20 October 2023

Bye bye elections – is it all over for the Tories?


Well. If there is one good thing that could yet come out of yesterday’s rout, it would be shaking the Conservative leadership – and perhaps a section of the Tory press too – out of their complacent stupor about just how bad the party’s position actually is.

Yes, the record smashed at Mid-Bedfordshire was only set by the Liberal Democrats at Tiverton and Honiton a few months ago. But the problem with the last round of by-election disasters is that the Conservatives squeaked home in Uxbridge.

That’s obviously a perfectly good thing in itself – and it’s funny to imagine Boris Johnson’s face as he realised he could perhaps have fought and won that seat had he the courage to make the attempt. But despite the slenderness of the margin and the thumping the party received elsewhere, it allowed a dangerous ‘one out of three ain’t bad’ mindset to creep in.

Worse, Rishi Sunak and the team around him appear genuinely to believe that the next election is winnable. Hence their failure to take advantage of the extraordinary freedom that comes from possessing an overall majority whilst being 20 points behind in the polls, and the Prime Minister’s decision to squander his conference speech on technocratic tinkering with A Levels whilst ignoring the housing crisis.

Last night’s results really ought to cure CCHQ of any lingering delusions on this front. If there is any path to victory in 2025 – or, as now seems grimly plausible, January 2025 – it does not, cannot lie in twelve more months of steady as she goes. 

The problem is, what alternative is there? The party seems genuinely out of ideas. There might be something in the bold pose Sunak struck in Manchester about making difficult long-term decisions, but he isn’t interested in actually doing that. Liz Truss is still touting her magic beans, but irrespective of their ideological content, a party concerned with basic competence should die of embarrassment before installing her as leader again.

It isn’t too late to do worthwhile things. Sign off the Abingdon reservoir, for example. Or sign a bunch of development orders zoning the centres of our largest cities for medium-density housing. Does anyone doubt at this point that Theresa Villiers and Iain Duncan Smith, who scraped home by barely more than a thousand votes each during the 2019 landslide, are goners next time? Could the party finally stop letting them dictate its housing policy?

But there seems little point in continuing to suggest such things; there is no sign they’re going to happen. The Conservatives appear to be trapped in the headlights of the coming catastrophe, locked for want of better ideas in a defensive crouch which cedes the initiative to their opponents and hopes that the tyres fall off the onrushing lorry before it hits.

There are vaguely plausible scenarios where that happens; this is Labour we’re talking about, after all. This week’s row over Palestine suggests one way in which it might happen.

Yet it probably won’t. Moreover, this static defence gives one no idea of why Sunak wants another term. There is no ambitious programme, no driving energy, at the heart of the current government. I’ve said for a while that I have no idea what Britain would look like if the Prime Minister were handed a magic wand and I still don’t, save that it would have a booming black market in cigarettes and fewer trains.

Until now, my hunch was that it might be better for the Conservatives if they lost the next election. Whilst losing office is never good, there seemed a reasonable chance they could lose by a relatively healthy margin, remain competitive in the next parliament, and perhaps even regain office in 2029 given how miserable a set of circumstances Sir Keir Starmer and his team would inherit in 2024. By contrast, winning would mean eking out five more years of paralysis before a truly existential thrashing at the following election.

I think that logic still holds, except that maybe the existential thrashing is coming in 2024. It may not – Starmer is not Blair, events dear boy, etc. – but the scale of the defeats currently being inflicted on the party rhymes with those suffered in the Major years. 

A full rout would not only see the Red Wall ceded back to Labour, but also swathes of seats in the so-called Blue Wall fall to the Lib Dems. The latter would arguably be worse, because at least Labour tend to shed seats in the normal course of the political cycle. A seat lost to the Lib Dems is usually lost until either the MP retires or the party makes the mistake of taking office and trying to achieve things.

And once a seat is lost, of course, the fact that the Tories have failed to maintain the old processes by which younger voters became Tories means that it will get harder and harder, year on year, to win each seat back. 

It’s not too late! As the song has it, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Sunak could still take up his majority and wield it boldly. It might not win him the next election, but it would at least carve out a worthwhile legacy.

But to do that, he has to accept the scale of the disaster looming behind those headlights – and that sticking his head in the sand won’t make it go away.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.