20231211 rishi sunak
Sunak's conservative detractors urge him to confront the Reform threat by intensifying anti-immigration measures Image Credit: AFP

Sometimes there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The ruling Conservative Party’s recent loss of two previously safe seats in by-elections heralds likely defeat in a UK general election, expected later this year. Rishi Sunak may try to blame the low turnout and the unfavourable circumstances that prompted the contests, but the prime minister can take no comfort in his own excuses.

Pessimists argue that Labour’s victories in Wellingborough and Kingswood may presage the worst electoral outcome in the history of the Tories — whose instinct is often to panic even at the best of times. Sunak’s critics inside the party are already talking of a Canadian-style wipeout, which saw a Progressive Conservative government reduced to just two seats in 2003.

It’s unlikely to come to that, but the 28.5 percentage-point swing against the Tories in Wellingborough was the second-biggest since World War II — replicated nationally, the Tories would be reduced to four seats. The opposition Labour Party’s two thumping victories also saw a right-wing challenger party, Reform, eat into the Conservatives’ tally. In both by-elections, the Conservative lost twice as much in vote share as Labour gained. Many of the blue party’s demoralised supporters are staying at home.

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Swing to Labour

The rise of Reform, which has morphed from a single-issue Brexit party into an anti-immigration right-wing populist party, threatens electoral mayhem. Conservative candidates in dozens of seats now fear that the right-of-centre vote will be split. In both of Thursday’s contests, Reform’s vote share rose to double figures. If Nigel Farage, Reform’s former leader and star performer, were to return to the national stage, the damage to the Tories could be devastating.

The challenger parties of the left, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, present no such threat to Labour. Their supporters appear intent on voting for any candidate who can beat the Conservatives. The anti-Tory tactical voting that delivered Labour’s Tony Blair his landslide in 1997 is back. The Workers Party may attract some Muslim voters outraged by Keir Starmer’s refusal to call for a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, but the damage will be limited to urban seats.

The Tories protest that midterm by-elections offer little guidance about a general election. But these defeats come very late in the electoral cycle. Even if the smaller swing to Labour in Kingswood — 16.4 points — were repeated nationally, it would mean a 60-seat majority for Starmer. Putting a brave face on defeat, Tory strategists say that the Kingswood shift was lower than in three by-elections last year, when it averaged more than 20%.

Labour, however, has now won six by-election seats since 2019, its most ever in a single Parliamentary term; the Conservatives have lost 10 over the same period, their worst-ever performance.

Time is running out for Sunak. The prime minister needs time for the economy to recover, for inflation to tumble, for immigration numbers to fall and for tax cuts to soften the hearts of voters. The hour is getting very late. Instead, the feel-bad factor is likely to dog the Tories all the way to the election. The economy slumped into recession at the end of last year, we learnt this week, with growth contracting by 0.3% in the final three months of 2023 after shrinking by 0.1% in the previous quarter.

And while wage growth is outstripping inflation, which was unchanged at 4% in January, living standards have been stagnant or in decline for more than a (Tory run) decade.

What should Sunak do?

His chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, wants to squeeze already eye-wateringly tight public-spending budgets to pay for tax cuts at next month’s budget. The prospect has the party faithful and the Tory supporting press salivating — but the voters may view his promised bounty as no more than a naked bribe at this late stage.

Sunak’s right-wing critics demand that he sees off the threat from Reform by doubling down on anti-migration policies. The lessons from Europe suggest this strategy has pitfalls.

In the Netherlands, for example, a centre-right government that belatedly took a tough stance on migration to ward off the veteran populist Geert Wilders was decisively defeated by his party at the polls. In France and Germany, centre-right parties have also been plunged into existential crisis by the challenge from the populists, despite making rightward shifts. The voters prefer the real thing, not pale imitations.

It’s far too late for the prime minister to adopt a persona alien to him. In his campaign for his party’s leadership, Sunak promised to deliver sound finances and good government. That’s what he knows, and that’s what he should stick to. Better to be a good technocrat than a bad populist. — Bloomberg

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement