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Are the Conservatives trying to lose the general election?

Every time the prime minister tries to turn the corner, he seems to crash into a new obstacle, writes John Rentoul

Tuesday 26 September 2023 09:51 BST
‘Long-term decisions for a brighter future’ is a dud of an election slogan
‘Long-term decisions for a brighter future’ is a dud of an election slogan (PA)

One of the most testing thought experiments is to assume that the opinion polls now are not what the election result will be, and to ask: “Higher or lower?” Ever since Labour took the lead in the polls at the end of 2021, when the lockdown parties in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street became known about, my answer to that question has been that the Labour lead will be lower at the general election. But sometimes I wonder.

The reasons for thinking that Labour will win by a margin of less than 19 percentage points are still valid. One is that no party, or coalition of parties, has ever won by a margin that great since 1931, when the leaders of the Labour government defected to work with the Conservatives. Nothing quite so dramatic has happened this time.

Another is that elections are a choice of government, while opinion polls are an opportunity to complain. Governments tend to narrow the gap as the election approaches; no one is much enthused by Keir Starmer, and so on and so on.

Yet every attempt by Rishi Sunak to turn the corner seems to end with him crashing, head first, into an obstacle. To make matters worse, he generally seems to be trying to do the right thing, and yet ends up managing to make it look as if (a) he is playing politics with serious issues and (b) he is incompetent.

His recalibration of net zero this week was a hugely significant moment. His speech made the important point that the government had not been honest about the cost of climate change policies. This was a pointed criticism not just of Boris Johnson, but of Theresa May, who made net zero by 2050 her legacy mainly because the Treasury wouldn’t allow her to double spending on education. It may have been justified criticism, but it hardly inspires confidence in the Conservative Party, which has been in power for 13 years.

Sunak is right to want to protect people on low to middle incomes from the costs of net zero. But his protest – “This is not about politics; this is about doing the right thing for the country in the long term” – rang hollow. He announced that he was postponing by five years the date from which the sale of new petrol cars will be banned. But almost in the next breath, he said that this would make little difference: “I expect that by 2030, the vast majority of cars sold will be electric.”

Indeed, it was revealed the next day that 80 per cent of sales of new cars would be required to be electric by 2030. So Sunak’s announcement is about 20 per cent of the market. Maybe that is an important segment, but it makes the prime minister look more like a desperate politician in search of a dividing line between himself and the opposition, and less like a saintly truth-teller “doing the right thing for the country in the long term”.

It is true that public opinion appears to be on Sunak’s side, in that more people support delaying the ban than oppose it – and he trapped Labour into saying that they would restore the 2030 start date (although I wouldn’t be surprised if Starmer quietly accepted 2035 before the election). But public opinion also supports net zero in principle, and is opposed to inconsistency and incompetence.

If Sunak had just got rid of the gas boiler deadline, the opposition would have fallen in line, and his claim to being pragmatic in pursuit of net zero would have been more convincing.

Instead, he went for a wedge issue, it leaked, parts of the car industry complained about the uncertainty, and the announcement looked amateurish. Not only did he play politics with the issue, but he lost. Any gain from voters relieved that they can buy a new petrol car in 2034 was lost among those who think Sunak is giving up on net zero.

Not only that, but he opened himself to ridicule on the “seven bins” story. Instead of saying that he would not require recycling to be sorted by households into seven bins – and there has been some doubt about what the law requires – he pretended to have “stopped” plans that were already under way. Again, playing politics and losing.

It is the same story with every attempt made by the prime minister to restore his lost popularity. The latest idea is to ban young people from smoking. In flat contradiction to his view on buying electric cars, that “it should be you the consumer that makes that choice, not government forcing you to do it”, he wants to copy Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand, in raising the age at which you are allowed to buy cigarettes every year, so that today’s young people never can.

Before that, it was compulsory maths up to age 18 (again). Before that, it was cancelling the next phase of HS2 (also leaked, in this case to The Independent), which is still being fought over in public. Again, a government that cannot make up its mind. Before that, there were five targets for this year, including cutting NHS waiting lists. Sunak blames striking doctors for missing the target, but the voters blame him for the striking doctors.

It is true that people will notice one of Sunak’s targets – halving inflation – if and when it is met. It may make a big difference if people start feeling better off, but that will do Sunak no good unless he can restore a sense of competence and consistency, which means being less obvious about searching for wedge issues for the sake of party-political advantage.

I still think that the gap between the Conservatives and Labour will close by the election, but if Sunak goes on trying to lose it, he should know that the first-past-the-post voting system is a fearsome engine of exaggeration. The 1993 wipeout of the Canadian Conservatives, when Kim Campbell’s party was reduced from government to two seats, ought to haunt any unpopular leader dependent on a plurality voting system.

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