How extreme voter volatility offers a way back for the Conservatives in 2024

The polls tell a fascinating story. Cast your mind back to December 2019 and the images of a triumphant Boris Johnson, renewed as prime minister on the back of an 80-seat majority. Now think about how much has shifted since then. The pandemic, the sleaze, the fiscal furore, the revolving door swivelling hurricane-like through the apex of politics. Never before in recent political history has the political landscape been so unpredictably and so thoroughly transformed over the course of an election cycle.

And so the polls have shifted. The Labour party, warned in 2019 that a post-Corbyn comeback was unthinkable within one term, is widely considered to be on the verge of power. Just two years ago, at the time of the disastrous Hartlepool by-election, the Conservatives sat at 50 per cent in the polls — now Labour occupies this position. It speaks to a radical, unprecedented level of voter volatility. 

The headline challenges facing the Conservative Party are of course well known. Vanquished in the summer by Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak’s coronation in October marked the summit of the Conservative party’s savage arc of instability. Although the prime minister has  succeeded in settling the markets, the same cannot be said of the electorate’s post-Truss nerves. The “Truss premium” which afflicted interest rates last year has critically not yet been prised out of the polls. Conventional wisdom still presumes that Sir Keir is our nailed-on PM-in-wait. 

But conventional wisdom has been wrong before. In 1992, the polls said Neil Kinnock would be Britain’s next prime minister; in 2010, despite pre-election predictions, voters presented David Cameron with a hung parliament. Theresa May suffered the same fate in 2017. 

It is the cause for some hope in CCHQ that Labour’s lead may prove difficult to hold as the sobering reality of election time approaches. This view centres on the idea that Sir Keir’s lead is “soft”, creating room for Sunak to defy political gravity and beckon a further swing out of Britain’s polling pendulum. 

It is an ambition that Isaac Levido, the brutally effective political guru behind the party’s 2019 triumph, has been emphasising at every opportunity.

Speaking recently to a Conservative “away-day” in Windsor, Levido told MPs Labour’s lead is “softer than it looks”. 

Brought back into the fold after an unceremonious ousting under Truss, Levido wants the Conservatives to focus on wedge issues like migration and Sir Keir’s perceived weakness on Brexit in lead up to the next election. Ever-fond of a Tricolon (think “Get Brexit Done” or “Stop the Boats”), Levido has been identified as the brains behind Sunak’s ruthlessly pragmatic bullet-pointing. The “five pledges” are designed to exploit the policy-delivery incentives in Britain’s volatile politics.  

The bread-and-butter focus of Levido comes from the view that the Conservative voters who swung en masse to Labour through 2022 are cross-pressured on policy. It means that while they may have chosen Labour during “partygate” or felt incentivised to switch parties under Truss, the re-emergence of other wedge issues may return voters to core Conservative assumptions. As unique, shock events move further and further into the distance, Rishi Sunak will have more opportunities to set out a policy stall on his own terms.

After the minimum service bill, the new illegal migration proposals are the PM’s latest attempt at a legislative Lazarus. The government sees the bill as creating new political opportunities to compete around come an election. Certainly, the partisan dealignment experienced in 2019 along sections of the “Red Wall” has shown that the electorate at large feels free to choose who to vote for based on prevalent issues of the day. The focus on such core issues (Brexit, Scottish independence, levelling up etc.), seems to be a core source of British politics’ longer-term volatility since 2015. 

Sunak will therefore want to focus on his new core issues to win over voters in 2024. 

Identifying “swing voters” who are willing to change which party they vote for is a crucial aspect of election strategy. In recent years, parties have profiled such voters using deliberately reductive monikers such as “Essex Man”, “Worcester woman” or “Mondeo Man”. Most recently “Workington Man” summed up the Conservative party’s new challenge to Labour in Northern Red Wall towns. 

Recent polling volatility, however, may have shattered these standard strategical assumptions. The conventional view of a “swing voter”, referring to the small but moveable part of an otherwise loyal electorate, may need rethinking in a period when “swing” has been ubiquitous. Through 2022, whole swathes of the electorate were persuaded over to Labour because of the Conservative party’s political foibles. 

Rishi Sunak’s desire to win such voters back will hence need to be a UK-wide project. It will require a stunningly effective campaign machine. 

Critically, the polling swing has been almost entirely from Conservative-to-Labour, skipping over any centre ground party such as the Liberal Democrats. The government will be hoping the Con-Lab pathway operates in both directions.

Sunak’s presidential pitch

Recent polling by YouGov shows the prime minister’s favourability is up seven points to a net favourability of -21, far outscoring his deeply unpopular party. 

Sunak still trails Keir Starmer’s score of -11, but the PM’s vastly superior polling in comparison to his party creates strong incentives to pursue a presidential style government.

The polling increase comes first and foremost after the Windsor Framework announcement, the prime minister’s solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol. This, and recent announcements on AUKUS and the illegal migration bill, is a case in point of how quickly political momentum can change. The prime minister, once viewed as beleaguered and U-turning is now, considered in some quarters as insurgent and delivering.

Now if Labour makes a series of unforced blunders, forcing swinging voters back into the arms of the Conservative Party amid a dizzying policy blitz, the polls may begin to turn in Sunak’s favour.

Of course, this all assumes that the carnage of 2022 is not hard-baked into the polls. One wonders whether the instability of electoral behaviour has now settled in Labour’s favour. If the polls do not change, and change quickly, then Conservative MPs may become resigned to the fact that a 20-point advantage is truly British politics’ “new normal”.