How worried should the Conservatives be?


The Conservatives’ Election Campaign so far feels oddly like Jeremy Corbyn’s in 2019.  Every day, we get a bold new policy announcement designed to grab the headlines and, in the absence of Labour wanting to say anything, largely succeeding:  national service, triple lock plus, ‘protecting’ biological sex – each announcement designed to further shore up Conservative support. 

But none of this activity seems to be moving the dial.  The trouble that all political parties have going into this election is that the public simply doesn’t believe any of them, so individual policy pledges fail to cut through – it’s all just ‘incredible’, in the true sense of the word.  

More significantly, the strategy lacks coherence: the Conservatives’ narrative – “we have a plan (Labour doesn’t)” – is actually undermined by the flurry of disconnected policy announcements.  It has the sense of the drunken pub bore whose continually says “and another thing…”  without pausing for breath.  This doesn’t sound like a plan – it’s sounds random – nothing sticks.

In contrast, Labour’s “change (but not too much)” narrative seems to be cutting through.  It doesn’t need endless unfunded spending commitments which the public doesn’t believe anyway.  Instead, there is a single subliminal message: “nothing to be scared of here…”

As a result, both main parties will be awaiting with bated breath the release at 5pm tonight of the second massive MRP poll of the election campaign, this time from YouGov.  The first showed the Conservatives with just 66 remaining seats, and the Lib Dems breathing down their necks on 59.  The commentary, especially from Labour terrified of complacency, was not to believe a word, but these polls have a decent record and such things can happen.  In March, I wrote about the fate of the Canadian Conservatives who fell from a Parliamentary majority to just two seats in the course of a single election, and we have seen similar if not identical massive swings in the UK in 1905, in 1910, in 1945, 1997…

Increasingly, we hearing commentators reporting that, if nothing changes, Conservatives will “go into full panic mode’ in a week’s time.  What do they mean by that?  Most likely, one might expect party discipline to breakdown further: criticisms of Sunak’s campaign to move into the public domain, more candidates to distance themselves from the party, blue on blue attacks on the manifesto when it’s launched.  

What’s more, even if in reality little changes, the serious risk for the Conservatives is that the media will start telling us their campaign is in freefall anyway.  Journalists like nothing more than a process story.  If the polls are not moving, they will want to zero in on why, so the story of internal collapse will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Is there a way out for the Conservatives?  Yes, and there is no question that tomorrow’s ITV leaders’ debate is a crucial opportunity to change the narrative, although in reality Starmer has tended to best Sunak at recent PMQs, so it would seem an unlikely outcome.  

A couple of good polls, with a different methodology might also help, although we have now seen findings from all the serious polling companies and only JLP seems to offer much hope in their treatment of ‘don’t knows’.  

In the final week to ten days of the campaign, as voters focus in on the binary choice they face, maybe “the better the devil we know” message will bring some soft Conservatives back into the fold.  Indeed, maybe the threat at that stage of a Labour landslide without precedent might, in itself, be enough to revive the Conservatives – British voters tend to be uncomfortable with extremes.  But by then it will be too late for any significant revival, not least because a large number of people will already have voted.

I speculated in March that “under the perversities of first past the post, Labour might reasonably expect 400+ seats in return for its 40-45% vote share, the Conservatives might indeed plunge below 100, with the Lib Dems either side of fifty”.   

I went on to speculate that the Conservatives might then reverse engineer into Reform, an outcome reinforced this weekend by Nigel Farage’s assertion that he wants “to take over the Conservatives”.  

Writing then, however, there seemed plenty of time for more likely scenarios to play out so I concluded, it was “unlikely but not impossible”.  Now time for “something else to turn up” is running out and we remain on this same track.  The “unlikely” is becoming more and more likely by the day.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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