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Rishi Sunak faces election wipeout even if flights to Rwanda take off, top pollster warns

Exclusive: Devastating forecast has Tories heading for landslide defeat – as voters care more about economy and NHS rather than deportation policy

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
,Kate Devlin
Saturday 16 December 2023 22:04 GMT
Keir Starmer says Rishi Sunak should call for general election if PM loses Rwanda vote

Rishi Sunak is heading for a landslide election defeat – even if his Rwanda policy gets off the ground, Britain’s top pollster has warned.

Professor Sir John Curtice said Mr Sunak’s bid to use his personal appeal to lift Tory fortunes since succeeding Liz Truss has failed.

In a grim seasonal message, Sir John said the prime minister faces a “very bleak situation”. The Conservatives could lose as many as 220 of their current total of 350 MPs in the election due next year, he claimed, warning they are heading for a “collapse” on a par with Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide.

“Sunak as a personality has failed to bring up his party,” Sir John told The Independent.

The forecast came as the prime minister warned migrants could “overwhelm” countries including the UK without changes to global refugee rules, such as the Refugee Convention or the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Critics accused him of a “bidding war” with former home secretary Suella Braverman for the most “toxic” contribution to the debate. His comments were made at a festival organised by the far-right Italian leader Giorgia Meloni.

Asked if the Tories would do better in the election if the PM manages to start sending migrants to Rwanda, the polling guru said: “The short answer is no. Yes, some core voters are upset (about immigration). But it’s not the core vote you need to win back – it’s those who are saying they won’t vote Conservative.”

Mr Sunak had blundered by not focusing on the economy and the NHS, he argued. “People are asking two main questions: ‘Can I afford to feed my kids?’ and, ‘If I fall ill, will the NHS look after me?’

“Unless they come up with better answers, this government will struggle politically,” said Sir John, who is renowned for his near 100 per cent accurate predictions on polling day.

The PM is desperately hoping that rebellious Tory MPs will back his Rwanda bill, and that his first deportation flight can take off by spring, in a bid to deliver on his “stop the boats” promise.

But Sir John said: “On immigration, probably the fundamental mistake the [Conservatives] are making is assuming the preoccupations of their activists and MPs are the same as the public.”

Rishi Sunak claims his Rwanda bill will help him deliver his ‘stop the boats’ pledge (PA)

Sir John said his own “poll of polls” analysis of five recent surveys gives Labour an 18-point lead, meaning the Tories are facing their worst-ever result at the general election.

He said they would be “lucky” to win more than 200 seats in the best-case scenario for the party, adding: “They are facing a collapse on the scale of 1997. It’s a very bleak situation for the Conservatives.”

The Tories were left with 165 seats in 1997, when the John Major-led party was thumped by Labour – which won a 179-seat majority.

Chris Hopkins, director of Savanta, said his own company’s analysis currently has the Tories winning just under 150 seats. But he agreed with Sir John that it could be closer to 200 if enough “don’t know” voters return to the Tories.

“I think Labour looks on course for a three-digit majority. We’re definitely in landslide territory. There’s no doubt the Conservatives are in deep, deep trouble,” the pollster said.

Mr Hopkins said getting the one-way flights going to Rwanda may help Mr Sunak – but warned that the PM’s row with Conservative MPs over the bill could make things even worse. “The Rwanda policy is more likely to expose Tory divisions, which could add to the damage.”

Mark Francois, centre, and other Tory right-wingers have threatened to ‘kill the bill’ (PA)

Mr Sunak faces a major battle with his own MPs in the early months of 2024. The Tory right has threatened to “kill” the Rwanda bill if it is not toughened up, while One Nation moderates want to amend it in a bid to soften its impact.

Tory peer and polling guru Robert Hayward agreed the Rwanda issue was becoming a “distraction” and was “causing the party real problems” despite immigration figuring highly as a key concern of voters.

“Immigration matters to a lot of 2019 Conservative voters. And yet Rwanda is a distraction, particularly if there is a split within the party. People don’t vote for split parties,” Lord Hayward said.

The elections expert said the focus on the Rwanda bill was crowding out more positive news on inflation, which has been halved since the start of 2023 as Mr Sunak promised. “The economy is the prime issue,” said the Tory peer.

Dominic Grieve, the former Tory attorney general, said: “This whole Rwanda thing is an unmitigated disaster. The infighting makes the party look mad. The bill looks like it will either fail, or at least lead to very few people being deported.”

The Conservative grandee said Mr Sunak had made a mistake to push on with a policy that he inherited from Boris Johnson. “It would have been a sensible decision for Sunak to say, ‘This is unworkable’, and either not pursue it or pursue only in a very low-key way.”

Polling on the Rwanda plan reveals overwhelming cynicism about its potential effectiveness. Only one per cent of voters think it will stop the boats, a survey by YouGov found earlier this week. And only 18 per cent believe it will “significantly” reduce Channel crossings.

Luke Tryl, UK director at the More in Common research group, said the government would struggle to claim success even if a plane leaves for Africa: “If it’s a half-empty flight, it’s not clear it’s having an impact on small boats, it’s not clear it makes much difference to voters.”

The polling expert said voters in his focus groups were scathing about Tory infighting. “People say they are ‘sick of the chaos’, so Sunak is right to say ‘unite or die’. But it is an uphill struggle to present a united party now,” he said.

Mr Tryl added: “The government has made Rwanda so totemic, it’s become an albatross around their necks – it means they’re not able to talk about anything else on immigration, like the Albania returns agreement or other aspects of policy.”

Joe Alder, senior research associate at the JL Partners polling firm, said: “I don’t think [Rwanda flights] would turn things around. The real problem is Conservative disunity. It has been an error to let Rwanda become this totem of immigration policy.”

The latest Office for National Statistics survey shows that immigration is only the seventh most important issue for Britons, behind the cost of living, the NHS, the economy, climate change, crime and housing.

While the latest Ipsos polling has immigration in fourth place, recent YouGov polling finds immigration in joint second place in the public’s priorities – tied with health on 41 per cent, but behind the economy on 54 per cent.

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