Local elections: Rishi Sunak pulls off the ‘reverse-Johnson’
The Conservatives have squandered the support they won in 2019
This morning, as the scale of the electoral challenge Rishi Sunak faces became clear, he may have started to wonder whether this job was worth all the trouble. Think back to the resignation letter he sent Boris Johnson a little less than a year ago, which helped seal the then-Prime Minister’s fate. The problem, Sunak said, was that Johnson’s economic and political strategy was all about avoiding tough choices. It was the job of the Prime Minister to “work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions”.
In the end, it looks increasingly like Sunak has sacrificed himself to demonstrate a difficult lesson. Working hard can only get you so far in politics. Despite his criticisms, there was some method to Johnson’s governing madness. Johnson’s political skill lay in his ability to persuade both “Waitrose woman” and “Workington man” that he was on their side. Sunak, meanwhile, has pulled off what we might call the “reverse Johnson”: this week, it appears that both Hertfordshire and Hartlepool have moved decisively away from the Conservatives.
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Looking at the coverage of Sunak over the last couple of months, you could be forgiven for thinking that these elections were held in propitious circumstances for the Prime Minister. Driven by (relatively) healthy personal ratings — and the narrative that they were a “leading indicator” — the discussion in Westminster began to turn to whether Sunak could pull off an unlikely victory.
Those ratings were a chimera for a key reason, one that again contrasts with his predecessor-but-one. The people who disliked Johnson, in December 2019 at least, were disproportionately those living in metropolitan areas and who were not voting Conservative anyway. He managed to reach, and then convert, a set of voters which had never voted Tory before. The opposite is true for Sunak: those who think that he is doing a decent job in difficult circumstances still prefer the Labour Party. All the while, voters the Conservatives previously won are turning away in droves.
This can be seen in the early results, analysed by the political scientist Will Jennings, which suggest that Keir Starmer is making gains for Labour among the exact set of people Labour were worried could be gone for good. Specifically, in areas that are more likely to have voted Leave in 2016, places with a lower concentration of university graduates and among areas in the North West and South West.
These local results — despite the low bar the Conservative Party set for themselves — could be even grimmer than they look. As the political sociologist Paula Surridge has noted, the low turnout indicates that things could be even worse. The evidence from political science is that it is voter groups swinging back to Labour which are least likely to turn out in local elections. Come the general election, when these voters turn out in larger numbers, the backlash in the red wall could be even bigger.
Sunak still has some time left, and he might now usefully take inspiration from Starmer, who looked down and out this time two years ago, having himself suffered damaging election results in Hartlepool. In truth, Starmer has been a lucky general, his recovery since May 2021 powered first by Partygate and then by the Conservative Party’s self-immolation. In politics, as Sunak is finding out, a lucky break can be much more useful than being seen as a safe pair of hands.
Sunak very publicly plotted against and undermined two Conservative PMs, resigned as Chancellor on spurious grounds, forced a two month long membership vote which he was certain to lose, and then encouraged allies including Raab, Gove and Mel Stride to make quite remarkable displays of public disloyalty to Truss. Johnson and Truss were primarily the authors of their own misfortune but help and support from Sunak, rather than selfish plotting, would have been in the Party’s and in the national interest. Now a country which is apparently so divided it cannot even come together for the Coronation, suffers a rising tax burden, negligible economic growth, a housing and cost of living crisis, and rubbish public services. Sunak and Hunt, as, respectively, former Chancellor and Health Secretary, get much of the blame for this. Well, they deserve it.
The real guilty men, and women, are the folks who voted for them when obvious a set of wrong-uns. (Esp the Tory party membership intoxicated by it’s own echo chamber self-deception).
Yes it is rather beginning to look like that, and reminds me rather of 1964.
I don’t know. With the greatest of respect to you, your comment does feel remarkably generous to both Johnson and Truss – revisionism helps no one. There is a good argument that both were in one way or another people who likely could have continued as PM had they both just stopped for a moment and realised, as you say, that they were not exactly helping themselves. It is not easy to see how these election results would have been markedly different had Johnson or Truss been leader.
The key line to my mind in the article is this. ‘He [Johnson] managed to reach, and then convert, a set of voters which had never voted Tory before.’ As true as that is I think that, ‘convert,’ is overstating it. He got them to vote Conservative in the context of the EU situation. If there really was a realignment around the EU referendum then it was built on sand. The criticism I would make of Rishi Sunak is that we should be going harder and faster on divergence from the EU. If there’s no divergence then it’s not worth it. Johnson with Sunak as Chancellor and without Covid is I recognise an interesting counterfactual exercise, but that’s all it will ever be – Sunak is not getting deposed.
My own feeling, locally at least, is that people around here have very little wish to see another Conservative government, but that’s not translating into any great love for the other parties. Turnout here was on the floor. That’s a pretty grim situation. The next election will be fought between a WEF type and a man who knelt for BLM.
The note of caution I always sound in these arguments is that perhaps those of us who are not happy with the current situation do have to recognise that the one major European country where the voters (at national level at least) decided to destroy an old party system is France. Out of that emerged Emmanuel Macron: be careful what you wish for.
