Yesterday’s YouGov poll gave Labour a lead of 33 points would reduce the Conservatives to three seats under some calculations. However, it was conducted in the mouth of a political storm, and the Party will presumably recover somewhat at some point.
Furthermore, it was carried out during the Labour Party conference, when the Opposition was getting broadly positive coverage. Additionally, many former Tories are currently saying don’t know, and so may come back in time. Finally, it is just one poll – another from Survation, though also showing a record-breaking Labour lead, found one of a more modest 21 points.
None of these qualifications of the YouGov poll are mine. Every single one of them is filched, almost word for word, from the Twitter commentary of Anthony Wells, the company’s Head of European Political and Social Research. Our proprietor might put it a different way, as he has many times before: “a poll is a snapshot, not a prediction”.
All the same, as Jim Callaghan once told an aide, “there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do”. He was speaking just before the 1979 general election. Margaret Thatcher was about to set 18 years of Conservative Government in motion.
Black Wednesday began the same effect in the early 1990s, and Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader completed it. He went on to win a landslide in 1997 and Labour governed for 13 years. It is just about possible – let me put it no more dramatically than that – that the same is happening now.
If so, I put to you the paradoxical scenario – in contrast to that argued earlier this week on this site by my old friend Daniel Hannan – that the distant prospect of a Labour Government may have precisely the opposite effect to that he argued: in other words, that it actually calms rather than stirs the markets during the days ahead.
The pressure on the Bank of England for an emergency rise in interest rates, and on the Government for an earlier statement on spending discipline, would therefore ease. The Bank would go on to withdraw its bout of quantitative easing, as planned, on October 14, without sparking further pressure to intervene and steady pension funds.
That’s the optimistic economic case. The optimistic political one, as the markets halt their game of chicken with the Government and the Bank, is that Tory poll numbers improve – and with it the chances of Truss pulling off a post-recession election win. But if the polls don’t get better during the run-up to Christmas, here’s what’s likely to happen next.
As I wrote yesterday, I’ve been a Conservative MP, and know how they think. Like most of the rest of us, when push comes to shove, they look after number one. Which means their careers in politics, if they have safe seats, and their futures outside it, if they don’t.
They are already retreating from the measures that the Chancellor announced last Friday. Three months more of polls like yesterday’s, and the retreat will turn into a rout. And I’m being generous to their sense of patience in suggesting that they would wait for anything like that long.
In such conditions, the withdrawal of the mini-Budget’s measures, dressed up as postponement, can almost be taken for granted – or at least the cut in the 45p rate and the removal of the cap from bankers’ bonuses. I assume that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would have to go.
The Prime Minister would have to grovel before the voters, and beg for mercy, like some haughty empress pitched from her carriage by a raging mob. “I apologise to the British people,” she would have to say – or words to that effect. “I was wrong. I’m truly sorry. I will change. It will never happen again.”
In which case, I ask again, what would be the point of her? She would be a busted flush. The growth plan on which she won the Tory leadership election would be no more. Truss might reign, so to speak, but Rishi Sunak would rule: his policies, at any rate and, amidst the inevitable reshuffle, perhaps his people too. The Prime Minister would be a hostage waving from the window.
It’s not inconceivable that in such conditions she would conclude that the game is no longer worth the candle, and quit. Then again, she might not have the choice. Sure, most Conservative MPs recognise that to hold a fourth leadership contest and a fifth Tory leader in seven years would all but guarantee the loss of the next general election.
But they might reach a time where they conclude that the options are no longer enduring a recession during which they are spat at by constituents in the streets (if Truss sticks to her guns), or else being dismissed by them with contemptuous derision (if she does not).
For if the polls don’t change, the choice may crystallise, in least in their minds, to putting in someone else, and enduring nothing worse than a 1997-style defenestration, or sticking with Truss, and going down to a 1993 Canada-style wipeout – the one that saw the termination of that country’s Progressive Conservatives.
It would be quite some going to wipe out the most venerable political party in the world, and I’m not convinced that even this Government is capable of such a feat. But it has come to something when the prospect of a 1997-type gralloching is a relative let-off relief. What can Truss do next week to minimise the risk?
I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that she quits. Nor would it be fair for Kwasi Kwarteng to carry the can. But we may be reaching the point where the least bad option is to announce a face-saving postponement of last week’s most voter-repellant measures, even if it leaves her a live mouse rather than a trapped lioness.
Whether this happens or not, the landscape is bleak. Nothing that this Government has done to date suggests that it is up to the job. Instead of seeking to project herself as a national leader, offering a fresh start, Truss is coming over as out of her depth, with a plan she can’t really explain: relaxed before Party members but robotic before the voters, and distinctly light on empathy.
Instead of seeking to consolidate her vulnerable position (having won a lower share of the votes of her colleagues than any Tory leader elected under the present system) she has thrown caution to the winds, snubbing most of the two-thirds of the Parliamentary Party that didn’t vote for her.
Above all, rather than shield Britain from the markets at a time of international turmoil, she and the Chancellor have painted a target on its back – to the point where they’re getting no credit for the energy bailout they will lavish tens of billions on. To date, her Government is a catalogue of recklessness and incompetence.
To begin to work its way back, she doesn’t have to embrace the IMF, yield to the Guardian, go woke, bring the date of Net Zero forward, kiss and make up with the Northern Ireland Protocol, or relax immigration controls (please note) – let alone renounce Brexit.
What she might want to do instead is grasp that government is not a laboratory, budgets are not experiments, blowing the roof off isn’t home improvement, and communication isn’t telling everyone that you’re always right. And apologise for fouling her own nest, the Party’s and the country’s. Perhaps competence is too much to ask for, but can we please have a little humility?