Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, the Chair of the Conservative backbench Treasury Committee and a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
The blue party risks succumbing to a blue funk. It’s not just Labour that says the Conservatives are in such a bad position they can’t win the next election – they would say that, wouldn’t they? – but some Conservatives do, too.
Now there is good news and bad news about this claim. The good news is that it is not true that we can’t win the next election. The bad news is that if enough Conservatives believe it is true, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a party, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.
The events of this year have pummelled our reputation, and our polling. Labour have had a lead of over 30 points, and last month’s YouGov poll gave them a lead of 23 per cent. We have a difficult time ahead with the small boats challenge, the NHS backlog, and the economic crisis.
But it is also true that the events of the last few months have meant that we have had to update the saying that a week is a long time in politics – to saying a day is a long time in politics. And we have from 18 months to two years to the next election. That is an eon during which everything can change.
Let’s deal with the polling. Too few people realise polls these days are not forecasts but snapshots – a statement of how a group of people are feeling at any particular time. They are also not a particularly representative group of people. Surveys used to be done talking to random people on streets, but now they are done by people filling out online political polls.
Polls change, and indeed the Labour lead is steadily narrowing since the dark days of the mini-budget. A Savanta poll last week gave Labour an 11 per cent lead.
But what’s remarkable about the Opposition’ss lead is not how big it is, but how soft it is. The headlines of the polls usually exclude “don’t knows” but, in one recent YouGov poll, “don’t knows” actually polled the same as the Conservatives. Of those who voted Conservative in 2019, nearly a quarter are now don’t know, with only 12 per cent were saying they support Labour.
There is a lot of doubting, but not a lot of defection. Other private polling shows that the support for Labour is very soft, with voters very much open to coming back. If you cross-calculate all this, it looks as though things could really be considerably tighter than assumed if an election were held soon. That would not be good enough for the Conservatives to win as matters stand, but it means that the swing we need in our favour in the next 18 months is eminently achievable – if we get things right.
There is lots of evidence that Labour’s lead is not enough. Labour won the Chester by-election with a 13 per cent swing, prompting commentary that Conservatives were guaranteed to be wiped out at the next general election. But Labour won Mid Staffs in 1990 with a 21 per cent swing and went on to lose in 1992, and won Corby in 2012 with a 13 per cent swing and yet lost in 2015.
As former the Labour minister, Lord Austin, said of the Chester result: “Surely it should have been a landslide after the chaos and carnage of the last few months?”
Other polls suggest that things aren’t as bad as the headlines suggest. The Prime Minister is polling not just better than the party, but often better than Keir Starmer. On who is most trusted on the economy, Rishi scored 41 per cent compared to 35 per cent for Starmer (Ipsos, 21st Nov).
My general view of politics is that most people are not that interested in it, and primarily want a Government they can rely on to fix any problems in a sensible way so that they don’t need to worry about them.
Primarily, they want competence. As a party, it has historically been our strongest selling point. The claim has been that we do competence and Labour does compassion. Recent events have knocked our reputation for competence, but that can be won back – by demonstrating it. One of the reasons I supported Sunak in both leadership rounds is that he is competence personified.
Already the mood of the country is changing. We are no longer making political dramas out of crises. TV political editors complain they are no longer getting on the television as often as they were. Politics have become boring, but boring is the new sexy. Governments don’t need to sell themselves into the media news cycle – it is not our job to give political journalists stories to write (and I say this as a former political journalist). Governments need to deliver, and people will notice.
We now need some big wins on big issues. The Chancellor has calmed the markets to such an extent they are no longer newsworthy, and fears of rising mortgage rates are lower. Now we need to do the same on two other big issues: to tackle the surge in illegal immigration and the NHS backlog, in a cool competent manner. These are the issues that the Prime Minister, rightly, is spending most of his time on.
Starmer is also showing poor political judgement on many key issues. He is banging the old Labour class war drums, attacking private schools and non-doms, but all that most voters will hear is that he is against aspiration. He has brought back election-losing Gordon Brown to produce a strategy on constitutional reform which virtually no voters are interested in.
People are worried about paying their bills, and he is offering to abolish the House of Lords. He is not providing a vision for people to buying into, as Tony Blair did. There is little love for him among voters. The spectre of a Labour-SNP coalition of chaos still spooks voters.
Then of course there are events, dear boy, events. Things have been so bad with the pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s war that events can only get better. We are braced for tough times ahead economically, but many now think any recession could be shorter and shallower than first feared. The war in Ukraine will hopefully end, which will bring down energy prices. Even without that, inflation is set to fall dramatically next year.
The biggest challenge to this is the mood amongst Conservatives themselves. Defeat comes to those who prepare for it. Good MPs standing down, casual rebellions, demotivated activists, open splits: all make winning less likely (although much of this is just media narrative). In reality, a higher than normal number of Conservative MPs have said they want to stand again (myself included) compared to this stage in previous Parliaments. Arguments about where to put wind farms are hardly a sign of a party tearing itself apart.
It is nonsense to say that Sunak is in a weak position – the party has zero appetite for another leadership battle before the general election. Recovering polls will consolidate his position further.
It is easy to see a scenario whereby in 18 months, with the big problems being sorted, with a period of calm, with a sense of well-being returned to the country, with a compelling vision for a post-crisis future, that voters reward us with an historic fifth term. The blue party should not give in to the blue funk.