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After Blackpool, who will save Rishi Sunak?

The Tories are increasingly being threatened by Reform UK to their Right. Credit: Getty

May 3, 2024 - 9:20am

How small the wins are now for Rishi Sunak. The Conservative Party managed to fend off the challenge from Reform UK to not fall into third place in yesterday’s Blackpool South by-election. Cue relief in Downing Street. That such an achievement is even being noted, however, is indicative of the utterly dire state of the party today.

The result in Blackpool was appalling for Sunak. Labour romped home with a comfortable majority of 7,000, overturning the 2019 Tory majority of almost 4,000. But even this doesn’t do justice to the Conservative collapse. The Tory vote dropped from 16,000 at the last election to 3,218 votes — only narrowly ahead of Reform’s 3,101.

It can hardly be a surprise for Sunak. The by-election was called after the resignation of the previous Tory MP, Scott Benton, who was caught on camera by undercover reporters offering to lobby ministers for cash. Suspended from Parliament for giving the impression “he was corrupt and ‘for sale’”, he quit — and so here we are.

For voters, though, the problem is that Benton’s crime now looks like standard Tory behaviour — indicative of a wider collapse in discipline, morality and general sense of order, competence and decency. This government just looks rotten.

Alongside Benton, the nearby MP for Fylde Mark Menzies had the whip suspended last month for demanding thousands of pounds in cash from an elderly assistant to pay off “bad people” who had locked him up. And this is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of sex scandals: in October, the Tories lost Tamworth after the former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher resigned as a result of allegations that he sexually assaulted two men. This came after the party lost Somerset and Frome when the MP there quit over yet more sexual harassment allegations and drugtaking. I know the Tories are supposed to have issues with sex and Labour with money, but the past few years have been ridiculous.

It’s not as if all this is surface froth that has little connection to the state of the country underneath, either. This might have been the case during the sleaze scandals of the Nineties when the economy began to perform reasonably well after Black Wednesday. Today, though, the shambles in Westminster seems to hold up a mirror to the failures of governance that we can feel all around us: the crime, disorder, waiting lists and slow, creeping impoverishment of ordinary people amid runaway rents, food bills and a deeply stagnant economy. Structurally, there is almost no reason to vote Tory at the moment: no sense of a job well done or even of a difficult job starting to show signs of working.

The state of things is reflected in the election results last night. On top of its Blackpool by-election defeat, the Tory Party has lost a spate of councils in Redditch, Hartlepool, Thurrock and Rushmoor so far.

The only hope for the party today lies in the independence of its regional representatives not tainted by the failures of Westminster. Sunak will be praying for Andy Street in the West Midlands, Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley and Susan Hall in London. The truth, though, is that if these candidates succeed it will be despite Sunak’s government, not thanks to it. The only real hope for the Prime Minister now lies in Rwanda of all places. Get ready for a fresh flurry of action there.


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Robbie K
Robbie K
17 days ago

The only real hope for the Prime Minister now lies in Rwanda of all places.

Really? That doesn’t seem much a vote winner, especially after the ÂŁ3,000 payment to the first person to go, which is logical, but gets all the wrong press coverage.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
17 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I think it might become a vote-winner again after Labour get into power again and abolish it. Meanwhile, that kind of deal will become a huge vote winner across Europe for any party brave enough to broach it. For now, the EU is sticking to paying off Tunisia, Lebanon et al to hold migrants back and it’s going to blow up in our faces spectacularly, as it is a massive open door to blackmail.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
17 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It’s a mystery why this piece of window dressing was a vote-winner in the first place. If it ever was. And the massive open door to blackmail is yet another failure of governance.

Matt M
Matt M
16 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

The challenge the PM faces is firing up the Boris 2019 voters who are currently sitting on their hands or saying they”ll vote for Reform. For them the key issue is immigration. If weekly flights to Rwanda stops the boats in the channel the slogan Vote Labour and Get the Boats Back! Will resonate. Pair it with a substantial reduction in net legal numbers (which this quarters number look like they might be delivering and Starmer will be within striking distance in the election campaign. And Starmer is a dud who can’t perform under pressure.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
16 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Starmer can’t perform under pressure is a truism. Watch his body – he literally goes into rabbit in headlights freeze mode. But don’t worry you won’t be led by Starmer. It’s the Blair Tribute government that’s coming in with its techno-authoritarian optimism. One of Stsrmer’s first announcements will be digital ID to protect the borders. It won’t do the ltter, but Blair’s done a very juicy deal with Larry Ellison at Oracle AI is stalling because they’ve run out of solid datasets. Expect your life to be harvested in many more senses.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
17 days ago

Poignant to contrast the 10,825 votes for Labour in Blackpool South yesterday with the 29,282 won when they first gained Blackpool South in the Blair landslide of 1997. All that enthusiasm for change, all betrayed, and replaced now with a sullen, depleted mandate, reflecting merely despair with the alternatives.

Santiago Excilio
Santiago Excilio
17 days ago

Doomed.

David McKee
David McKee
17 days ago

“After Blackpool, who will save Rishi Sunak?” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Almost exactly three years ago, the headline was, “After Hartlepool, who will save Keir Starmer?”.Well, the electoral wheel turns. Different pool, different leader. I would’t mind betting that in a lot less than three years’ time, we’ll be back to, “…who will save Keir Starmer?”

William Cameron
William Cameron
17 days ago

If the Tory vote dropped from 16000 to 3000 and the Labour Party only won by 7000 they both dropped a lot of support.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
16 days ago

By election turnouts are always significantly lower though, so it’s hard to judge just on numbers alone

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
16 days ago

Apathy will be the biggest winner in the next election. No one wants this lot, but there’s little appetite for the other side either.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
17 days ago

Given the ‘the failures of governance that we can feel all around us’, which includes local authorities not being able or willing to fund public toilets or to plant up flower beds in seaside towns on the South Coast, among that governance is a strange fascination with war.
Spending money on getting the UK ever-more embroiled and planning to spend more on developing the sort of next-gen weapons that jingoes always get stiff about. Some of the so-called mainstream media organisations can only be described as having become rabid with war.
Mr Sunak must be hoping that someone would relieve him of command. But who would want to be at the helm when the Tory Party suffers an historic and irrecoverable collapse? As for the Rwanda scheme, this only reveals another failure of governance.
But it’s the level of turnout in these elections that will be truly revealing about the support – or lack of it – for the so-called mainstream parties.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
17 days ago

Blackpool South is an extremely atypical seat which ticks so many outlier boxes that it hardly represents anything at all.

Obviously Labour are ‘over the moon’ and the Tories ‘sick as parrots’ but does anyone think they are going to save Blackpool or have anything in common with the average bod on the street there?

I’ve been watching the feverish coverage at the gym (brownie point – you can send your congrats later) and it struck me how wearyingly predictable the whole spectacle is; with the ‘presenters ‘ salivating over nothing much and providing no real analysis either.

Or maybe it’s because our lefty ‘impartial’ MSM has been predicting this for the best part of 2 years (after repeatedly sticking it to Boris) so we’re all sick to death of it before it’s even happened.

Two points did strike me however;

1 The turnout is a pathetic 30% so in Blackpool South, Labour ‘annihilated the Tories’ on the back of probably 1 vote per 10 people on the street. I’m not sure about the exact figures but you get my point. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of anything except people’s total mistrust of the whole ‘democratic process’ (aka travelling circus).

2 The other thing that leaps out and that has been completely ignored by Curtice and the other ‘experts ‘ was that at 3pm the total number of Green and Independent councillors exceeded the individual total of either the Tories or the Lib Dems . This suggests similarly that people have lost all faith in the major parties and are looking for something else. The thing that immediately strikes you when you look at the Tory losses is that Labour haven’t gained even half of them as they’ve gone to somebody, anybody else rather than dreary Keir.

But these points don’t suit the narrative naturally so have not been pointed out.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
16 days ago

If the govt looks “rotten” so does the opposition. Two PPR Rayner, Starmer’s multiple attempts to define a woman (and refusal to support Rosie Duffield), Osamor, McGinn, Geraint Davies. A plague on all their houses. I have never seen so many self-serving individuals putting their noses in a wide variety of troughs.

Peter B
Peter B
16 days ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

It’s the general incompetence and inability to think for themselves that worries me more than any actual or potential troughing. Few seem smart enough to be successful troughers.

R Wright
R Wright
16 days ago

Nobody with a brain cares about Rwanda. Nearly all of the million migrants who arrived last year were legal, not illegal. The Rwanda scheme is an obvious red herring to distract from this.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
15 days ago

Looks like Rwanda might pay off for The Rishster, given the Irish have helpfully dumped the French and by extension, the EU, right in it.

James Kumara-Lloyd
James Kumara-Lloyd
15 days ago

The challenge for the Tories is a split in their ex-voters about the country’s problems. One group thinks the issues are down to policies like lockdowns, net zero, and running the country on Blairite lines. They tend to support Reform. The second group supports these policies and concludes the problems are due to incompetence. These people are abstaining or willing to give Labour a go at running things.

Rebuilding support from either group necessitates a willingness to acknowledge past mistakes, a challenging task for politicians. It’s essential to recognise that it’s impossible to appease both groups with their divergent views, but admitting to the errors made is the first step towards winning back their support.

While I personally align with the first group, it’s worth noting that the second group presents a more straightforward path. By openly admitting to mistakes made during the Covid crisis and presenting a comprehensive plan to prevent similar issues in the future, the Tories can begin to rebuild trust. Key areas for improvement include emergency procurement, quantitative easing, fraud prevention, and preparedness for handling contagious diseases.

Palming them off to the enquiry reminds everyone of the mistakes. Leaving the next government to sort out the fix feeds into the narrative that we need a change of government.