đź”’ Tory turmoil: Recent by-election losses cast shadow on Rishi Sunak, Conservative Party’s future – Martin Ivens

In a stunning turn of events, the UK’s ruling Conservative Party faces a grim outlook after losing two once-secure seats in recent by-elections. The defeats signal a potential downfall in the upcoming general election, with critics predicting a historic setback for the Tories. Labour’s victories and the emergence of the right-wing Reform party add to the Conservatives’ woes. As Prime Minister Rishi Sunak grapples with internal dissent, economic challenges, and strategic decisions, the looming election casts a shadow of uncertainty over the party’s future. The clock is ticking, and the feel-bad factor may haunt the Tories until election day.

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By Martin Ivens

 Sometimes there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The ruling Conservative Party’s loss of two previously safe seats in by-elections on Thursday heralds likely defeat in a UK general election, expected later this year. Rishi Sunak may try to blame the low turnout and the unfavorable circumstances that prompted the contests, but the prime minister can take no comfort in his own lame excuses. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Pessimists argue that Labour’s victories in Wellingborough and Kingswood may presage the worst electoral outcome in the history of the Tories— whose instinct is often to panic even at the best of times. Sunak’s critics inside the party are already talking of a Canadian-style wipeout, which saw a Progressive Conservative government reduced to just two seats in 2003. 

It’s unlikely to come to that, but the 28.5 percentage-point swing against the Tories in Wellingborough was the second-biggest since World War II — replicated nationally, the Tories would be reduced to four seats.  The opposition Labour Party’s two thumping victories also saw a right-wing challenger party, Reform, eat into the Conservatives’ tally. In both by-elections, the Conservative lost twice as much in vote share as Labour gained. Many of the blue party’s demoralized supporters are staying at home.

The rise of Reform, which has morphed from a single-issue Brexit party into an anti-immigration right-wing populist party, threatens electoral mayhem. Conservative candidates in dozens of seats now fear that the right-of-center vote will be split. In both of Thursday’s contests, Reform’s vote share rose to double figures. If Nigel Farage, Reform’s former leader and star performer, were to return to the national stage, the damage to the Tories could be devastating.

The challenger parties of the left, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, present no such threat to Labour. Their supporters appear intent on voting for any candidate who can beat the Conservatives. The anti-Tory tactical voting that delivered Labour’s Tony Blair his landslide in 1997 is back. The far-left Workers Party may attract some Muslim voters outraged by Keir Starmer’s refusal to call for a ceasefire in the Gaza conflict, but the damage will be limited to a few urban seats.

Ironically, Starmer’s election wins come after one of his worst weeks since becoming Labour leader. After dithering over the deselection of two Labour candidates found to have made anti-Semitic remarks, a YouGov poll published in the Times Friday revealed that only 3% percent say he’s â€śsuccessfully tackled” antisemitism in his party.  Last week, Starmer abandoned the central plank of Labour’s economic policy, a pledge to spend ÂŁ28 billion ($35 billion) a year on green investments.  The voters appear not to have noticed. 

The Tories protest that midterm by-elections offer little guidance about a general election. But these defeats come very late in the electoral cycle. Even if the smaller swing to Labour in Kingswood —  16.4 points â€” were repeated nationally, it would mean a 60-seat majority for Starmer. Putting a brave face on defeat, Tory strategists say that the Kingswood shift was lower than in three by-elections last year, when it averaged more than 20%.

Labour, however, has now won six byelection seats since 2019, its most ever in a single Parliamentary term; the Conservatives have lost 10 over the same period, their worst-ever performance. 

Time is running out for Sunak. The prime minister needs time for the economy to recover, for inflation to tumble, for immigration numbers to fall and for tax cuts to soften the hearts of voters. The hour is getting very late. Instead, the feel-bad factor is likely to dog the Tories all the way to the election. The economy slumped into recession at the end of last year, we learned this week, with growth contracting by 0.3% in the final three months of 2023 after shrinking by 0.1%  in the previous quarter. 

And while wage growth is outstripping inflation, which was unchanged at 4% in January, living standards have been stagnant or in decline for more than a (Tory run) decade.

What should Sunak do? His chancellor of the exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, wants to squeeze already eye-wateringly tight public-spending budgets to pay for tax cuts at next month’s budget. The prospect has the party faithful and the Tory supporting press salivating — but the voters may view his promised bounty as no more than a naked bribe at this late stage.

Sunak’s authority is being undermined by splinter groups of right-wing factions within his party. Their cack-handed plots, which periodically surface in the press, increase the likelihood that defeat, if it comes, will be disastrous. His right-wing critics demand that he sees off the threat from Reform by doubling down on anti-migration policies. The lessons from Europe suggest this strategy has pitfalls. In the Netherlands, for example,  a center-right government that belatedly took a tough stance on migration to ward off the veteran populist Geert Wilders was decisively defeated by his party at the polls. In France and Germany, center-right parties have also been plunged into existential crisis by the challenge from the populists, despite making rightward shifts. The voters prefer the real thing, not pale imitations.    

It’s far too late for the prime minister to adopt a persona alien to him. In his campaign for his party’s leadership, Sunak promised to deliver sound finances and good government. That’s what he knows, and that’s what he should stick to. Better to be a good technocrat than a bad populist.

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