Pincer move by tactical voters threatens Conservative local election wipeout

Poor performance next week could see a leadership challenge to Prime Minister and party leader Rishi Sunak

Britain's elections will almost certainly result in a change of government with the Conservatives facing wipeout, political scientists have said. Reuters
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Britain’s ruling Conservatives face a political meltdown if parts of the electorate conduct a “pincer movement” using tactical voting to oust its councillors in local polls next week, political scientists have told The National.

There is a strong chance people disenchanted with the Conservative’s 14 years in power will vote against their first choice by opting for Labour or Liberal Democrat councillors to ensure a Tory candidate does not win.

This will have significant ramifications on the future of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who could face a vote of no confidence in his leadership if his party loses more than 550 local government seats, said Prof Tony Travers, a leading political commentator at the London School of Economics.

It would also suggest come the general election, probably this autumn, the Conservatives would be on track to lose heavily with Labour forming the next government.

Pincer movements

The number of crossover tactical voters in Britain, people who will opt for a party other than their first choice to defeat a Conservative candidate, has risen from 13 per cent in 2015 to 22 per cent last year. The number is believed to be increasing.

That poses a significant risk to the Tories who, if some in-depth polls suggest, could drop to as few as 90 seats or fewer down from their current 346 MPs.

“The risk is that they suffer from tactical voting with people thinking ‘who do I vote for to get the Conservatives out?’” said Prof Travers. “Is it Labour or the Liberal Democrats and that will differ from place to place.”

The Tories are not helped by several websites that allow people to work out who to vote for to keep them out.

“It could well come to pass that the Conservatives face a pincer movement in that Labour does well against in its former ‘Red Wall’ seats in the Midlands and the north of England, whereas the Liberal Democrats would eat up some of the Conservative votes in the south-east and south-west of England,” said Prof Travers.

Under Mr Sunak the party remains deeply unpopular, with Prof Sara Hobolt, also of the LSE, saying this meant “most voters have decided this government is just not competent to govern the country".

“They don’t necessarily love Labour, it’s just that Rishi Sunak has not managed to turn things around. The Conservatives are being squeezed from both sides.”

She said the Tories were a “very unpopular government” largely as a result of Boris Johnson's incompetence and lack of integrity, coupled with the disastrously brief leadership of Liz Truss.

Win from losing

With this week's passing of the Rwanda deportation bill along with good economic figures including lower inflation, there’s a remote chance that the Conservatives will not perform badly.

If they lost 400 seats in next Thursday’s local election this would be regarded as a “victory” and might impel Mr Sunak to call a general election in June.

“If the Conservatives thought the local elections were not quite as bad as they might think, they might say ‘let's just go for it, this is as good as it's ever going to be’,” said Prof Travers.

Change PM?

Losing 500 council seats would be acceptable, with a general election in autumn, possibly after the US November 5 presidential election.

But a loss of more than 550 would be seen as extremely bad, especially if the pincer move of tactical voting happens in the south and north of England.

That could lead to Conservative MPs submitting letters of no confidence in Mr Sunak that might result in a leadership challenge and potentially a change of prime minister.

“A number of Conservative MP would think ‘we can't be any worse off by having a new leader than we are now” however absurd having yet another new leader might look,” said Prof Travers.

Prof Hobolt agreed that MPs might become so nervous that they considered a change of leader as the “alternative is they are going to be wiped out”.

Some Muslim voters 'will stay at home'

The Israel-Gaza war is likely to have some effect on the vote, especially in the London mayor contest where Labour’s Sadiq Khan is seeking a record third term.

While Mr Khan, who is Muslim, is ahead in the polls and likely to win, his vote could be significantly diminished by Labour’s refusal to back calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

“There's no doubt that what's going on in Gaza and Palestine is having an impact on British politics,” said Prof Travers.

There were many Muslims and several left-wing voters who “won't vote Labour at the moment” or will stay at home.

“If it was a very tight race that could make a difference, but it’s probably not enough in the end to gift it to Susan Hall [the Conservative candidate] by stay-at-home voters,” he said.

Most successful party

Even when confronted with election disaster, as they were in 1846,1906 and 1997, the Conservatives have proven “arguably the most successful political party in the world ever” regularly staging comebacks, said Prof Travers.

While it will almost certainly not be Mr Sunak who leads the party after the election the prime minister can take some comfort from the academic’s argument that his party “has an amazing capacity for self-preservation and renewal”.

“While it takes them years to rebuild with infighting and choosing leaders that are unelectable, the Conservatives eventually pull themselves together,” he said.

Updated: April 24, 2024, 7:03 AM