Here’s how the Tories can win the next election

Gordon Rayner

Sat, 13 May 2023 at 6:00 am BST

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Tory losses of more than a thousand council seats. Labour gains of more than 500. Liberal Democrats on the march. A new prime minister under pressure from his own side. This was the electoral landscape on May 3, 1991, when the results of that year’s local elections had come in and John Major’s political obituaries were being commissioned.

It is also a description of what happened last week, when strikingly similar gains and losses were made by each party. For John Major, read Rishi Sunak, a prime minister who is being given little to no chance of winning the next general election by Westminster pundits.

Except that Major went on to triumph at the polls the following year, confounding predictions that Neil Kinnock was destined for No 10. Could history repeat itself in 2024? Sunak certainly believes so, and in sifting through the wreckage of last week’s local election results the Tories have found cause for hope.

Sunak and his team believe that the worst is now behind them, and that momentum is starting to shift away from Labour and towards the Tories. They are convinced better news is on the horizon for the economy, and there is an expectation that voters will soon start to notice genuine progress on the NHS and on the small boats crisis.

Rishi Sunak - Kin Cheung
Rishi Sunak – Kin Cheung

Although it seems counterintuitive after such a bruising defeat last week, Labour has not made as much progress as Sir Keir Starmer’s supporters had hoped for, and they know there is still a chance that victory could slip through their fingers. All is not lost, then, for the Conservatives, but the path to a possible victory is perilously narrow, and there is widespread disagreement within the party about which route to follow.

Sunak is rigid in his belief that voters will not be ready to listen to his vision for the future until he has consistently proved he can deliver on his promises in the here and now. Others in the Party, including some Cabinet ministers, want him to be much bolder and start talking now about strong Conservative policies such as tax cuts, growth and slashing the welfare bill. This is the tactical debate that is raging within the parliamentary party, but Sunak believes he is seeing plenty of evidence that his plan is the right one.

The most positive pointer, from a Tory point of view, is solid evidence that recent opinion polls have consistently overestimated Labour’s lead. This is not a new phenomenon: in 2015, pollsters woefully failed to predict David Cameron’s outright victory, having failed to reach enough pensioners who make up much of the Tory base.

Instead of a double-digit lead, analysts predict that the local election results would translate into a seven-point lead for Labour in a general election. That is still bad news for the Tories, but only eight months ago, Labour held an average 30-point lead in opinion polls, a gulf that has steadily been narrowed by Sunak during his seven months in power.

Sunak’s team are quietly upbeat about the current picture, believing that “enormous progress” has been made in a relatively short time on the underlying numbers. When he took over from Liz Truss, all the talk in Westminster was of a Labour landslide at the next election. Now all of the predictions are about a hung parliament, so the direction of travel is the right one for the Tories. James Johnson, co-founder of the polling firm JL Partners and a former Downing Street pollster, agrees that a seven-point lead is “not insurmountable at this stage”.

He said: “If there is one thing that the local elections proved, it’s that crazy predictions of a massive Labour majority are wrong. “The Conservatives are still behind, and they probably need to be neck and neck or a couple of points ahead going into the general election. It’s still unlikely that they will win a majority, but it is not implausible at all to suggest that it could be achieved in the time they have left.”

Barring the unexpected, Sunak has set his sights firmly on an October 2024 election, giving him another 17 months to eliminate Labour’s advantage. Downing Street’s plan is for a two-phase approach to regaining the lead. Phase One, which is currently underway, involves “calm delivery” of improvement in key areas, including the economy, the NHS and the small boats crisis.

Phase Two, which may not begin until next year, is when Sunak begins projecting a vision of a brighter future ahead if the Tories retain power. One source familiar with Sunak’s thinking said: “The strategy is focusing on earning the right to be heard at a general election next year. The public are sophisticated, they are more likely to listen to what you have to say about the future if they can see that we have got control of the borders again and if they see progress on the NHS.”

