31 October 2022

The narrow path to recovery: how things could start to go right for Sunak’s Tories


Rishi Sunak has taken office in circumstances that are politically challenging, to say the least. Besides the divisions in his party and the adverse economic conditions, the Conservatives have been trailing Labour by margins not seen since the mid-1990s. Is there any chance that he could turn things around?

The bearish case is straightforward. Labour is so far ahead that it could see its lead reduced considerably and still win the next election with an overall majority. Keir Starmer will be helped by what one of his predecessors might have described as the ‘grotesque chaos’ of the last few weeks and the damage it has done to the Conservative brand.

And there are other things that could go wrong from the Tories’ point of view. Their relative harmony might not last, the economy or public finances could bring bad news, as indeed could any number of other things.

But what about the Tory upside case? Before dismissing the possibility that Conservatives turn things around, it is worth considering two plausible routes (whether likely or not) by which they might.

On the face of it, voting intention polling so far suggests only a limited recovery. We have now had six polls with a comparison from the previous week. The Labour leads and changes over that period were YouGov 28 (-9), Redfield & Wilton 32 (-4), Techne 24 (-7), Survation 24 (-5), Opinium 16 (-11) and People Polling 31 (-8) giving an average of 26 (-7). It’s a start, but Sunak will need much more.

The leaderships ratings, however, paint a very different picture. While there is always a lot of bad punditry around these figures (for example it is often overlooked that there are multiple question formats, wordings and interpretations) it is nevertheless true that historically they have strong predictive power.

The ‘best Prime Minister’ question is neck-and-neck, with YouGov putting Starmer 3 points ahead, Redfield & Wilton and BMG both showing Sunak one point ahead, Opinium putting Sunak 4 points ahead, and Omnisis showing an exact tie. This is very different from the mid-1990s, when Tony Blair had massive leads over John Major on the head-to-head question.

And while individual ratings (questions that ask about the two leaders separately) do favour Starmer, they do so relatively narrowly.

Interestingly, with Sunak and the Conservative party mentioned together, they lead Labour on economic management. Though this is certainly not the case on all issues, it is notable given recent events, and since economics – alongside leadership – is a key fundamental predictor.

A disconnect of this size between voting intention and fundamentals is unlikely to persist. The two will probably converge, the question is where. If Sunak is able to rehabilitate his party’s image, and voting intention moves to where his ratings currently are, then things would look very different. Remember too that this is the point in the parliamentary cycle at which governing parties are usually at their least popular.

The second plausible route to a Conservative recovery is via what might we might generically term ‘events’, the most obvious being the economy. If we are all lucky enough to get a couple of mild winters and a resolution in Ukraine, leading to a sharp drop in energy prices, then the cost of living crisis could go into reverse.

This would obviously be a break for the government – real income growth prior to an election is a strong predictor of voting. If nominal wages are playing catch-up with past inflation just as inflation falls, then real income growth could temporarily jump.

The economy also matters in another sense. In general, economic issues divide the Tories and their coalition, while uniting Labour, whereas with cultural issues, the opposite happens. The economy is more salient when it is weak, so a recovery would benefit the Conservatives in that sense too.

As such, there are a couple of routes back for the Conservatives that are plausible, though that is not necessarily to say that either is likely. Given the number of moving parts in each, assigning probabilities – difficult at the best of times – is particularly hazardous.

What we can say at this point is that yes, there is – just about – a way out of this hole for the Conservatives, in a best-case scenario from their point of view. But it is a narrow path, and they will need a lot of things to go their way.

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Matt Singh is the founder of NumberCruncher Analytics.

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