This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Elections guru Isaac Levido has told Conservative Party MPs to ignore dire polling numbers that suggest they could be on course for a 1997-style wipeout, saying numbers that point to one of the biggest collapses in support in a century are aimed at “undermining this Government”. The YouGov survey of 14,000 people indicated that the prime minister’s party could hold on to as few as 169 seats as Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour enters Downing Street with 385. It said nearly a dozen Cabinet ministers could lose their seats, and that every so-called “red wall” seat won by Boris Johnson in 2019 could be lost at a general election this year. Not that any of that is cause for concern, Levido says, “It’s just another poll, another MRP model, with the same margins of error, the same statistical limitations as any other”. Get a grip.
But then, this isn’t just another poll. On Monday morning, one of the Tories’ biggest media backers cleared its front page to run the findings, with a rather glum-looking Rishi Sunak plastered across the middle of the page in a notable departure from the usual triumphant and stoic-looking PM snaps that traditionally adorn its pages. The research, which you might expect to come from a rival group, was actually commissioned by a group of Tory donors working with former Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, seemingly in a bid to divide and conquer ahead of this week’s crucial Rwanda vote as part of a rebellion which has already won the support of a former home secretary and two serving deputy chairmen, whose insubordination may go unpunished, so concerned is Mr Sunak that in-fighting over the Rwanda Bill could break out into full-scale war.
And it is worth noting that, dire as the polling may look, experts are now suggesting that it could present a ‘best-case scenario’ for the Conservatives, owing to the way the projections were calculated. As Sam Freedman pointed out on X, there isn’t a single seat in the UK where the Conservatives score more than 40 per cent of the vote, and in only 74 do they score more than 35 per cent. YouGov has allocated the ‘don’t knows’ to the party whose supporters the person most looks like, which could be giving the Tories an artificial boost in those seats. He says a scenario where the Tories end up with under 100 seats is undoubtedly in play, which is a result that is without historical precedent.
Sunak’s best hope, as Beth Rigby noted today, is that steady progress on the boats, the economy and NHS waiting lists can slowly turn the tide. He needs disruption in the Red Sea like a hole in the head, but there’s still a likelihood that he will see some favourable outcomes on his five pledges, albeit probably not enough to massively turn the dial. And with two by-elections on the cards, local elections and the huge question mark over whether the Rwanda plan – if passed – will actually work, there is enough turbulence to throw any little victory off course regardless.
All told, it will be an uphill slog for an already beleaguered PM if he is to offset a potentially historic election defeat. Few of us will need reminding of the moment Tony Blair emerged to the D:Ream hit Things Can Only Get Better in 1997. For Rishi, it would seem, they can only get worse.
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