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The Tories are heading for their worst ever result

Dead man walking. Credit: Getty

January 11, 2024 - 7:00am

The most puzzling question in British politics is this: why aren’t the Tories panicking yet? The latest YouGov poll puts Rishi Sunak’s party on 22% and Keir Starmer’s on 46%. You know things are bad when the Labour lead exceeds the total level of Tory support.

1997 is the modern benchmark for Conservative landslide defeats — when John Major’s Conservatives lost 178 seats to end up with just 165 MPs. Something similar is widely expected this year, but what if that’s still too optimistic? 

In 1997, the Conservatives got 31% of the vote. These days, they dream of such dizzy heights. Then there’s the threat from the populist Right. In Major’s time, this mainly came from Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party — which won 2.6% of the vote. Contrast that to Reform UK, which, according to YouGov, is on 9% of the vote.

In short, the basic maths in 2024 looks a lot worse than 27 years ago. So why shouldn’t an even more crushing defeat be expected? It’s worth remembering what happened to the Canadian Tories in 1993, who crashed from 156 seats to just 2. It probably won’t get that bad for the British Tories, nevertheless the polls are pointing to the worst result in the party’s history.

A thread by the psephologist Jane Green explains why their position won’t automatically improve before the election. It didn’t in the run-up to 1997 — and back then there was only one millstone round the party’s neck (Black Wednesday). Today the party is weighed-down by three extinction-level events: Partygate, the Truss implosion and the ongoing chaos of the Government’s immigration policy.

Rishi Sunak shows little sign of understanding just how much trouble his party is in. His bland election strategy depends on an improving economy, but that didn’t work for John Major in the 1990s when growth was much stronger. Nor will fear of a Labour government do the trick. Again, this didn’t work for Major. Starmer isn’t as popular as Tony Blair was, but he is too boring to frighten the horses.

The hope that ex-Tory voters are waiting to return is therefore a vain one. A more straightforward explanation for the polls is that the electorate is out for blood. The Conservative Party is in for a righteous hiding that it will never forget — if, that is, it survives the experience.

With closer to 100 than 200 MPs, the Conservatives in opposition would be acutely vulnerable to a takeover bid. Nigel Farage will be ready-and-waiting to offer a merger with Reform UK — and himself as leader. Or failing that, he could solicit multiple defections. Dominic Cummings has a plan to replace the party altogether; while Boris Johnson could re-emerge from the wilderness to turn what’s left of the Tories into his personal cult.

At the very least, trying to form a functional shadow cabinet from a hundred-odd MPs would be an impossible task for a post-election leader. There is, however, an alternative — which is to attempt a re-boot of the party before the election. That would mean replacing Sunak with someone with the ability to make an instant connection with the British people. Though it’s too late to transform the government’s record, a gifted communicator might just change the narrative. As things stand, that means either Kemi Badenoch or Penny Mordaunt.

Of course, the odds of success are slim. Nevertheless, a bold new leader would stand a greater chance now than after the Tory apocalypse.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

The alternative is to just attempt a re-boot of the party before the election? Ok, they should just do that then!

54321
54321
6 months ago

OK, first off, the Tories aren’t panicking because they are resigned to their fate. Any of them who aren’t completely blind will already have their post-election plans in place.

I’ve drawn this analogy before, but it’s a good one. Sunak is Grand Admiral Donitz who was briefly German Chancellor between Hitler’s death and the end of WW2. Like Donitz his job is to manage defeat with a modicum of dignity.

Secondly, changing leaders at this point will merely confirm the electorate’s impression that they are mostly a clown-car full of venal careerists with zero talent for governing in anyone’s interest but their own.

Someone like Badenoch, around whom they could sensibly rebuild in the longer term, would be insane to take the job now and have the forthcoming catastrophe on her CV.

Finally, the situation is worse than even this article suggests. In 1997, despite being on the wrong end of a landslide, the Tories won a higher percentage of the under-30s vote than they did when they won handsomely in 2019. God knows how low it will drop in the forthcoming election.

With so many young people likely to be renting and working gig economy jobs for life, its hard to see them moving rightwards in significant numbers as they grow older, as they have in the past.

