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Not even the Telegraph can save the Tories from themselves

The government’s time is running out

Rishi Sunak soon after becoming PM; he now appears unable to corral the different factions within his party. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty

Hello! Come, come! Gather round! I have some news. Are you sitting down? Do you have a snifter of brandy by your side? Are you perhaps near a chaise longue, meaning that you will, if needed, be able to lie down at very short notice? All good? Right then, here goes:

The Earth is round! Water is wet*! The weather gets colder in the winter and warmer in the summer! Drinking too much alcohol will give you a hangover!

Are you happy now? Are you thrilled? Is your brain fizzing with excitement? I would understand if it were – it’s all a lot to take in. It’s amazing, really, to think that we all spent so much of our lives unaware of all these tremendous things. You may take a moment to recover. Breathe in, breathe out. Are we good? Let’s move on, then.

What is about to follow may be a terrible shock to you, as it shook Westminster to its very core. It’s all anyone spoke about for hours and hours, and as we all know hours in politics are like days everywhere else. Time is relative and it passes more quickly the closer you get to Parliament.

On Sunday evening, the Telegraph published a story. This was the headline: “Tories facing 1997-style general election wipeout”. Gasp!

“The Conservatives are heading for an electoral wipeout on the scale of their 1997 defeat by Labour, the most authoritative opinion poll in five years has predicted”, it read. “The YouGov survey of 14,000 people forecasts that the Tories will retain just 169 seats, while Labour will sweep to power with 385 – giving Sir Keir Starmer a 120-seat majority.”

Alongside the findings were numerous opinion columns, all predicting some form of oblivion, and the study inspired dozens and dozens of tweets from parliamentarians, Tory commentators and everyone else tightly or loosely involved with the party. It was an entirely surreal experience.

Though the question of whether water really is wet is a surprisingly complex one – scientists just aren’t sure  there are no prizes for guessing what will happen at the next general election. Keir Starmer’s Labour party has been leading in the polls for months on end. It is the party most trusted by voters on nearly every single issue, including the economy. Voters do not like Rishi Sunak. They no longer trust the Tories to govern properly.

Again, none of this is news. It has been shown in poll after poll after poll, since before Liz Truss’s premiership failed to outlive the lettuce. I know it; you know it; most people with even half a brain know it. It just hadn’t reached the Conservative party, for reasons that are both hard to fathom and quite obvious.

Despite being so blatantly headed for electoral oblivion, the ruling party spent all of 2023 pretending that things were fine, actually. MPs said there was a narrow path to victory but they could easily find it. Ministers compared the next election to 1992. Columnists said that the possibility of a hung parliament was underpriced. All of them looked at Keir Starmer and said pah, surely voters don’t actually like him. 

In a way, it was an understandable reaction; sometimes you are doomed and know there is nothing you can do about it, so you may as well live in denial. In others, it was pure lunacy. It seems unlikely that the Tories could, at this stage, do anything to win the next election, but they could certainly try to salvage a legacy for themselves, and turn a Labour landslide into more of an electoral trickle. This cannot happen if they refuse to deal with reality.

Does the Telegraph splash and the reaction to it mean that things are about to change? I thought so for a little while, but then Tory MPs attended their 1922 meeting on Monday evening. There, according to sources in the room, parliamentarians said that they’d crunched their own numbers and things just couldn’t look that bad.

Election supremo Isaac Livedo addressed the crowd and told them that not everything was lost, because that is his job. Tragically, they seemed to believe him. There was a blip, during which the panic set in, then everyone moved on again, and returned to the cosy comfort of fantasy land.

What will happen next? Frankly, who knows? Maybe there will be a wake up call later this year, at which point Conservatives will start reckoning with the fact that their time has run out. Maybe there won’t be. The election is coming anyway. Nothing can save them from that.

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