Let me reword that for you.
Sunak took effective action to put things straight when he saw things were going badly wrong. Johnson was the right man for the job for a year or two. After which he most certainly was not. And he has no one else to blame but himself for his demise. Ditto Liz Truss.
Starmer sat back and did nothing while Jeremy Corbyn was in charge. Even worse, he was a leading supporter of Corbyn. At a time when many senior Labour politicians took a stand and refused to serve.
Take your pick.
Starmer has essentially kicked Corbyn out of the party and actually how he’s taken back control from the crackpots one of his most impressive feats. Quite a turnaround. Parties remain coalitions of course, so not everyone will remain on perfect message.
Not the point. He fully endorsed and campaigned for Corbyn. He failed to take a stand when it mattered. He’s all over the place- for Corbyn/against Corbyn, against Brexit/accepts Brexit, wants higher taxes on pensions/has a special law passed just for him to exempt him … . What’s more he actually markets himself as a man of principle and not a Boris-like opportunist.
The man has zero credibility.
Gradually being proved right on Brexit isn’t he. Public will quietly note that.
Not that we are going back in mind.
Truss and Bojo were Remainers of course until putting personal career tactics before their instinct. May the same. And Sunak a Leaver yet inching back towards EU step by step. ‘All over the place’ certainly has plenty of examples.
No. He doesn’t even seem to know what he thinks about Brexit. Either that, or lacks the courage to come out and say it. Both are equally abject.
We are not “inching back towards the EU”. This is all in your imagination. All that is happening is that both the UK and EU are refocusing on more real and urgent problems – of which we both have plenty – and restoring a more practical and pragmatic relationship, rather than one based on attempting to punish the UK or prove points.
Think about it. If it’s self-evident that the UK leaving the UK is a bad deal for the UK (and a good one for the EU), why did the EU put quite so much effort into trying to “prove” that Brexit was bad/wrong ? All they would have had to do is let events take their course. But they didn’t do that. QED.
We’re not going back any time soon. There will be no appetite for going back with a worse deal than the poor one we had in the past.
The EU will just have to struggle on without our subsidies.
We’re not going fully back in as I said, at least not in my lifetime. We wouldn’t get as good an arrangement as we had and history books will draw attention to that folly too. But v close alignment inevitable with EU controlling direction far more than UK.
Guess who said this – ‘Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position of having privileged access, not just to the U.K. home market … but also the European Union single market’. Strange that isn’t it. Guess who had both too?
And you’ll have read small print in the Windsor agreement and also the current TCA, which come renegotiation may well be further tightened.
We’re tethered and will gradually pull ourselves closer and closer back to the Single Market, like Norway et al and as we are already doing. It’s just a matter of timing and the sensible people in both main parties feel much the same. Hang around long enough and you’ll see.
Large number of Greens picking up seats suggests a protest vote. It will all change at the general election.
Well this is the media narrative as they all get excited. Actually right now at -296 it’s not too bad, and there has been no Blair-like avalanche to Labour. It may change of course, but let’s see rather than parrot the received wisdom.
Can anybody tell me what the turn-outs were like? I followed the link but it just said ‘low’. Have Tories just abstained?
The article said that it could be worse with a high turn-out. Why?
‘The article said that it could be worse with a high turn-out. Why?’
No way of knowing, but I suppose the logic is that young people are more likely to vote Labour, but are also less likely to vote overall.
Yes, good question. I’ve done some cursory searches for the figures but can’t find anything either.
Thus far fairly much as predicted by Curtiss et al.
No fan of Sunak, or the dreadful party (bar a few exceptions) he’s led. But wouldn’t entirely count him out yet. He needs some lucky breaks but that can happen. Lab nowhere near the force they were in 96 and whilst they should improve a bit yet this is not a young Blair Rishi is up against.
This strikes me as a distinctly premature – even immature – judgement on a highly fluid situation. 18 months ago the Conservatives were more popular than Labour. What has happened since then is down to a combination of events and factors which don’t have that much to do with Rishi Sunak.
Nor should mid-term local election results be extrapolated to national elections without thought.
There is not strong evidence that voters actually prefer Labour or Keir Starmer at this stage. Nor indeed that they prefer the Lib Dems. These results are far more a vote against the Tories than any endorsement of anything else. Also, looking across the south, there’s a clear residual anti-Brexit effect still at work, where pro-Brexit voting has worn off in pro-Brexit areas since it’s generally considered “done” (I intentionally use the word “considered”).
My gut feeling is that the bottom is in for the Tories now and the top is in for Labour. I’d go further – Labour won’t win an overall majority at the next election. These results won’t be replicated when people start voting for an actual Prime Minister (self-made man or self-righteous North London human rights lawyer ?). Nor when they realise how anti-aspiration Labour really are.
Thanks for that, a very reasonable assessment in my opinion, and one that I was too lethargic to come to myself!
I’d say that it was Johnson who pulled the “Reverse Johnson.”
Can anybody tell me what the turn-outs were like?
“As the political sociologist Paula Surridge has noted, the low turnout indicates that things could be even worse.”
Actually, it probably more likely means that voters couldn’t be arsed to go out and vote for Labour.
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