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Artillery Row

Blue de grâce?

The next election could spell doom for the Conservative Party

Fiddling whilst Rome burns is too obvious. Turning a blind eye is too simple. Sending it to Coventry would be too clunky and wouldn’t really make sense. Sorry readers. But working out which cliché might best describe the cognitive dissonance of a Conservative party considering looming electoral disaster is serious business for a budding young political commentator. 

A YouGov MRP poll caught headlines this week with a constituency-by-constituency prediction of the next general election result based on 14,000 interviews. It made for grim reading for Tories: only 169 MPs returned, compared to Labour’s 385. 11 Cabinet Ministers will lose their seats, including Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt, in a result comparable to John Major’s 1997 shellacking. 

Unlike in 1997, the poll predicts that the Tories will retain a few redoubts in Wales and Scotland. But that’s little comfort when they will find themselves annihilated not only in those post-industrial Red Wall seats across the North and Midlands pilfered from Labour in 1997, but across the previously solid suburban South and coasts. Aylesbury, Watford, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Swindon, Southend: all gone. 

Although unionists can take heart from a predicted halving of the SNP’s Westminster contingent, an older yellow peril would rear its head in their place, as the Liberal Democrats win 48 seats — including six in hitherto solidly Tory Surrey.  All in all, 196 seats would be lost from 2019 — more than Major in 1997, and the worst set of Conservative losses since 1906, before universal suffrage. 

Naturally, for those of us unlucky enough to have a vested interest in the Conservative Party’s continued success, polls like this set alarm bells ringing. But they should hardly be surprising. Brought low by the unholy trinity of Partygate, the Liz Truss experiment, and the Sisyphean task of stopping the boats, a defeat on this scale has been obvious for at least 18 months to those filling to face reality.  

In fact, the Tories should be happy with a 1997-style result. Times are tougher. Major had an economic recovery to help amidst philandering ministers and irreconcilable Eurosceptics. By contrast, Sunak has a cost-of-living crisis, dysfunctional public services, two wars, and a backbench so stuffed with grumpy ex-ministers, serial rebels, and aspiring rivals as to make Major’s “Bastards” look convivial. 

But hoping for a repeat of 1997 also makes the honest call that the result is likely to be much, much worse. Look at the fine details of the MRP prediction, and it becomes clear that, if anything, the pollster was being kind to the Tories. YouGov put Labour lead’s at 13.5 per cent; another poll this week had it on 27. They also have undecided ex-Conservative voters returning to the party. Can we be sure of that?

Moreover, in Reform UK, the Tories have a much more well-established threat to their right than in 1997. Tactical voting is much more advanced and the electorate much more volatile. In seats like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s North-East Somerset — predicted to stay blue by the MRP — it should be easy for the local Liberal Democrats to fall in behind Labour, as they did recently in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth. 

As such, the Conservatives could end up with far fewer MPs than they managed in 1997 — or 1906. Winning 100 or fewer seats would not be a shock. The spectre looms of a similar thumping as Labour in 1931 — 52 MPs, down 235 — or their Canadian counterparts in 1993, where their vote share plummeting by 27 per saw them lose 154 seats of 156 and their status as a major party. 

as I watch my party’s poll ratings sink ever lower, I can’t help but feel a very different kind of blue

I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But as I watch my party’s poll ratings sink ever lower, I can’t help but feel a very different kind of blue. This is hardly helped by seeing Conservative MPs grapple with the likelihood that voters will soon be handing them their P45s. It’d be a case study in SW1 unreality if it wasn’t so galling. At least rabbits in the headlights can be expected to open their eyes. 

One or two have read the runes and already jumped ship for media gigs and eco-sinecures. But most seem to be burying their heads in the sand, unwilling to acknowledge that they are heading for an electoral Götterdämmerung comparable only to the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. A few warm words from Isaac Levido is enough to tide them over until the morning of November 15th

Of course, Number 10 can hardly acknowledge the profound mess their party is in without triggering mass panic amongst MPs. Hence Sunak persists with a Rwanda policy that’ll either be delayed by the Lords, hobbled by the courts, or proved unworkable in practice to give his backbenches something to suggest he is at least trying to “Stop the Boats”. MPs swallow the illusion since the reality is worse. 

Had Sunak’s Bill been voted down, MPs might have smashed the glass marked leadership election. Unlike the martial loyalty of previous generations, today’s Tories treat their leaders as Watford do their managers: a few bad results and they face the sack. Cue babble about letters to Graham Brady. Yes, replacing Boris Johnson with Truss and Sunak didn’t work too well. But we can roll the dice again!

That MPs haven’t yet moved against the Prime Minister not only shows how willing they are to trust hope over experience on Rwanda but speaks to some lingering instinct for self-preservation. Installing their third unelected leader in two years would be farcical even by recent standards, a further insult to an electorate long since fed up with Tory self-indulgence. Even getting there would be bloody. 

Sunak would likely win a no confidence vote. But like Theresa May and Johnson before him, he would find himself mortally wounded. Fearing for his position, the PM might bring an election forward, foreshortening the time MPs have left for finding half-decent lobbying gigs. Whereas if he lost there would be no new coronation. Mordaunt, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch: who would stand aside?

Civil war beckons

Civil war beckons. But that’s the case whatever MPs do, or whatever the scale of the kicking the electorate delivers. Research by Tim Bale and David Jeffrey suggests that the worse the Tories do, the more ex-ministerial, Oxbridge, and pro-Sunak the remaining MPs would be. The party establishment, in short — as far as is imaginable from the populist right of right-wing hopes and liberal nightmares.

Yet they would confront a party membership hacked off at seeing two leaders that they’d elected removed by MPs, convinced that the last 14 years have been wasted, and tempted by Nigel Farage’s siren call. A leadership election would be a Dutch auction for the right, culminating with a pledge to make Farage a party member. The One Nation wing would revolt. Talk of splits would abound. 

Richard Tice and Dominic Cummings would watch this nervous breakdown with glee, working out how easily a Conservative party reduced to only double or single figures in the Commons could be swept aside. Either way, the Tories would be confronting their greatest existential crisis since the split over the Corn Laws — if ever. After 1997 they eventually returned to office. Would they do so now? 

No party has a right to exist. We Tories only have ourselves to blame if we are staring into the abyss. But there is a solid chance that this might be the last Conservative government in Britain’s history. Even in 1997 we managed 27 per cent of the 18–24-year-old vote. Polls now suggest I’m part of 1 paltry per cent. Whatever the election outcome, how long can the Conservatives defy demographic gravity? 

I’ve found my cliché. It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.

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