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The Tories are sleepwalking towards oblivion

No one in Westminster dares to say it – but the Tories are heading for an extinction-level event

Image: TNE/Getty

Keir Starmer has had perhaps his worst month as leader of the Labour Party – and yet went on to win two major by-election victories.

While Tory by-election defeats might now feel as if they are run of the mill, this is not politics as usual: the Tory majority in Kingswood in 2019 was 11,000, and in Wellingborough it was 18,000. However many times Conservative MPs and talking heads say it is routine for the party of government to lose by-elections, this is not normal.

Rishi Sunak has been prime minister for less than 18 months, but has already lost as many seats in by-elections as did John Major. He is well past the point of special pleading – even given the extraordinary circumstances in Wellingborough (in which Peter Bone’s partner was standing, after he lost a recall petition), these by-elections are in line with the polls.

Everything all lines up in one direction: the next election could be an extinction-level event for the Tory Party. All of this serves to heighten the fundamental disconnect between Westminster and the nation – Westminster is still convinced that the election is going to be a closer-run thing than we think. Reality begs to differ.

The Conservative Party hasn’t hit 30% in even a single poll in the last four months, a situation unprecedented for any major party in the modern era. When these polls are “tested” in by-elections, the polls acquit themselves well: there is no sign that they are wrongly generous to the Labour Party or harsh on the Conservatives.

The endless parade of by-elections is itself not normal, but defeat after defeat in even the safest of Conservative seats has become so commonplace that Westminster has become entirely numb to it – Labour has broken records in election after election, but because the line to take is that governments lose by-elections, almost no one is pointing out how unusual this is.

Every result we see, and virtually every poll published, suggests that Labour is on track for a victory on the scale of 1997. Those same results suggest that the Conservatives might face an even bigger wipeout than they did in that year – it is feasible that the party could win fewer than 100 seats in the next election.

Fewer than 100 seats is existential territory for a party that has always been held together by ruthless pragmatism: the core tenet of the party is a belief it is the “natural” party of government, the default from which the country occasionally departs, and the party that might rarely be loved but is generally trusted as competent.

Should that image be so brutally challenged by a general election that leaves it in tatters, the Conservatives might go the way of the Whigs, or the Liberals – but when you are in SW1, that possibility seems vanishingly remote.

The surprising thing about briefings from CCHQ that the party is preparing for a second election in the event of a hung parliament, leaving no party able to govern, is that the people giving the briefings sincerely believe it – whether through wishful thinking or just a strange form of groupthink, the consensus on the centre right is that 2024’s election will be more like 1992 than 1997.

Labour similarly lacks confidence. Keir Starmer’s leadership operation is a lonely one – his team has barely tried to recruit enthusiastic supporters outside of their own office.  As the election draws nearer, Starmer’s team seem to mistrust the polls just as much as their Conservative rivals – acting as if they are an unpopular opposition trying to minimise their losses more than an operation with a seemingly insurmountable lead. With no true believers outside the office, and a seeming deficit of them within it, Labour is acting as if its by-election wins haven’t happened.

The result is an odd form of political gaslighting. There is still time for a shock general election result, or for big movements in the polls, but neither are likely or expected. Every single piece of evidence is pointing to a generational Labour majority at the next election – but almost no one will admit to that simple fact. 

Sometimes this commanding Labour lead is used to suggest that somehow Keir Starmer’s office doesn’t make mistakes, or that those mistakes have not mattered. Such arguments are as short-sighted and idiotic as the arguments made by Jeremy Corbyn’s diehards that 2019 wasn’t a catastrophic defeat because Labour’s vote share was high.

Those of us who highlight the basic stumbles made by Starmer’s team don’t do so suggesting they will immediately hit the polls – we do so suggesting that the team isn’t ready for the pressure of No 10. Being opposition leader is much easier than being prime minister, even if Labour tends to play politics on a higher difficulty setting than the Tories.

In 1996, Tony Blair was criticised for his lack of ambition, and people spoke of a lack of enthusiasm for his Labour Party – but even the controversial Blair manifesto had more retail offers in it than Starmer does at present. Blair in opposition had a ferocious and effective media operation, and effective discipline in the party.  Starmer’s team remains, at best, untested on both fronts, however much his small group of die-hard fans argue otherwise – but none of this casts doubt on the fact the odds suggest he is heading for a commanding majority.

The Westminster bubble, in all its variants, is as detached from reality as it has been in a decade or more. Worse yet, it has no plans to address that until the election makes it undeniable.

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