The truth about the Conservatives: Sunak is in office but not really in power

The British Prime Minister has trouble at his doorstep with pollsters predicting a 99 per cent chance of victory for Labour in this year's general election

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made a number of policy missteps. PA
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Spare a thought for Britain’s latest endangered species. The wildlife under threat is not some kind of rare bird, but rather the near extinction of many Conservative party MPs.

A Survation poll of 15,000 people suggests that the party might win fewer than 100 seats in the general election anticipated for later this year. The poll also predicts that the Labour party could take more than 400 seats, a 286-seat majority.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. It’s just an opinion poll, although a very large one.

But even before we know the precise date of the general election, 63 Conservative party MPs have already said that they will not be defending their seats. That’s the highest number set to quit since 1997, the year when 72 Tories stood down rather than fight against what became Tony Blair’s electoral landslide.

Back then, Mr Blair’s Labour party won with an overall majority of 179. Doomsayers in the Conservative party fear that, for them, 2024 could be even worse. Beyond the 63 confirmed quitters, others are said to be considering whether to bother trying to run in a contest that they know they are likely to lose. Some heading for the exit door, such as Robert Halfon and James Heappey, are highly regarded former ministers.

The sense, therefore, is of morale at rock bottom within the governing party. Overall, Conservative support is floundering at 19 per cent. Back in the 2019 election, it was just short of 42 per cent.

Prof John Curtice, probably the best known and most respected pollster in the UK, reckons that there is now what he called a “99 per cent chance of Labour forming the next administration”.

The Tories have few friends in the country, facing a number of challenges from different flanks

The chances of the Conservatives reversing their decline are, therefore, seen as minimal. Even if no party secures an overall majority, Labour leader Keir Starmer would probably still be much better placed to become prime minister than Rishi Sunak or any other Conservative party leader.

As Prof Curtice put it: “The Labour party will be in a much stronger position to negotiate a minority government than the Conservatives because, apart from possibly the DUP [Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party], the Conservatives have no friends in the House of Commons.”

They have few friends in the country either, facing a number of challenges from different flanks. On the left, Labour is the biggest threat. But in some areas of southern and south-western England in particular, the Conservatives may lose seats to the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile on the political right, they have suffered defections to the new Reform party, including the exit of former Conservative party deputy chairman Lee Anderson.

Reform is just the latest vehicle for the populist leadership of Nigel Farage, formerly the leader of the Brexit party and the UK Independence Party. And Reform, again according to some polls, is polling in double figures, leading the Conservative MP Danny Kruger to say that he is “very, very worried” about the threat from the right, with the Farage populists “absolutely killing” the Conservatives.

As the great political cliche goes, the only poll that matters is always the general election itself, possibly in October or November, although there are still rumblings that Mr Sunak might be forced to go to the country earlier.

Between now and election day – whenever it happens – there will be plenty of unsettling political churn. Even without a general election, voters in May will go to the polls in 58 district authority elections plus elections in 18 local unitary authorities and 31 metropolitan districts.

There will also be elections in Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, the West Midlands, plus the Greater London Authority mayoral and assembly elections.

Taken together, it seems that Mr Sunak’s miserable spring can only get worse. The simple truth is that the Prime Minister is in office but not really in power.

There have also been astonishing missteps. Mr Sunak’s government has produced some dreadfully misguided campaign advertisements.

The most recent of these suggested that London is somehow the UK’s “crime capital”. This video misused film footage of New York as if it were London and involved a bizarre American voiceover.

If you can imagine a remake of the Martin Scorsese movie Mean Streets, written and voiced by a bunch of teenagers, you might have an idea how juvenile this political advertisement on behalf of the Conservative party sounded. Moreover, beyond the crime of any big city, statistically London has fewer incidents of antisocial behaviour and other criminal activity than many other conurbations.

The real problem for all of us is that British politics is rudderless. The Conservative party under Mr Sunak has run out of ideas. They take credit for modest examples of good news, including a decline in inflation, while not accepting some blame for the fact that it rose so sharply in the first place.

From Brexit to migration to the cost-of-living crisis, Mr Sunak appears to have forgotten that it is his party that has been running the UK since 2010. Voters, however, do remember the Conservatives were, and apparently still are, in charge – and that will eventually have electoral consequences.

Published: April 02, 2024, 2:00 PM