It will be “extremely difficult” for the Conservatives to win the next general election after presiding over a fiscal crisis, although a change of prime minister makes predictions more complex, the leading pollster Sir John Curtice has said.
Peter Walker www.theguardian.com
It is possible the party could succumb to a 1997-style landslide defeat, or even worse, Curtice, a professor of politics at Strathclyde University and viewed as the UK’s foremost polling expert, said at a briefing.
While the replacement of Liz Truss with Rishi Sunak has slightly curbed Labour’s lead, Curtice said, a defining factor is likely to be the U-turns Truss was forced to make from her September mini-budget after a turbulent market reaction.
Asked if it was possible for the Conservatives to win the next election, Curtice said: “History suggests that it’s going to be extremely difficult, just simply because no government that has presided over a fiscal financial crisis has eventually survived – 1948, 1967, 1976, 1992. It’s not a happy litany of precedence.
“Voters don’t forget governments being forced to make U-turns by financial markets. So it’s going to be very, very difficult.”
He said one glimmer of hope for the Tories was that polling showed notably more support for Sunak personally than for his party, seemingly a sign that the legacy of his role as chancellor during the Covid pandemic was “still with him”.
The key to Sunak turning around his party’s fortunes would be the fate of the economy in the next two years, Curtice said.
“One of the problems the government faces is compared with 1992 and 2008 [after previous economic crises], there isn’t much fat in public services,” he said. “It’s pretty clear that at the moment, two years out [from an election], the Labour party are favourites to win the next election, and for the first time in this parliament it looks like they’ve got a half-decent chance of getting an overall majority, and that is a fundamental change in the political outlook.”
Some of the Truss-era polling, if extrapolated to constituency-level votes, showed the Conservatives slumping to as few as 60 seats. Asked if the party faced a wipeout on the scale of 1997 or worse, Curtice said: “It probably won’t be that bad. But there is a risk that the Conservative party will suffer severely.”
Focusing on particular sectors of voters, such as those in the “red wall”, or who voted leave, would not be a solution, he argued.
“The Conservative party has lost ground across the whole of the electorate. They have lost this not because they are in favour of a small state or they’re in favour of Brexit, or the many ideological issues we can think of,” he said.
“They have lost ground because the public in general have decided they cannot be trusted to run the country, and when a party loses ground on competence, it loses grounds among everybody. Forget targeting – that only matters when it’s close. We’re nothing like close.”
While Sunak appears to have escaped being overly tarnished with the fallout from No 10 parties under Boris Johnson, despite his own fine, voters are still damning about the Conservatives on the issue, Curtice said.
“If I were providing advice to the prime minister, I would say the one thing you have to do is to play by the rules, not just the legal rules, but the rules of convention,” he argued. “That’s why reappointing the home secretary within days of her having resigned for having broken ministerial code was, shall we say, a brave decision.”