Only the most optimistic Conservative could believe the party will win the next election. It has been a year since the Tories slipped underwater in the polls and showed any signs of resurfacing. Truss drove the party to electoral wipe-out, and Sunak’s honeymoon period has taken them to the heady heights of a 22-point deficit, worse than their defeat in 1997.
Of course, there is only one poll that really matters — that on election day. Conservative MPs may look back on 2017, when they held a similar lead over Labour, and think that a few weeks can turn an assured victory into something far closer. They also know that boundary changes, voter ID laws and the balance between rural and urban votes (Labour win populous seats by big margins, Tories sparser ones by smaller numbers) all give them an edge. And yet, most must be polishing their CVs for after polling day.
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The Tories’ problems are not transitory. They have been in power for over 12 years and seem out of ideas. Since they took power, wages have stagnated and the economy stalled. The party itself has become beleaguered by scandal and the chaos of this year’s carousel of Prime Ministers and Chancellors. The future looks little better: Hunt’s bread-and-water budget may have steadied the markets and offered some protection to the poorest and pensioners, but there was only pain for average households. Between now and the next election, the country is likely to get poorer. A recession is highly probable, and even popular governments rarely recover from recessions.
With the headwinds against the Tories, there is no sign that Sunak is an expert election-winner. He could not even convince his own party the first time around. The main hope seems to be a Keir Starmer implosion. It’s not impossible, but not something to bet the farm on.
There comes a certain liberation from giving up hope. Letting go of something you are chasing alters your perspective, opening your eyes to wider opportunities. This could happen to the Tories — taking them from trying to eke out electoral advantages to deploying political capital to create difficulties for future Labour governments and opportunities for the country.
For all their problems in the polls, the Conservative Party remains in a strong position in Parliament. It has a sizeable majority and with sufficient internal discipline can get a lot done in the remaining parliamentary time. Rather than thinking about winning the next election, they could run down the clock with measures that will stymie the government that follows them, spreading the ground with political bear traps.
No Tory government has really been in this position before. Where the Conservatives have led the country into an election, they have either had a hope of winning, or like in 1997, had decayed enough to lose their majority. They should pay attention instead to what Labour did: in the dying days of the Brown ministry, the Prime Minister introduced legislative and fiscal measures that he knew would trip up any Tory government. It worked.
The most famous is the 50p tax rate. This was a symbolic move for Labour of limited fiscal impact, whacking a tax on high earners after the financial crisis. The Tories have never been able to fully repeal it, and their attempt in the mini-Budget was akin to jumping on a grenade. It was not the only sting Labour left behind — the Browne Review was set up so a new government would have to deal with student finance, while measures like winter heating allowance and free buses for over-60s are easy to pass but hard to remove.
There is a range of moves you can pull to hamstring the government that replaces you. In general, they should not be obviously detrimental to the country, but should be things which cause your opponent’s pain, either internally or with the wider country. Some will be things that you ideologically favour but will be hard for your opponents to repeal, even if they want to. Others may be necessary for the public good but are front-loaded with unpopular changes – that only take effect when you are gone. The goal is to do things which cannot be whipped away in the stroke of a pen, but will continue to grate with the next government for all their time in office, eventually becoming bedded in.
The Equality Act offers some opportunity in this. As James McSweeney has argued, the Tories could tweak the Act — by removing certain sections on diversity — to reduce its least conservative effects. This serves up a challenge for Labour, who would struggle to amend it again without opening internal battles they’d rather avoid. A flashpoint for them on the act would be around gender identity, but also on balancing racial and class discrimination concerns. Either the change would stay in place, or it would force Labour into conversation it would rather not have.
Another option would be to push through strike-curbing legislation, such as the Minimum Service Levels Bill. This already has the political effect of pitching Labour an awkward gap between its union backers and the ordinary voters it wants to win back. It would have a harder choice in government — liberalising union laws would be a proactive step not just an opposing one, and subsequent strikes would be Labour’s problem. Getting these measures on the statute books now would prime the trap well.
Planning reform could be an even more ambitious lure. Moving on this now would give the Tories a chance to shape it in a way they might not have for a decade. Most obviously, the party could skew the plan to hit the inner cities and urban fringe worst, pushing the effects into the seats they will lose anyway. Furthermore, as liberalisation takes time, and constructing even more, the houses would not arrive for a few years — meaning Labour parliamentarians would bear the unpopularity of buildings going up. This may feel unfair, but people forget who originated policies when the effects kick in on your watch; and as the old adage goes, if you are explaining, you are losing. For the Tories, making the Nimbys someone else’s problem could pay dividends.
Another easy win would be to push ahead with devolution deals and enterprise zones, especially in Tory areas. Moving powers away from Westminster to places where your support is stronger is a good way of minimising the effects of a change of power. Done smoothly, the Tories could end up with a figure who can do the things they like while blaming central government for any shortcomings. The Conservatives have obviously suffered from this in Wales, Scotland, London, and Manchester, but could benefit from it in other areas — such as in the Midlands and Teesside — where they do hold sway.
At the same time, while the Tories have already indulged in some long-grass kicking, bumping the reports of social care review until 2025, they could do more with other issues — perhaps a royal commission on criminal justice (promised in the 2019 manifesto) or NHS reform. Each would open a complex issue and force Labour to take decisions that would be controversial with its members, MPs and the public.
Apart from doing this, what choice do the Tories have? This government is struggling and is unlikely to survive the next election. And when you can’t win, it’s time to think about how you make the ground hard to hold. Doing so would require a lot of the party to drop their egos, accept the loss and pull in the same direction — but done right, it could be the way to begin the way back to power.