Rishi Sunak - Simon Dawson
Rishi Sunak – Simon Dawson

This is a view formed from the feedback the Tories receive from focus groups, who say “they want us to just do delivery because they don’t believe us yet when we talk about the vision”, according to the same source. And there are plenty of successes Sunak can already point to, if only the Tories were better at making sure the public knew about them. Sunak’s deal with Albania on illegal migration has been staggeringly successful.

This time last year, Albanians accounted for 45.6 per cent of illegal Channel crossings, with 9,247 people making the journey in small boats in the second quarter of 2022. Then Sunak struck a deal with his Albanian counterpart to embed UK Border Force officials at Tirana airport to stop illegal migrants boarding flights and changed Albania’s status to a safe country to allow for fast-track deportations.

In the first three months of this year, just 29 Albanians crossed the channel, making up just 0.8 per cent of all crossings. Sunak believes his small boats strategy – which also involves Border Force officials being stationed on the French coast for the first time and ensuring the policy of sending arrivals to Rwanda for processing – will dramatically cut numbers and prove that he can deliver on promises where others have failed.

He has also moved £200 million from a fund for new cycle lanes into repairing an extra four million potholes after voters said the latter was more important than the former. He is betting the house on making good on the five priorities he announced in January: halving inflation this year; growing the economy; reducing the national debt; cutting NHS waiting lists and tackling the small boats crisis.

Sunak’s advisers say the five priorities were “very carefully calibrated because they are the issues that 2019 voters wanted to see from us”. Downing Street says progress is being made on all of them. The number of people waiting 18 months for elective treatment has been slashed from 125,000 at the peak of the Covid backlog in September 2021 to just 20,000 by mid-March this year, a drop of 84 per cent.

Sunak has announced 800 extra ambulances and 5,000 more beds to ease the crisis further. Cost of living payments have been worth an average of £3,300 per household this year and last, though some Tory MPs feel the Government has done a poor job of making sure people are aware of how much they receive and where it comes from, particularly with energy bill rebates which have no mention of the Government when paid into bank accounts.

Downing Street says progress is being made on all of Sunak's five priorities - Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street
Downing Street says progress is being made on all of Sunak’s five priorities – Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street

Economic growth is taking longer to filter through, as policies including tax cuts for businesses that invest in Britain, investment zones, freeports and the 30 hours of free childcare per week will not provide overnight results. Inflation has started to come down, and is predicted to tumble after the summer. There are plenty of Tory MPs who feel the five priorities are not ambitious enough.

Some who went out campaigning during the local elections have told Tory high command that the public know nothing about the five priorities or the progress on them, and that Sunak needs to shout much louder if he is to be heard. Familiar complaints are resurfacing about Sunak being a technocrat with poor political instincts.

There are grumblings that he failed to manage expectations about the likely scale of the local election losses, allowing the message to go out that it may be “up to 1,000” when it ended up being more. Others carp about the fact that Sunak and his team all have safe seats and have never had to take a seat from Labour and hold it; that they govern by focus group, rather than by listening on doorsteps.

Some in Cabinet want the Government to say more about slashing the welfare bill: a record 54 per cent of households receive more from the Government than they pay in taxes (including the NHS and education) and 5.9 million people receive Universal Credit. They want him to use any savings to abolish as many taxes as possible, including inheritance tax, and to give tax breaks to people who are relieving pressure on the NHS by paying for private healthcare.

Professor Sir John Curtice, Britain’s best-known political scientist, is among those who believe Sunak needs to be braver, sooner. He said: “When he’s this far behind he needs to tell us what kind of country he wants to create by 2030. Does he have a vision? His five priorities are all about what is going to happen between now and the end of next year. There is no forward-looking agenda.

“If he is going to draw a line between himself and the two previous regimes he has got to paint it in bold, vivid colours, not just ‘thank God it’s not a crisis every day’.” Government strategists are bullish about the need to stick to the existing plan, and can be prickly when told that MPs want to see more from Sunak.

