for all-too-many, really is a cost of living crisis brought on by stagnant, if not falling, real wages. Throw in the fact that people know full well that the NHS is struggling badly, and you have a ready-made recipe for a Labour landslide – especially if the SNP begins to lose its hold over Scotland and the Lib Dems can pick up 15 or so Tory seats in the so-called Blue Wall.
Finally, anyone expecting the Tories tough talk on asylum to save their bacon might need to think again. For one thing, it’s unlikely to trump voters’ concerns about the economy and public services. For another, there’s a serious risk that Sunak ends up overpromising and under-delivering – something which could even tempt Nigel Farage back into frontline politics. If that happens, and he decides to contest Tory as well as Labour seats this time around, it really will be game over for the government.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of 'The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation'
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.