Conservatives seeking solace from 'it's the economy, stupid!'

Low inflation, wage rises, interest rate cuts and Rwanda flights, alongside a Labour implosion, could save Rishi Sunak's government, analysts suggest

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's Conservative government is relying on restoring the economy as a way towards an unlikely election victory. AP
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Without exception the opinion polls point towards an election bloodbath for Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, with the loss of two thirds of its MPs a possibility.

The predictions are that Labour leader Keir Starmer will become potentially the most powerful British prime minister ever, in terms of seat numbers.

But is there a chance that the Tories could turn around their appalling polling position and limit Labour’s victory, or more improbably achieve a surprise election victory?

Downing Street tacticians believe the narrow route to success lies through the economy bouncing back so vigorously that voters will stick with the Tories rather than risk opting for Labour.

That road, according to political analysts interviewed by The National, is very narrow but also one that cannot be entirely discounted among the doom that currently besets Tories. The strategy would be an incumbent's inversion of Bill Clinton's 1992 US presidential victory that played on the struggling American economy with the campaign maxim: "It's the economy, stupid."

Revived economy

Rishi Sunak made five central promises on becoming Prime Minister in late 2022 that to have any chance of regaining office would all need to be fulfilled before the expected election this autumn.

Three relate to the nation’s finances – halving inflation, reducing government debt and growing the economy. The other two are to cut NHS waiting lists and stopping small boats carrying migrants across the English Channel.

Inflation has come down from a high of 11 per cent two years ago to, most recently, 3.4 per cent and Britain’s GDP growth is expected to be 0.8 per cent this year.

With the possibility of pay rises outstripping inflation later this year, alongside the benefit of a 2 per cent National Insurance cut and the significant boon of a likely Bank of England interest rate cut, by autumn people might feel they have more money in their pockets.

“The winner of the next election will be the political party that the public feels will ultimately make them more prosperous in the long term,” said Chris Hopkins of Savanta, a leading poll company.

“But for the Conservatives to recover I can't stress enough that there is no room for error. The economy has to recover and, more importantly, the public has to feel it.”

While Mr Sunak will argue the country has turned the corner, strong in voters’ memories will be the short-lived and disastrous Liz Truss premiership of unfunded tax cuts that triggered a markets' crisis.

That the “Tories crashed the economy” will undoubtedly become an overused Labour campaign slogan.

Labour scrutiny

While still cruising an average 20 points ahead in the polls, a lead that would give Labour a majority of more than a 100 MPs, as election day approaches their policies will be minutely examined.

This, argue analysts, could be another key area in which the Tories make gains.

“Labour is going to be scrutinised in a way that it hasn't been scrutinised properly since the last election,” said Dr Alan Mendoza of the right-leaning Henry Jackson Society think tank.

“Enough people might ask ‘can we trust Labour with their plans on tax and spend and do the figures add up?'”

Labour, argued Mr Hopkins, also has a history of collapsing in a campaign as it enters the spotlight. “That could lead to scepticism or ambivalence, or even turn into something more damaging. You can never count out a complete implosion from Labour.”

A Conservative win?

A Labour self-immolation, the pollster said, was one of the three key pillars required for any chance of a Tory success, along with the economy and getting the first deportation flights to Rwanda off the ground.

With legislation likely to pass in the coming weeks, Rwanda flights could start next month, albeit after overcoming challenges in the European Court of Human Rights.

The “symbolism of flights to Rwanda taking off could potentially move things”, suggested Mr Hopkins, because “it actually looks like the government has delivered on something”.

The latest Savanta poll shows the Labour lead has reduced by five points to 15 per cent, giving the Tories another vague hope.

But they would need to cut the lead to under 5 per cent to have any chance of a minority Labour government or parity to retain power.

Dr Mendoza said the electorate might not be keen on the Conservatives but could become so if Mr Sunak showed some delivery of policies that may change things.

Another key policy-delivery area, he suggested, was on the new definition of extremism that has been published following the mass protests over the Israel-Gaza war.

“They've started making good inroads on the extremism issue and if the definition comes into play, followed up by action on policing, people will see a visible change, comforted that law and order is being restored,” said Dr Mendoza.

Campaign gains

There are precedents that the Conservatives can draw on amid the polling gloom to turn around their position in the short six-week election campaign expected in autumn.

One is Theresa May’s 20-point lead when she called an election in 2017 that shrivelled to only a few points and a hung parliament after a lacklustre campaign.

Another is John Major’s success in 1992 when, despite terrible polls, the Conservatives managed to win with the electorate unconvinced by Labour’s policies.

Furthermore, both polling and electorates have become more volatile in the past decade, which is another cause for Tory hope.

“A lead can rapidly evaporate over the course of the election campaign, with the electorate perfectly prepared to make last-minute judgments that go against what it's been saying for months, or even years,” said Dr Mendoza.

“Given where they are in the opinion polls, it would be a really historic about-turn if the Conservatives were somehow to hang on to power,” he added. "However, history is there to be broken and there is a very narrow path to a Conservative victory.”

But it would be “real struggle” for the Conservatives to reverse the situation, suggested Mr Hopkins, even if election campaigns have an impact.

“It's really hard to reverse the feel that people have towards this government because they're fed up with them and even if they're not bothered about the opposition, Labour at least represents a change.”

Updated: April 11, 2024, 4:00 AM