Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Beware a Starmer ‘super majority’: why the Conservatives are warning of a Labour landslide

The below content first appeared in Politics.co.uk’s Politics@Lunch newsletter, sign-up for free here and never miss this essential election briefing.

There’s been a significant shift in the Conservative Party’s election messaging in recent days: a tactical recalibration informed not by the manifesto launch or the political possibilities opened up by Rishi Sunak’s new raft of measures — but by the apparent inevitability of the election outcome.

Defence secretary Grant Shapps, touring the media studios this morning as one of the Conservatives’ most able performers, urged voters not to hand Keir Starmer a “super majority”. He warned that the election could endow the Labour leader, for whom enthusiasm has yet to meaningfully form, with “unchecked” power in government.

Shapps’ pitch was that voters should ensure a “proper system of accountability” by voting for a strong opposition, i.e. the Conservatives.

Speaking to Times Radio, Shapps had been asked to comment on a live Tory online ad campaign which appears to warn voters that Rishi Sunak’s party could finish third in the election. The ads in question urge voters not to “hand Keir Starmer a blank cheque” by leaving “nobody holding [him] to account on your behalf”; on top of this, each ad (and there are four variations) displays a graphic with a hypothetical House of Commons seat projection.

This projection — which, remember, CCHQ is paying handsomely to promote — shows Labour on 490 seats with 43 per cent of the vote; the Liberal Democrats on 61 seats with 10 per cent of the vote; and the Conservatives in third place on 57 seats and 19 per cent of the vote. Reform is said to be on 18 per cent, but with zero seats.

Therein you note the message, dutifully repeated by Shapps this morning: that a vote for Reform on the 4th July could hand Starmer unprecedented political power.

Throughout this campaign, despite its clear “core vote” focus, the Conservative Party has proved entirely unable to resist the rise of Nigel Farage. Just yesterday in fact, a new YouGov poll placed Reform on 18 per cent of the vote — one point behind Rishi Sunak’s party. And so the strategy evolves: the plan now is to level with Reform’s voters and highlight the potential unintended consequences of their actions.

To a large extent, this approach chimes with Sunak’s remarks at the Conservative manifesto launch yesterday. “Do not forget that Keir Starmer is asking you to hand him a blank cheque”, he urged voters from his Silverstone soapbox. But with the Conservatives’ recent adverts, and Shapps’ pitch this morning in particular, we have arrived at an inflection point this election: CCHQ is now openly admitting that the Conservative Party is on track to lose, and lose badly.

It amounts to an arguably overdue, very public reckoning with reality — one likely expedited by the PM’s D-Day debacle. (Tellingly perhaps, this latest Conservative ad campaign was launched on Monday — mere days after Sunak issued an apology for leaving D-Day commemorations in Normandy).

The strategy is no less than an election gambit of last resort — but resorted to just halfway through the campaign. It is evidence of the Conservative Party not only coming to terms with its manifold woes — but learning to think pragmatically about them and adjusting its message accordingly. It’s not mere loss minimisation (the Tory strategy so far) — but extinction minimisation.

That said, it’s also not an entirely novel approach; the plan echoes the tactics pursued by a number of Labour MPs in the 2017 general election, as they pleaded with voters to deprive then-PM Theresa May of a substantial majority.

As such, it’s possible that this messaging could prevent the Conservatives from being routed in a few safe seats — that’s the aim, certainly. But what’s most striking about the new strategy is how it accords with the prevailing consensus at the heart of this election — one already forged by the Tories’ rival parties, in spite of the Tories.

The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Reform and all manner of independents/smaller parties, argue that an inevitable Labour landslide means that the electorate can vote in line with their conscience. The Conservatives, at pains, have made the case for the opposing view: that the race is not yet run. In U-turning on this pitch so brazenly, the Conservative Party is now playing into its foes’ pitch; it’s a logical strategy, therefore — but not one without risks.

In short, Rishi Sunak wants to highlight the unintended consequences of Reform voters’ actions. But the Conservative Party’s defeat, for the average Nigel Farage fan, is intended indeed.

If this is the PM’s best hope of avoiding an unprecedented routing, therefore — and it may well be — an unprecedented routing has never looked more likely.

Subscribe to Politics@Lunch

Lunchtime briefing

Green Party manifesto pledges to nationalise water, railways and energy companies

Grant Shapps warns election could hand Labour ‘unchecked power’ and ‘super majority’

Lunchtime soundbite

‘I was very, very fortunate that my parents had good jobs’

—  Rishi Sunak says he had a “very fortunate” upbringing after facing a backlash for saying he had to go without Sky TV as a child.

Now try this…

This Tory election campaign is all about the vibes
Politico’s Bethany Dawson writes that Rishi Sunak’s policy platform is unlikely to keep many Conservatives happy.

“Read my lips: no austerity under Labour”, Sarwar tells Scottish leaders’ debate

The Guardian reports.

Our first constituency poll has awful news for Britain’s Conservatives
In a very interesting constituency poll, The Economist notes that Hartlepool is on track to lurch back to Labour in the election.

On this day in 2023:

Michael Gove dismisses Boris Johnson’s claim that privileges committee is ‘kangaroo court’

Subscribe to Politics@Lunch