Before we start in earnest here, I want to say right off the bat that what follows is not a prediction. We live in completely bonkers times and I am not about to tell you what will happen at the next election because I really have no idea. In fact, all I’m going to do is lay out the hard evidence that exists about what the country currently thinks about the prime minister and his party, try and map it onto basic politics and in turn, political history, all in order to demonstrate that the Conservative party and a lot of the Westminster bubble are sizeably underestimating the amount of electoral trouble the governing party are in at present.
Despite the polls turning on the Tories, giving Labour leads of up to 9% recently, combined with actual electoral events like the North Shropshire by-election, there still seems to be a consensus amongst pundits that the Tories remain positioned to win the next general election, whether it happens in 2023 or 2024. I don’t believe the evidence supports this any longer. Again, that isn’t to say that the Conservatives can’t win the next general election, far from it; simply that if I was laying a bet tomorrow, I would put money on Keir Starmer to be prime minister after the next election. This is something I wouldn’t have done until very recently.
The fact is, the polling is brutal for both the Conservatives as well as Boris Johnson himself at the moment. It’s so bad, I’m actually struggling to know where to begin talking about it. Let’s start at the very top level – the last four national polls from the big pollsters show Labour leads of 7, 8, 5 and 6%. The last national poll to show the Tories in the lead was published on December 6th and that was only 2%. This isn’t some passing storm. Labour have established a solid poll lead now, something that will require a shift of some description to change.
Worse in some senses, the Conservative polling figures in those last four polls mentioned are: 32, 32, 32, 30. So, it’s not just that Labour have developed a solid lead, the Tories are consistently polling in the low 30s now, which is scary for them in and of itself. Particularly as they are doing so without there being a solid contender from the right taking a large portion of the vote off them in these polls, a la UKIP pre-2015. Reform’s numbers remain paltry; the Tories are losing voters to Labour and the Lib Dems, and mostly the former.
If there had just been a recent bad run of polls, some might be able to describe this as a passing phase. Governments always have problems mid-term, right? Miliband’s Labour had 10-point leads and look what happened to them? Except, there are three factors here to consider that cancel that argument out, in my opinion.
- Boris Johnson’s personal polling figures, both at large and within the Conservative membership.
- The issue of how and if the Tories could realistically improve their numbers, even if they deposed Johnson.
- How the polling numbers at the moment are even worse when you break them down further, particularly geographically. They are losing voters precisely where they need to keep them in order to have any chance of winning the next general election.
Let’s be clear about this – Boris Johnson’s polling numbers are absolutely brutal. Dire, Clegg-esque, beyond redemption, if history is anything to judge by at least. Boris Johnson is really, really unpopular. The latest Opinium poll puts Labour on 39%, Tories on 32, a lead of seven for Starmer’s party. Except, when you add in the idea that Johnson will still be PM at the next election, this number changes in an interesting way. It becomes Labour 42%, Tories 30%, a twelve point lead. This is getting us close to 1997 territory in terms of figures; even on an electoral map that is much harder for Labour now, the Tories on 30% with Labour on 40+ gets Starmer a majority, even without recovering any of Scotland.
Worse than even that, however, is what that latter figure says in a larger way. A lot of voters are already pricing in the idea that Johnson won’t be there come the next election. Once that starts to happen, history suggests you are politically finished. I know, I know, Johnson is supposedly different and all of that, but he still can’t ignore political gravity of this magnitude.
In addition, a new poll has come out mapping how Tory members view the cabinet. Truss is ahead, as usual, with a +73% approval rating. Sunak is rising though, now on +49. Meanwhile, Johnson’s approval rating amongst members is -34, making him the most unpopular member of his own cabinet by a large stretch (only three of them have negative ratings, and one of them just, with Patel on -1.5%). Johnson’s personal rating with the wider public? -48%, which gets him into the sort of territory pretty much no one comes back from. He’s doing badly in the north, in the Midlands, everywhere.
Coming onto the second issue, the problem goes deeper than just Johnson. While Sunak is very popular and polling numbers suggest he would instantly improve Tory numbers, and Truss it could be argued (not by me, but plausibly by others) hasn’t had enough public exposure to be fully judged yet, that isn’t taking into account the huge elephant in the room. Both Sunak and Truss would presumably run their leadership campaigns on the basis of being economically orthodox Thatcherites. They would promise to steer the Tory ship back into the waters of fiscal tightness, eschewing all of this Boris-era rubbish about levelling up. This is what the Tory members want and one of the big reasons they have so turned against Boris Johnson of late.
Yet that would destroy the coalition that Johnson created completely. Why would red wall voters stick with the party if they went full on Thatcher? Particularly when ‘get Brexit done’ won’t work next time? Basically what I’m saying is, the Tories have huge problems with or without Johnson at the helm.
Finally, the Tories have massive issues specifically with constituencies they need to win in order to maintain a majority. Rural voters are turning off them in alarming numbers – a Farmer’s Weekly poll that has consistently showed support for the Tories above 70% now sees the Conservatives support in the 50s, having lost support to the Lib Dems. This would be a lot less scary for Johnson and co had the Tories not just been defeated in a by-election in a formerly safe, mainly rural seat by the Liberal Democrats in North Shropshire, and by a large margin as well.
What do recent polls that show declines for the Tories tell us about which voters are specifically turning off from the party and deciding to vote elsewhere? The elderly and Labour to Tory switchers in red wall seats look remarkably shaky for the Conservatives now. In other words, the Tories are losing farmers, pensioners and red wall voters, in both polling and in real life, as the by-election result tells us. In other words, massive cornerstones of the Tory vote are heavily wobbling at the very least.
The counterargument to all of this seems to be some combination of the following. Boris always bounces back, it’s in his nature. The rules don’t apply to him in the same way. Besides, Starmer has no charisma, so Labour can’t win with him in charge. Whatever is happening now with the sleaze scandals, the health crisis, you name it, come the next election, the people will vote for the Tories and give them another majority. The public haven’t forgiven Labour for Corbyn yet, that will take a few more elections at the very least.
To which I say, look again at the polling I’ve cited above, then look at the North Shropshire by-election result, then tell me what Boris Johnson is going to do to turn things around. Yes, I suppose he could suddenly become a great prime minister, but his own personal history suggests that’s well beyond him (and even his biggest supporters would privately agree). And Starmer may be a little wooden but crucially, he’s not scary in the way Corbyn was nor is he actively off-putting in the way Miliband was. Most people think he’s fine, if nothing else. Should the Tories inflict a very unpopular Boris Johnson on the electorate again – or make a massive turn to the right, fiscally speaking at least, under Truss or Sunak – the polling is already telling us that Starmer could well become the prime minister and in fact, should be thought of as the favourite to do so.
To close, I’m not saying Starmer is a lock to be in Number 10 the day after we all go the polls at the next general election or anything like that. I’m simply saying that a lot of pundits appear to be taking the current situation very lightly, still mostly banking on the Tories to turn things around, when the polls are suggesting the governing party are in a lot more trouble than that. Who knows what will happen at the next general election, but the idea that the Conservative party are the clear favourites seems muddled to me at the very least.