British voters will come to regret annihilating the Conservative Party

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak

Labour is set to win the biggest majority ever secured by a single British party. What has it done
to earn such a victory? Is it led by a war hero? Have its candidates distinguished themselves by years of selfless public service? Will it remedy our nation’s grievances with scintillating policies?

Of course not. And, sure enough, a closer squint at the polls reveals little enthusiasm for Labour. Sir Keir Starmer is likely to get fewer votes than Boris Johnson did at the last election. He may get fewer votes than Jeremy Corbyn did in 2017.

The lop-sidedness of the next Parliament – all the polling companies now expect Labour to win more than 400 seats, and some think it will be above 500 – is chiefly a reflection of Tory unpopularity.

After four terms in office, a measure of unpopularity is inescapable. But doesn’t it feel just the teensiest bit... disproportionate?

The Conservative Party, founded in 1834, is the oldest party in the world. But never has it done as badly as it is predicted to do a week on Thursday. Even if we include its earlier incarnation as the Tory Party, and go right back to the 1680s there is no precedent for what is about to happen.

What calamity has overtaken our nation to explain such a swing? Have we lost a war? Did some coup usher in an authoritarian regime? Are we queuing at soup kitchens?

I am not arguing that the current government has been perfect. It has had its share of cock-ups, and this column was not shy about saying so at the time. I just come back to the question of proportionality.

Past Tory collapses were generally caused by something commensurately serious, such as lining up with enemy powers to overthrow the ruling dynasty, or unsuccessfully resisting a wider franchise.

What equivalent enormity, what epochal abomination, has Rishi Sunak committed? Announcing the election during a downpour? Asking Welsh voters whether they were looking forward to the Euros? Catching out his own party, but not the others, with a snap campaign?

It is true that that early poll will be held up by historians as an outstanding example of an unforced prime ministerial error. Inflation and immigration were falling, and NHS waiting lists, despite a minor bump, were on a downward trajectory. Five months from now, people will have noticed it.

Nigel Farage might have been involved in a Trump administration by the end of the year. At any rate, there would have been five more months to do things, such as scrap inheritance tax and conclude trade talks with India.

Perhaps the PM was told that the courts would overturn his Rwanda scheme. But even that would have been minor compared to the chaos of the current campaign, from the unseemly scramble for seats to the investigations over betting.

Sleaze is almost always a symptom rather than a cause of unpopularity. At the start of the last Labour government, Tony Blair could shrug off what was, objectively, the worst scandal of the era, viz having accepted a million pounds from Bernie Ecclestone and subsequently seeking to exempt Formula One from a ban on tobacco sponsorship.

And yet by the end of the party’s tenure in office, poor Gordon Brown was being excoriated for misspelling the name of a fallen soldier’s mother to whom, to his credit, he had privately written a condolence letter.

Boris, at least 2019-era Boris, might have blustered his way through some of these campaign blunders. He might have convinced commentators that what mattered about Normandy was meeting the veterans, not hanging around for the photo.

He might have dismissed the fuss over election-date gamblers as having zero wider significance. But once a government has exhausted the benefit of the doubt, there is no such thing as a minor furore.
What, then, are the underlying causes of the government’s unpopularity? After 14 years, it has inevitably clocked up a list.

Canvassing in the Home Counties, I have kept a tally of the reasons volunteered by former Conservatives for switching. They include assisted dying, HS2, Just Stop Oil, aid to Ukraine and the badger cull. How would a Labour government be different on any of these issues? No one seems especially interested.

One thing no one has brought up, oddly enough, is Brexit. Eight years to the day after the referendum, to the annoyance of both sides, the British economy has neither taken off not tanked, but has remained in line with those of comparable EU states.

The only party that wants to go back in is “Rejoin EU”, set up by the people who established the “Pro-Euro Conservative Party” to contest the 1999 European election, intending to show much support there was for that idea – which, indeed, they did, securing 1.4 per cent of the vote.

It is inevitable, after their long stretch in office, that the Conservatives should be more closely scrutinised than Labour. Voters are aware of their every blemish, while barely glancing at the alternative.

Those Tory blemishes are real enough. When people complain that immigration targets have been missed, that taxes have gone up and that public services do not seem to have improved in consequence, they are right.

Again, all I am asking for is a little bit of perspective. Why have these things happened? What are the alternatives to the current approach?

Immigration was not in our control while we were in the EU, and it so happened that, when we left, numbers were pushed up in part by special schemes offering entry to Hong Kongers, Afghans who had worked with the Armed Forces and Ukrainians. As these bumps pass, and as legal changes made over the past year to other routes take effect, numbers are already starting to drop.

It is easier to state a problem than to solve it. Both Labour and Reform talk of returning illegal immigrants to France, as though no one had thought of that before. But, in a week’s time, France will be run either by a far-Left coalition that wants to lift almost all restrictions on immigration or by Marine Le Pen. Either way, good luck with returning illegals.

It is true that taxes and prices have risen. But this did not happen in a vacuum. For much of 2020 and a chunk of 2021, we paid people to stay home, and printed money with wild abandon. What the hell did we think would be the consequences?

You might see the lockdown as yet another offence to add to the charge sheet. Fine. But how many people were saying so in March 2020? As one of the handful who were, I am acutely aware of how unpopular we were. Back then, Farage was lambasting Boris Johnson for being too slack, and demanding that we close our airports.

The Reform leader has followed the same trajectory as the electorate at large, first demanding a lockdown and then complaining about its costs. But governments don’t have that luxury.

The lockdown looms over every field of public policy. Education? Truancy rates are sky high. Tax?

We will be paying off the debt for a generation. NHS? Where do you think the waiting lists came from? Productivity? How many government employees have come back to the office?

Yet, perhaps understandably, no one wants to be reminded of those dreadful months. Rishi Sunak therefore cannot say, although it is true, that he was more anti-lockdown than 90 per cent of the country, that he staved off SAGE’s push for a third lockdown at the end of 2021, and that Labour wanted restrictions to be left in place when they were lifted.

And so, largely as a result of having been in office when the bills came in, the Conservatives face, not defeat, but annihilation. As I say, disproportionate.