It’s a shit-show and no mistake.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
6 months ago
Reply to  54321

This is the key point and I’m amazed that the Conservatives have been so blase over the years. At its bluntest, in order to be a conservative, one ordinarily needs to have something to conserve. It is not clear to me why anyone under the age of about 50 would vote Conservative now. The only thing I could add here is that the Labour Party doesn’t really seem to have anything better. The risk is obvious – a majority a mile wide and an inch thick.
I see a lot of the comparisons with 1992, but what tends to be forgotten is that John Major’s fortunes turned on a moment when he stood up on a soapbox in a marketplace, got a loudspeaker and showed a bit of authenticity and belief in his thinking and de facto his conservatism in front of a hostile crowd. I don’t see a single politician doing anything like that now – they best today’s crop can do is something on social media. Jeremy Corbyn was very authentic of course, as long as he was surrounded by a friendly crowd.
It is worth remembering here that Keir Starmer’s flash of authenticity was kneeling for BLM.
Come the mid 1990s, John Major, for all his many faults, could with some credibility say that, ‘if it isn’t hurting it isn’t working,’ had become, ‘yes it hurt, yes it worked.’
You are right – the reboot that politics (not just the Conservative Party) is around youth. Somehow as a country we have got a triple locked pension when pensioners are more likely to live in a millionaire-led house than in poverty. If Starmer or Badenoch (or anyone else) has any ideas for how that reboot could be brought about then they are being very quiet about it. Boris Johnson seemed to have some sort of traction with youth, though to be honest I never understood why.
What is a conservative society – it is one where there are secure wages, owner-occupied houses and robust pensions. The issue is of course easier to state than the solution but since 2010 it is hard to see the Conservatives as doing anything other than the ultra short-termist at the cost of embedded conservatism. Leaving the EU was a sugar rush – a righteous one, but still a sugar rush.
What’s needed is a Conservative, what we’ve had are corporatists.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

I agree that Corbyn was “authentic”, but unfortunately he was “authentically socialist”.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

and authentically anti semitic

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

f*****g bollocks he was, sounds like someone has been reading the daily mail

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
6 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

Most senior politicians nowadays govern with one eye on their lucrative future directorships and public speaking engagements. Why should Rishi Sunak care if the Tories are unelectable in twenty years’ time because their elderly voters have all died and no younger people will vote for them? He’ll long since have moved on to some other, much more lucrative, employment.

Robbie K
Robbie K
6 months ago

Whilst it might be their only chance to salvage something from the election, would Badenoch or Mordaunt want to take on what appears to be a certain defeat?
As it stands, I can’t vote for Sunak, I don’t want him, he’s a sad excuse for a PM. But get rid of him now, whilst there’s still time for someone else to get settled.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

I actually think Sunak would have been a good PM in more agreeable times, when a “steady hand on the tiller” was needed. Sometimes circumstances work in your favour, and sometimes they don’t. After all, Churchill was widely regarded as a washed up has-been in 1938.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

There is an extent to which Rishi Sunak was left holding the timebomb – that’s not unfair. Could he have done something other than the lockdowns had he been PM? We’ll never know of course.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

Given that pretty much all Western countries went down the “lockdown” route, I’m sure he would have too. However, it is time to move on from COVID. I mean, so you think Starmer wouldn’t have imposed lockdowns?

Cassander Antipatru
Cassander Antipatru
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

If he’s not suited to be PM in the current situation, he shouldn’t have stood.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago

They’ve had 14 years to reboot the party and become a party of conservatism. Their destruction is as well deserved as that of the Liberals a century ago, if not more so.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
6 months ago

I think it’s extremely optimistic to imagine there will be another election after this one. Agenda 2030 will be one year from completion in five years time and I don’t think democracy has too big a role to play in that. After all this is why we are about to have a member of the Trilateral commission installed as leader.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Oh bog off with the self indulgent conspiracy winging.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
6 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

I’m not sure what winging is but you just keep your head firmly in the sand lad.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

He meant whinging. You’re a whinger.

Douglas Redmayne
Douglas Redmayne
6 months ago

They will be destroyed and , as a Labour voter, I will tactically vote Liberal in my constituency where they are placed second to the Tory incumbent, to help ensure that they are stamped out as punishment for their corruption and incompetence

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
6 months ago

Exactly my position.

Aidan Twomey
Aidan Twomey
6 months ago

The Conservative Party doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t know how many members the party had in 1997, but I bet it was an order of magnitude greater than today. All it has now is money, and that won’t survive a spell in opposition.

Good riddance, they haven’t conserved anything. I hope the party dies,

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago
Reply to  Aidan Twomey

There were 2.8m Conservative members in 1950, about 400,000 in 1997 and about 172,000 in mid-2022 (likely now down to 130,000)

