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Could the Conservatives finish third in the next election?

Everyone is tired of the Tories — even the Tories. Credit: Getty

June 3, 2024 - 1:50pm

The Labour landslide result of the 1997 UK general election was famously described on the night by BBC election analyst Anthony King as like “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth.”

The Chicxulub asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago left behind an identifying calling card — a relative abundance of the rare element iridium in the rocks formed at the time, marking the boundary between abundance and extinction. We may come to call the marker at the boundary between Tory life and death “Nigel Farage”.

Farage is the factor that could turn this election from “just” a punishing and bruising defeat into a catastrophic wipeout. Labour in ascendancy with a collapse in the Tory vote would be bad enough for the Conservatives, but what they should really fear is losing votes not just to the centre, but to the Right at the same time.

A pincer movement where the party sheds voters to each side of the political spectrum could hand bonus seats to Labour and the Liberal Democrats simply by splitting the Right-wing vote, even where their support isn’t particularly strong. We have seen just how effectively a split vote can hand victory to a united opposition in Scotland, which has seen over a decade of SNP dominance despite notional unionist majorities.

Not aiming for a seat may have seen him being called frit, but it leaves Farage free to campaign where he campaigns best: across the whole country in front of the television lens. Far better to conduct an air war by camera than be bogged down canvassing or leafleting for one extra vote in a single constituency.

For Farage, it’s not about the low possibility of winning a single seat. He already has far more influence outside of parliament than nearly all MPs, excepting some senior cabinet ministers and their shadows, and his ambitions are far more grand — nothing short of the destruction of the Conservative Party. When he makes an emergency announcement later today, the future for the Tory party could be telling.

“I certainly don’t have any trust for them or any love for them,” Farage told the Times this week, echoing the “Zero seats” mantra of the young Right that wants to see the party destroyed and reborn in their image. “I want to reshape the centre-right, whatever that means,” he added, noting that the name of his party – Reform – was a direct reference of its Canadian counterpart that executed exactly the same playbook in 1993, which saw the governing Progressive Conservatives implode from 167 to 2 seats.

We’re not far from that outcome, according to this weekend’s Electoral Calculus poll, which suggested the Conservatives would drop from 365 to just 66 seats. Right-leaning voters used to fear the Miliband and Corbyn Labour Party, but with Starmer and his team remaining tight-lipped and disciplined, the fear has largely gone. Farage and his bedfellows have run out of patience and are happy to weather a decade of Labour holding the keys to Number 10, in order to effect a Tory takeover.

“The Canadian Conservatives had become social democrats like our mob here. It took them time, it took them two elections, they became the biggest party on the centre-right. They then absorbed what was left of the Conservative Party into them and rebranded,” Farage said, his intentions crystal clear.

The real danger for the Tories at this election is that the question of who should govern Britain has moved on from “do you fear the opposition?”, to “would you like to exact revenge on the government?” Now that the electorate does not fear Starmer’s Labour party, the country’s Right and Left can unite around the same question.

None of the Tory coalition has been kept onside by policy outcomes from the last 14 years. The Right hates high levels of immigration, the Home Counties liberals hate Brexit, and just about everyone hates the state of public services and the highest taxes since WWII. This is not going to be a “let’s finish the job” election, no matter how hard Suank tries. This will be a “do you want change” election. Everyone is tired of the Tories — even the Tories. Will Farage go in for the kill?


James Sean Dickson is an analyst and journalist who Substacks at Himbonomics.

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Matt M
Matt M
21 days ago

Question to any Canadian readers: did the Reform project work? I mean, were the resurrected Conservatives under Stephen Harper any more right wing than the PC had been? And if so, did they entrench any right wing policies that weren’t just overturned by Trudeau?

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
21 days ago

I’m afraid of being disappointed come the next election. I sincerely hope for the complete annihilation of the Tories and really hope that a real right-wing party will take it’s place – but it’s not possible to overestimate the amount of propertied geriatrics.

The Tories will be bruised but still around. They’ll change slowly with the times, hopefully, as the Boomers die off, or maybe the following inheritances will make it so we go back to the times of landed gentry.

Rob N
Rob N
21 days ago

“the fear has largely gone”. Don’t know about the electorate but they terrify this elector. However the Tories are so x&#4xy useless that I am hoping for zero seats despite my fear.

David Wildgoose
David Wildgoose
19 days ago
Reply to  Rob N

The reason the “fear” has gone is that it makes no difference whether Labour or Conservatives win. They enact essentially the same policies apart from some minor “window-dressing”.

It’s like deciding whether to be hung by a hemp rope or a nylon one.

John Riordan
John Riordan
21 days ago

The danger – for both the Tories and Farage/Reform – is a permanently-split Right that simply lets Labour stay in power permanently no matter how unpopular and incompetent it gets.

