The Independent View

Rishi Sunak faces the nation... and a potential wipeout

Editorial: As the party leaders prepare for the first TV debate of the election, new opinion polls suggest the Conservatives were on the brink of an extinction-level event long before Nigel Farage’s surprise return. We must hope his joining the campaign trail does not mean we are in for more populist, culture-war salvos

Monday 03 June 2024 22:08 BST
Since Rishi Sunak declared an election with his ’Drowning Street’ appearance, public opinion has studiously failed to shift an inch in his favour
Since Rishi Sunak declared an election with his ’Drowning Street’ appearance, public opinion has studiously failed to shift an inch in his favour (PA Wire)

When the prime minister stands before a carefully chosen studio audience on Tuesday evening for the election’s first televised head-to-head debate, it will be his most consequential encounter with a podium since that rainy night on Downing Street when he announced that the country would be going to the polls, and his suit would be going to the dry cleaners.

Rishi Sunak’s campaign got off to a damp start – and the drenchings haven’t stopped.

According to a number of opinion polls – including the most comprehensive of the election so far, by YouGov – the Tories are on course for an extinction-level event that will leave them with between 66 and 160 MPs, depending on who you believe. Labour looks to be on course for a 194-seat majority, the largest of any party in a century; in another scenario, the Liberal Democrats will beat the Tories to become the official opposition. It is for the public to decide which of those three prospects is the most jaw-dropping.

And this cataclysmically awful polling was done before Nigel Farage announced he had changed his mind about sitting out this election, and that he would, in fact, return to lead Reform UK, and to run in Clacton, in his eighth attempt at a Westminster seat. Having declared that Labour had already won this election, Mr Farage explained that “millions of people” would feel let down if he didn’t stand himself; the embattled prime minister won’t be one of them, his party’s vote share even more imperilled by the hard-right populist’s ambition “to get millions and millions of votes”.

It all points to an outcome for the Tories that would be even more catastrophic than 1997, when a meltdown at the polls left the party with just 165 seats and put it out of power for a generation. Election night 2024 is shaping up to be one long ticker-tape of “Portillo moments”. If, as is predicted, the voters have already made up their minds to back ABC (anyone but Conservatives), ministerial scalps could include Penny Mordaunt, Kemi Badenoch, Grant Shapps, Johnny Mercer, Steve Baker, even Jeremy Hunt. Big beasts such as Suella Braverman, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liz Truss could also be in for a shock.

The abyss into which the Tories are staring runs even deeper. No incumbent prime minister has ever lost their seat at a general election, but after last month’s historic win for Labour in the York and North Yorkshire mayoral contest, even Mr Sunak’s mighty 27,000-strong majority in Richmond could yet prove pervious.

All will depend on turnout. Since Mr Sunak’s “Drowning Street” appearance, public opinion has studiously failed to shift an inch in his favour. Thanks to the drip-drip of Westminster sleaze, coupled with the cost of living crisis and scandals such as record levels of raw sewage being pumped into the nation’s waterways, the idea has long since taken hold that the Conservatives are unfit to govern and that Britain deserves better.

Roundly abandoned by floating voters, Mr Sunak has little choice but to lean in to his core supporters – the so-called “Dunkirk” strategy. Among the eye-catching policy initiatives designed to give his despondent heartlands reason to leave their armchairs on polling day rather than stay at home (or, worse, join the steady flow to Reform UK) – namely a triple-lock-plus for pensions, and income tax thresholds frozen until 2028 – there have also been some positively eye-popping ones: mandatory national service for 18-year-olds; repeat offenders to be evicted from social housing; points on the driving licence of anyone caught fly-tipping.

Now comes a potentially useful salvo in the culture wars. If re-elected, the Tories would amend the 2010 Equality Act to make clear that the protections it enshrines on the basis of someone’s sex apply to their biological sex, not a chosen gender. One effect would be to make it easier for women-only spaces to bar trans women. At present, female-only swimming sessions at the local pool, women-only hospital wards and rape crisis centres are all open to legal challenge from trans-identifying men who want to use them.

Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, did her best to explain why she believes the change is necessary: “Whether it is rapists being housed in women’s prisons, or instances of men playing in women’s sports where they have an unfair advantage, it is clear that public authorities and regulatory bodies are confused about what the law says on sex and gender and when to act – often for fear of being accused of transphobia, or not being inclusive.”

The discussion over trans rights, already a well-worn punchbag, was never not going to be brought out by a Conservative Party on the ropes – but it shows that the Tories know how deeply in trouble they are. And not even the party faithful are wholly convinced by the attack line any more. In the words of one prospective Tory parliamentary candidate: “​​Here we go again – wondered how long it would take.”

The political potency of all things trans is a wedge issue. Hours after Ms Badenoch’s morning media round – when her bad-tempered appearances were being widely castigated as “car crashes” – election candidates were being made to squirm on the stump when asked: “What is a woman?”

For all the queasiness “the woman question” engenders, it is doubtless one that will be asked of Sir Keir Starmer in the first TV election debate. Historically, the Labour leader has found it an uncomfortable ask, and his replies suggest he has been on a journey – from prevarications such as “99.9 per cent of women [...] of course haven’t got a penis” (which he later updated to “100 per cent”), to “A woman is an adult female – so let’s clear that one up.”

Mr Sunak will hope that his showdown with Sir Keir will take a little shine off the Labour leader, who, despite the mathematical possibility of his winning the largest majority since Churchill’s wartime coalition, is hardly winning hearts and minds wherever he goes. Unlike his Tory-slaying predecessor Tony Blair back in the day, he has a personal popularity rating that frequently trails that of the party he leads.

A Labour majority of more than 300, barely five years after a Boris Johnson 80-seat landslide, would be a stunning turnaround – but, on a low turnout, the victory would be a shallow one. With precisely a month before the country casts its vote, election night could be in the hands of those who don’t bother.

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