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

Much to agree with, but as regards the 3 extinction events there are two the Author overlooks. Firstly the ‘cost of living/austerity’ decline over 14years. And secondly the unavoidable conclusion we all got dragged through the nonsense and distraction that was Brexit for no great benefit or reason. Folks may not want to revisit it, or re-join, but they know when they’ve been made a mug of and will quietly get someone to pay.
The dire state of key public services – things like every family likely to now have direct experience of someone waiting way too long for crucial health or social care support – perhaps not an extinction event even if it should be. The Tories might have cobbled enough of a coalition of voters together to ride this out, but with the other elements…
On assumption Labour get in, nothing quite beats the inheritance challenge they had in 45, but this latest ‘hospital pass’ will beat 64, which was pretty dreadful.
As Author and comments already outline, who’d want to replace Sunak now. Let him take the ‘can’ will be the silent verdict.
As regards a Farage led Reform type take-over of the Tories – it’s poss, and ranting without accountability for any delivery what Farage and his type do best. But fundamentally the Right got to face up to the contradictions they’ve just failed to square in recent years.
Personally I hope we get to an Autumn election without other world events deteriorating further and making much of what we currently debate feel a bit parochial. The election next wk in Taiwan and how CCP/Xi reacts being the immediate thought.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

“But fundamentally the Right got to face up to the contradictions they’ve just failed to square in recent years.”
What right? I don’t see a Right in power.

0 0
0 0
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

In that case I’d recommend a trip to Specsavers…

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Not Right enough Wright. More jackboot needed to keep you happy.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Excellent.

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
6 months ago

If the Tories had actually been a small-c conservative party, they’d be cruising to victory rather than facing annihilation. Why would any actual conservative vote for such people? We might as well already have a Labour govt.
I voted Tory in every election since 1979 (bar one, voted BXP in the final Euro elections). Even I want them to burn to ash now & I’ll be voting Reform as my small contribution to helping that happen.
We are doomed to an equally ruinous Labour government, so we need to focus on the general election after next when hopefully we will have a viable real conservative party (which might well not be the Conservative Party) to vote for.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

Why would any actual conservative vote for such people?” Presumably because in not doing so, there is a danger of getting an actual socialist government.

Chris Reardon
Chris Reardon
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

We already have a socialist government

Randhir Naiker
Randhir Naiker
6 months ago

There is a special place in hell for tories, yet their supporters deserve a fate much worse!
A plague on your house!

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
6 months ago

I really don’t understand what the Tory party is in Britain. Are they culturally conservative at all?

Perry de Havilland
Perry de Havilland
6 months ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

No, they are neither culturally nor economically conservative. They are a Blue Blairite party dominated by economically centre-left wets, with a smattering of actual full-on wokesters like the dismal Maria Miller, Caroline Nokes & Penny Mordaunt.
About half of the party who are members of CEN are not by any reasonable definition small c ‘conservatives’.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
6 months ago

The party is headed for defeat, but I disagree with your reasoning. Nobody cares about party gate. That was just an excuse for the party’s left to remove Johnson. The so-called chaos was again an excuse for the left to remove Truss. More of the voters are concerned that she was replaced by a continuity Cameron leader.
immigration policy has been a disaster, not least because the party lied that they would cut it but instead increased it to record highs. Economic policy, which Truss had a plan to fix, has instead continued with inflationary government spending. Housing policy is a third area with most young voters unable to even dream about home ownership.
The Conservatives haven’t even tried to pretend they’re in any way Conservative. Time is just about out to change course. That’s why they’re going down to defeat.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

Penny Mordaunt for leader? She is the nincompoop who according to Wikipedia, “signed a Parliamentary Early Day Motion that claimed there was “overwhelming anecdotal evidence that homeopathy is effective” and called for the government to “maintain a policy of allowing health commissions to refer to homeopathic doctors and approved homeopaths”.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Nice tits and that’s where it ends.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

The Tories aren’t being helped by the media either. Keir Starmer has all but avoided a single jot of serious scrutiny since he became Labour leader. Is this because he’s a Europhile and Net Zero fanatic? Possibly. If negative tactics truly work, then the Tories biggest asset is Starmer. They need to take the gloves off and go after him – hard. His record as DPP, for example, and his serial flip-flopping.
Anyway, if you haven’t seen this takedown of Starmer, it’s well worth a watch – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyQGrq-Y7gg

Chipoko
Chipoko
6 months ago

The Conservative Party is not panicking because its leaders are so wealthy that they are inoculated against the sheer extent of their woeful record in government and against the future excesses of a Labour Government, led by Sir Keir on bended knee. Electors will not trust a Party that has back-stabbed so many of its Prime Ministers, not least in recent years.
And let us not forgot that the worst excesses of Woke policy and practice have been imposed upon us with the active, and frequently enthusiastic, engagement of Tory politicians.
They deserve to be consigned to the dustbin of history where they belong.

Bernard Brothman
Bernard Brothman
6 months ago

Greetings from one of your readers across the pond. It seems that the Conservative party follows the President Biden campaign theme; “The alternative is worse.”
Assuming a left or Labor win, what will life in the UK become? I could see the next government staffed by people who last week were protesting for Hamas / against Israel. Note the large number of Palestinian flags and absence of Union Jacks in these protests. Maybe the UK has changed from what we knew it.
I think you’ll still have voting and a Parliament but have no idea what life will be like.