The mood in the UK hasn't changed and it doesn't bode well for Sunak and the Conservatives

The Conservatives are on borrowed time even as there are probably months before the UK general election

Conservative party candidate Ben Houchen, left, one incumbent survival, with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, following his re-election as Tees Valley Mayor in Teesside, England, on May 3. PA via AP
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How bad is bad? Well, that depends upon what you were expecting.

Everyone expected bad news for the British Conservative party from last week’s local government elections, but some calculate that they could be the worst local government election results for the Conservatives in four decades.

The party resembles a runaway train that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak can neither halt nor turn away from an inevitable crash. Rebels on his right have for months muttered about unseating Mr Sunak, but those rebels are not known either for courage or for thinking strategically. Nonetheless, they now seem to understand that any attempt to give the UK its fifth Conservative prime minister in five years would be ludicrous, potentially suicidal.

Mr Sunak will therefore (barring accidents or miracles) lead the party into the next general election later this year and they will lose. The Conservatives will then fight out their internal feuds and hatreds without continuing to trouble the rest of the British people.

In Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. The Conservative party is just such a divided house. The mood across Britain right now is therefore quite complicated. It seems most people, including former Conservatives, have had enough of incompetence, policy announcements and posturing instead of policies that actually work.

The degree of incompetence is itself astonishing. Perhaps it can be summed up by former prime minister Boris Johnson who turned up to vote in the local elections last week, but was turned away. That’s because he failed to bring along to the polling station acceptable photo-identification to prove his identity.

Everyone in the UK, including election staff at the polling station, of course, recognise Mr Johnson, but one thing all British people agree on is that rules are rules. Even an old Etonian prime minister who appears to believe rules are for little people and don’t apply to him perhaps is beginning to understand that such carelessness, arrogance or incompetence is not in tune with what citizens require from leaders.

What makes the Johnson story even more damning is that the law to bring in compulsory photo identification at polling stations was introduced by … prime minister Boris Johnson. More than failed policies, perhaps the insouciance of that former leader sums up why after 14 years of interchangeable Conservative prime ministers, so many British voters want a change.

That desire is not confined to the Conservatives nor limited to England. The Scottish National Party is in search of a new leader. It follows the resignation of Humza Yousaf as Scotland’s First Minister. He had been in the job only a year but made a number of significant errors. And the core problem in Scotland, as it is in Westminster, goes beyond specific policies. The SNP has been in power too long. They first led the Scottish government 17 years ago. They have now run out of ideas.

All this turmoil therefore presents an enormous opportunity for Keir Starmer and the Labour party. They appear on course to take power after the next election.

The decline of the SNP in Scotland is just as important as the unpopularity of the Conservatives in England as part of Labour’s potentially winning strategy. That’s because the SNP currently has 43 out of Scotland’s 59 seats. The Labour party has just two. Scottish Labour politicians are confident of making big gains, and combined with the English local election results, power at Westminster seems within Mr Starmer’s grasp.

Poll after poll of public opinion suggests at least two out of three British people think the UK is on the wrong track. Key Conservative government policies, including Brexit, are not popular. The cost of living, a shortage of affordable housing, the failure of public services and numerous other legitimate gripes explain both the sour mood of many voters and the turning away from the party in power.

There are, however, probably several months before the general election. Labour party politicians I have spoken with remain nervous that their party could make a mistake, take voters and victory for granted and fail to capitalise on the profound public mood for change.

But one failure, at the highest level, sums up why the Conservatives cannot turn things around – namely declining healthcare outcomes. Michael Marmot is one of Western Europe’s most respected public health experts. Back in February 2010, in the last months of the last Labour government, his “Marmot Report” revealed how in the previous decade British health outcomes improved markedly.

But now, with a real sense of outrage, the new Marmot report “confirms [that] since 2010, central government spending cuts to local authorities were highest in areas with lower life expectancy and more health inequalities, further harming health in these places”. Conservative governments have for years boasted “levelling up” British society. The new Marmot report confirms that their policies have done the reverse.

The public mood is clear: Mr Sunak and the Conservative party are on borrowed time. It’s bad. Very bad for the Conservatives.

Published: May 08, 2024, 4:00 AM