Writing for The Independent, Prof John Curtice said the PM’s initial popularity has “largely disappeared” as he struggles to win support from voters who backed the party at the 2019 general election. Voters who are now angry at the economy, the NHS and immigration, he added.
Senior Tories have talked up a slight narrowing in the polls as evidence that a row back on net zero was working – but Prof Curtice insisted that the issue had a “marginal” impact at best. He said the only hope of avoiding a wipeout was to “crack the hard nut” of the economy, rather than focus on wedge issues.
“The party finds itself on average 18 points behind Labour in the polls – little better than the position 12 months ago after Liz Truss was displaced as prime minister by Rishi Sunak,” said Prof Curtice as the crucial conference kicks off on Sunday.
The elections expert added: “The Conservatives appear to be heading unwaveringly on a course that leads towards heavy defeat in an election that is now at most little more than a year away.”
A Deltapoll survey showed the Conservatives cutting Labour’s poll lead by eight points to 16, while a Techne UK poll found Labour’s lead cut by one point to 18. However, the latest YouGov survey saw Sir Keir Starmer enjoy a five-point swing, increasing its lead to 21 points.
It comes as:
- Liz Truss’s camp denied claims she would run again for the leadership.
- Theresa May joined the rebellion over HS2 – telling Sunak to finish it.
- Sunak faced calls to sack “toxifying” home secretary Suella Braverman.
- Tory moderates urged the PM to ignore “populist madness”.
- Red wall Tories demanded a new “minister for the north”.
Prof Curtice said the attempt “to appeal to its core voters by slowing the implementation of some net zero measures has had – at most – no more than a marginal impact on the party’s standing in the polls”.
With many Tory MP privately writing off the 2024 election – and Mr Sunak facing angry rows over tax cuts, net zero and small boats – the polling guru said there was a “risk the event might take on the air of a wake”.
Conservative backbenchers have told The Independent that the spectrum of their electoral hopes runs – as one put it – “from ‘how do we lose as best we possibly can’ to ‘how do we scrape a victory’”.
Despite the pessimism, some Tories see a possible light at the end of the tunnel. “In the last week he has managed to close the gap with Labour by showing he is in charge. If the accusation is that we are coasting, people are noticing that he wants to change things,” one Tory MP said.
Influential Tory peer Lord Hayward said the mood is “slightly better” than for several months. “There is hope again. The net zero move appears to have made a difference, with three recent polls showing an uplift. Tory MPs have told me it has struck a chord on the doorstep.”
But many of Mr Sunak’s MPs see the days ahead as a trial to scrape through rather than enjoy. One former minister, a Sunak supporter, said his leader’s task was to “not f*** it up”. He added: “It’s going to have to be a very good speech.”
Moderates have urged the PM to ignore “populist insanity” in the days ahead, as Liz Truss gathers her remaining allies to push for tax cuts and others on the right – including Danny Kruger’s New Conservatives and John Hayes’s Commons Sense Group – call for withdrawal of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR).
Ms Truss could even consider running again for the Tory leadership in the event Mr Sunak is booted out at a general election, according to Bloomberg – citing three people close to her. But a spokesperson denied the claim, and pointed to Ms Truss’s own comments last week when she said she was “certainly not” considering another run at reaching No 10.
Mr Sunak also faces cabinet pressure to get rid of his home secretary Suella Braverman after her controversial migration speech in the US. “She needs to be moved as soon as possible to stop her toxifying the Tory brand further,” one told The Times. Another said: “She’s causing him headaches he doesn’t need.”
Tory grandee Dominic Grieve urged Mr Sunak to ignore Ms Braverman and those “playing to the populist gallery” on immigration. “It’s up to him whether he’s got the courage to face down a really dangerous fringe of the party.”
The former attorney general told The Independent that right-wing Tory calls to pull out of the ECHR are “so reckless as to have an element of insanity” and a “seriously damaging fantasy”.
Mr Sunak also has to deal with a growing rebellion on HS2, with former PM Theresa May saying on Saturday that she was “arguing” with the Sunak government to build it in full. “We need more railway capacity to serve the North West.”
And a manifesto released by the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs called for a minister for the north, more tax responsibilities to be devolved, 500,000 more homes in the region and the prioritisation of an East-West rail line.
Prof Curtice said the polls showed Mr Sunak should focus on improving the economy and NHS rather than indulge in “culture war” battles over climate change and migrant crossings in the English Channel.
“The message is clear. If the Conservatives are to regain their lost support, they need to crack the hard nut of solving Britain’s fiscal and economic crisis – a weak economy, an inflationary spiral, and poorly functioning public services,” he said.
“That means cutting NHS times as well as halving inflation. Trying to focus voters’ attention elsewhere, such as so-called ‘wedge issues’ like immigration and net zero, is unlikely to be enough.”
Prof Curtice said there was “clear evidence” in the polls that “defection” among 2019 Tory voters is linked to anger at the government’s performance on the big issues.
Lord Cooper of Windrush, David Cameron’s former No 10 director of strategy, told The Independent that he was “out of ideas” and would vote for any candidate best placed to defeat the Conservatives at the general election.
The peer – once dubbed the ex-PM’s “favourite pollster”, said the party was “out of ideas, out of energy”. He added: “There’s no clarity of leadership. It’s not really a party at all … It’s a collection of pretty bitterly-divided factions sellotaped together because there’s an election coming.”
The former Tory, kicked out over his opposition to Brexit, also said the prospect of cutting HS2 was “a catastrophically stupid decision”, adding: “I think everything they’re doing is defined by electoral politics and trying to try to create dividing lines, wedges and traps for Labour rather than by what’s in the interest of the country.”
The former No 10 official, who went to school with Sir Keir Starmer, said he was not advising the Labour leader. As a member of the Lords he does not have a vote, but he said if he did: “I would vote for whichever candidate where I live has the greatest chance of defeating the Conservatives.”
Tom Lubbock, director at JL Partners polling firm, said that Mr Sunak had to concentrate on “building Brand Rishi as someone who takes big, long-term decisions for the good of the economy”.
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