Millions of Conservative voters are also small-c conservative, and simply will never vote for an upstart party.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
20 days ago
Reply to  John Riordan

‘Millions of Conservative voters are also small-c conservative, and simply will never vote for an upstart party.’
Yes. Then the Conservative party needs to start listening to its voters instead of its party activists. Otherwise they will all decamp to Reform eventually.
Starmer has defeated and got rid of all the Trotskyite lefties and associated trouble makers in the Labour party, now it’s the turn of the Tories to get rid of their extreme right wingers.
British voters tend not to go for too much extreme ideology – especially when it gets in the way of what works or makes rash promises.

John Dellingby
John Dellingby
21 days ago

Sorry, but I have to take Matt Goodwin’s side on this when he stated that this is the “None of the above Election”. There is no respect for our elected leaders in any part of the country really. Practically nobody is enthusiastic about Starmer and anyone who voted Conservative last time wants to see them obliterated. I wasn’t sure how to vote, but now I just might go for Reform.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
21 days ago
Reply to  John Dellingby

There hasn’t been much talk about turnout yet. I suspect we’ll see about 60% (far lower in some areas). Goodwin is probably right to the extent that no one is going to come out of this with a lot to be proud of.
Starmer (at least in private) is going to have to acknowledge that he’s almost won by default. Great until it comes to making some unpopular decisions. It will be very interesting to see how he goes about that – and he won’t be able to simply put it down to the Conservatives in every case. War in Ukraine for example was backed to the hilt by Starmer.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
21 days ago

I dislike Farage enormously, but destroying the Tory party and changing the voting system are priorities for me. The parties to the left of centre have been completely ineffective on both counts. Farage swung Brexit, so he might have a chance with these issues. Worth a punt. Labour are going to win anyway.

j watson
j watson
21 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

There was of course a referendum on PR in 2011 and it was rejected by the public. Might be different now, but if Starmer wins big unlikely a repeat anytime soon. Given our myriad problems we probably need a strong Govt able to do difficult things right from the start ( even if we argue about what those might be). Look at Netherlands etc still trying form a workable Governing coalition. Debatable though as both options have pros/cons.
I’d add though be careful what you wish for. PR would probably have had the country governed by a Lab/Lib/Green coalition for last 40yrs. First past post has greatly benefitted the Right as the splits usually been on the Left.

Nell Clover
Nell Clover
21 days ago

This clearly isn’t a “do you want change” election. Tax and spending would be at record levels with Labour in charge as they are with the Tories in charge. Immigration would be at record levels with Labour in charge as it is with the Tories in charge. Ditto a woke civil service, net zero punishment taxes on energy, etc.

Now, the Tories might have promised otherwise, but their excuse has been to say there were no alternatives. Indeed, both Labour and the Tories are both now saying a vote for Reform is a wasted vote – again, that theme of there is no alternative. However, it is more precise to say the permanent secretaries and quangos won’t allow alternatives. It is a “you can’t have change” election.

And, to rub salt in the wound of democracy, Reeves has made it Labour policy to officially make tax and spending approval the preserve of the unelected OBR quango. Once that happens, we really can’t have change.

Phil Day
Phil Day
21 days ago

The correct answer to this article’s headline is yes – mathematically possible for the Liberals to come second (in fact one poll predicts that scenario)

j watson
j watson
21 days ago

Launch of the Ego. Couldn’t land a job with Trump campaign, didn’t get offered a safe Tory seat and began to get grumpy at not being in the spotlight.
The question is what might emerge from the ashes and will Farage duck the contradictions inherent in so much Right Wing thinking as much as the rest? Almost certainly. He’ll major on immigration as we know, but he’ll be totally vacuous on everything else. As essentially a protest pressure group leader he’s always had the benefit of sloganeering whilst knowing he’ll never have to take actual responsibility. That will continue.

Paul Johnston
Paul Johnston
20 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Exactly right. I wonder how Tice feels now having been summarily dismissed.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
21 days ago

 happy to weather a decade of Labour holding the keys to Number 10,

If Labour manage 2 full terms in office I will be truly amazed!They think they are inheriting a broken economy-partly due to their own inability to grasp fundamental economic principles and partly due to the built in mathematics of the precipitous collapse that UK Plc is embarking on,they will be inheriting something much worse .It will be beyond their rather limited capabilities to resolve and will be exacerbated by their fixation on further regulation,,constitutional tinkering and cultural shifts.
By the time we get to 2029 the road will have definitely run out.

Johanna Barry
Johanna Barry
20 days ago

Yep. I agree. I suspect we are going to have a situation pretty much like the mid to late 70s and head into ever deeper chaos and financial collapse.