The Tories could be headed for their worst defeat in history

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

It has been a frustrating autumn for the Prime Minister. In the middle of September, shortly before Mr Sunak announced a set of changes to climate change policies, his party stood on average at 26 per cent in the polls, 18 points behind Labour.

Since then, we have had Mr Sunak’s conference speech, a King’s speech and an Autumn Statement that cut 2p off the rate of national insurance. Yet immediately prior to this week’s announcements on curbing legal and “illegal” immigration, his party were still on just 26 per cent in the polls. At 17 points, the Labour lead was down on mid-September but only because Labour’s own tally had slipped a point.

As Rachel Wolf said earlier this week, the public seems to have “stopped listening” to what the party has to say. This week’s focus on immigration has not gone well. Robert Jenrick has resigned, and there is a risk that the “emergency” legislation could divide the party just as Mrs May’s ill-fated Brexit deal did in 2019.

Even though the polls have repeatedly indicated that the Rwanda policy is relatively popular – at least among those who voted Conservative in 2019 – the first polls since this week’s developments suggest they are unlikely to move the electoral dial.

YouGov reports that Conservative and Labour support are unchanged. Techne suggests Tory support is down a point with Labour again unchanged. And We Think shows a three-point fall in Conservative vote intentions, while Labour are up one. Between them, the three polls put the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

We should not be surprised. Although many 2019 Conservative voters are unhappy about the level of immigration, those who feel that it has gone up a lot are not especially likely to say they will not vote Conservative again.

In contrast, the voters who think the economy is doing badly or who reckon the NHS has got worse are especially likely to have stopped supporting the party. But those problems cannot be solved by policy pronouncements or new “dividing lines” with Labour.

This week will have done nothing to dispel the perception that the Conservative Party is divided, and divided parties rarely prosper at the polls. But how serious a defeat are the Conservatives facing if they cannot reduce Labour’s lead?

The party would certainly be lucky to win much more than 200 seats. That is the figure that emerges if we assume that the rises and falls in party support since 2019 registered just before the immigration announcements were to occur in each and every constituency.

But this is undoubtedly too optimistic an assessment of the Conservatives’ prospects. There are 66 seats where the party did not win as much as 19 per cent of the vote in 2019, where it is arithmetically impossible for the party’s vote to drop by 19 points. Consequently, the party’s support must have fallen by more than 19 points in places where the party has more votes – and MPs – to lose.

A mega poll of 30,000 respondents conducted by the British Election Study earlier this year suggests the fall in Conservative support in seats the party won in 2019 is five points above the national drop. Equally, in May’s local elections, in wards the party was defending, its support was down on average by six points on its calamitous May 2019 performance, while largely holding up in wards already held by its opponents.

Those elections also suggested some voters were willing to vote for whichever of Labour and the Liberal Democrats appeared best placed to defeat the Conservative incumbent.

If these patterns were replicated in a general election, the outcome for the Conservatives could be bleak indeed – maybe as few as 130 seats, the worst outcome in the party’s history. In pursuing their disagreements with Mr Sunak over immigration, Tory MPs should realise they are potentially playing with fire.

John Curtice is professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde  

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