Professor Sir John Curtice - Sarah Lee
Professor Sir John Curtice – Sarah Lee

“Westminster moves at a hundred miles an hour but for a normal voter the mess of last year only happened yesterday,” said one Government source. “People are not interested in a grandiose vision for a low tax economy. That is not politically relatable to the electorate. That is what happened in October and it didn’t end particularly well. We are more interested in doing things for the electorate than doing things for the commentariat.” Sir John agrees that: “Tax cuts are not where the public are at. The Government has got to get public services working.”

Sources close to Sunak say that tax cuts are “a priority but not an immediate term priority”. One senior Conservative source said: “There is an understanding among the public that there is a huge amount of debt because of the cost of Covid and they know tax cuts cost money.”

So anyone hoping to hear Sunak’s plan for moving from a high tax, low growth economy to a low tax, high growth economy in the autumn budget may have to wait a while yet. Another Whitehall source said: “Things like personal taxes have to wait until the start of the tax year next April so that’s probably the earliest any income tax cut can come in. It would be complicated to do it any other way.

“There are also certain things you can’t pre-announce because of market conditions – you can’t say we will cut stamp duty in six months’ time, for example, because no-one will buy a house for six months.” Another reason Sunak’s advisers are confident he is still in the fight is that the public has not taken to his opponent, and in an increasingly personality-driven electoral system voters tend to think they are voting for a prime minister, rather than a local MP.

Tory strategists will relentlessly pick apart Sir Keir’s flip-flopping on everything from a Lab-Lib coalition to abolishing tuition fees when it comes to an election campaign. Johnson said: “It’s still advantage Starmer, but there are clear hesitations and concerns about him. The ‘captain hindsight’ nickname really cut through, and people talk about him saying whatever he thinks it will take to get elected, and not really believing in anything.

“Voters want to like Rishi, whereas their shrugs about Keir are turning to a bit of hostility. There is a sense that he will go over the top with you but when his shift is over he will leave.” When Johnson’s company compiled a word cloud of people’s opinions about Starmer last year, the most repeated word was “boring”.

Sir Keir Starmer - Stefan Rousseau
Sir Keir Starmer – Stefan Rousseau

When the exercise was repeated in April, another word came to the fore: weak. Other commonly used epithets included useless, untrustworthy and unsure. Before die-hard Conservatives get too excited about the prospects for 2024, there is a major caveat attached to the projection of a seven-point lead for Labour. There were no local elections in Scotland, where the SNP’s implosion could pay big dividends for Labour, or in London, a Labour stronghold, meaning the seven-point lead is likely to be an underestimate.

It is also true, however, that there are an unprecedented number of “don’t knows” reflected in the polls, the majority of whom are former Conservative voters, according to psephologists. If, as Downing Street believes, they are inclined to come back into the Conservative fold once they have seen some results from Sunak, the picture could look very different. Senior Government sources have confirmed that Sunak’s team are studying previous electoral history for clues about how local election drubbings can be turned into general election victories.

That will include 1991, perhaps the most comparable election, when the Tories had been in power for more than a decade, had dumped a charismatic leader for a more managerial one, and got trounced at the local polls. In that year the Tories lost 1,035 council seats (compared with 1,063 in 2023), Kinnock’s Labour gained 584 seats (537 in 2023) and Paddy Ashdown’s Lib Dems gained 407 seats (exactly the same number as in 2023). Then, as now, Labour had more councillors overall than the Tories for the first time in two decades.

The following year, Major turned a three percentage-point deficit in the local elections into a 7.5-point lead over Labour, and retained his majority despite losing 40 seats. So what does the 1991 vintage of Tory minister have to tell the current regime? David Mellor, who was chief secretary to the Treasury at the time, agrees that the Tories are “not dead in the water” but thinks much will depend on whether Labour makes mistakes in the next 18 months.

He said: “Labour should have won in 1992 but people took a look at Kinnock and they didn’t like him. Labour’s support was a mile wide and an inch deep, and there are some similarities with the present.

“Starmer isn’t Blair, he is closer to Kinnock, because I think people are longing to find a reason not to vote for him. I don’t think it would take many c–k-ups by him or Angela Rayner for his lead to disappear.”


Published by anthonyhayble


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