Week-in-Review: Rishi Sunak is stuck in a political doom loop

If this was a bad week for Keir Starmer, then what might a good one look like? 

With Westminster occupied by Labour’s £28 billion travails and closely scrutinising the electoral ramifications of its Rochdale debacle, Starmer found himself at the centre of an unremitting, even escalating crisis. His political and moral judgement was questioned anew; no less than the very foundations of Starmerism were shaken by the renewed accusations of antisemitism. 

However, while Labour’s recent difficulties are significant in their own right, they were plainly not — as some siren voices suggested — of election-shaping significance. Tellingly, mere days later, the prevailing SW1 narrative is once more contoured by Rishi Sunak’s political tumult. Recession news and a brace of by-election routings will do that. 

Still, in the early hours of yesterday morning, some speculated that Westminster had so priced-in two Labour by-election victories, that the outcome would barely feature as a political boost. To address this point directly: the result in Wellingborough, which came close to breaking the record for the largest Con-Lab swing of all time, blew expectations out of the water. 

The fall in the Conservative share of the vote — an enormous 37.6 percentage points — was the worst the party has ever suffered in a by-election. Labour’s candidate Gen Kitchen overturned a Conservative majority of more than 18,000 to seize Peter Bone’s former fiefdom. Undoubtedly, the story of Bone’s ouster and the selection of his partner, Helen Harrison, to stand in his stead, will have exaggerated Sunak’s woes. But if the swing in Wellingborough was replicated nationally, Labour would gain 361 seats from the Conservatives. The governing party would be left with just four. Unfortunately for the prime minister, caveats can only do so much heavy lifting. 

By-elections: Starmer ‘on course’ to be next PM after victories in Wellingborough and Kingswood

At this stage in the electoral cycle, the polling difference between the leading party and trailing outfit should be tightening. But by-election after by-election we are seeing the national polling chasm between the Labour and Conservative parties borne out by reality. It’s why Sunak’s post-by-election spin — composed of that most banal admission that “mid-term by-elections are always difficult for incumbent governments” — rings so hollow. It is a line that former PM Boris Johnson might have gainfully deployed after the Conservatives’ routing in Chesham and Amersham (June 2021), or later in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton (both June 2022). But we are now in the dying months of this parliament, with an election potentially just around the corner; both parties are priming their policies (see Labour’s £28 billion rearguard action) and election messaging is now fast in the process of being honed. 

In this way, the fundamental facts underpinning Rishi Sunak’s myriad political problems have not changed in the past few days. Even in the absence of the Kingswood and Wellingborough by-elections, attuned politicos will have recognised that the Conservative Party’s prospects for this election year are historically poor. Voters in Selby, Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire have already sent the requisite signals; and if by-election results are necessarily caveated and not exhaustive, see also Labour’s over-year-old double-digit opinion poll lead. That is not to mention recent mega MRP surveys, produced consecutively by Lord Frost together with the “Conservative Britain Alliance”, and Find Out Now/Electoral Calculus.

In fact, recent by-elections illustrate that Sunak’s woes are, at once, more real than CCHQ has hitherto calculated — and worsening. 

Significant in this regard is the case of Reform UK, Richard Tice’s restyled Brexit Party, which recorded vote shares of 10 per cent and 13 per cent in Kingswood and Wellingborough respectively. Tice, unsurprisingly, rhapsodised that this was a “defining moment” for his purportedly insurgent party. His mission to “destroy” the Conservative Party is progressing nicely, he counselled commentators. 

Richard Tice hails ‘defining moment’ for Reform UK after best-ever by-election results

Tice’s spin, of course, was quickly met with its own caveats. Step back, and the Reform UK’s vote share of 10-13 per cent — while worthy of their national polling performance — may in fact reflect underperformance in Kingswood and Wellingborough given protest parties typically outperform national expectations at by-elections. On top of this, UKIP recorded 15 per cent in Kingswood and 20 per cent in Wellingborough in 2015, suggesting Reform UK is still failing to reach the dizzy electoral heights of its right-of-Conservative forebear. And the turnout in Kingswood and Wellingborough was low, meaning Reform UK’s politically active base should have actually been over-represented in the results. 

However, Reform UK — still not a de jure political party, note — does not have the campaigning infrastructure or political machinery that once empowered UKIP’s by-election successes. The party’s activity on the ground in Kingswood, in particular, was threadbare — with already scant resources instead ploughed into deputy leader Ben Habib’s Wellingborough campaign.

Of course, because so much of what Reform UK is and will be remains a mystery — especially the plans of its honorary president, Nigel Farage — it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from its performance yesterday. But one reading at this stage suggests that the Reform UK threat, so often referred to forebodingly be conservative commentators, is, after all, very real. It will not be lost on Sunak’s strategists that the party need not achieve its present national polling average at the next election to inflict real damage. 

As far as the PM’s short-term calculations are concerned, however, what may be more troubling is that, from this baseline conclusion, all kinds of eventualities can be inferred and extrapolated. Indeed, the prime minister’s Conservative right antagonists-turned-psephologists have wasted no time in advancing their view of the pressing, existential threat Reform UK poses. The “New Conservatives” faction, co-chaired by Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, has frequently invoked the Reform UK spectre to advance its own brand of right-wing politics; and, in the wake of the Kingswood and Wellingborough, it has already urged Sunak to “change course”, calling on the PM “to adapt to the reality that the by-elections reveal”.

Along these lines, it is easy to see how the Kingswood and Wellingborough by-elections might trigger another protracted period of Conservative introspection — emanating mainly from Sunak-sceptic groupings. In time, more Conservative MPs could even assume the positioning of Sir Simon Clarke in calling for the prime minister’s ouster. Clarke’s Telegraph op-ed last month, remember, warned that by-election defeats would spark more mutiny. Certainly, Jeremy Hunt looks set to deliver the spring budget in three weeks time under a cloud of Conservative infighting. He better have some tax cuts in store — or else. 

Hunt argues UK economy is ‘turning a corner’ despite falling into recession in 2023

All these factors point to a difficult truth for Rishi Sunak and one, it would seem, that he is yet to fully come to terms with. In the end, only months away from a general election, the polls are refusing to narrow; Conservative MPs are refusing to fall behind the PM en masse; the conservative press is amping up its antagonism, providing uncritical coverage to a rival in Reform UK; and privately — and at times very publicly — ambitious MPs posture for a future leadership contest that is now read as increasingly inevitable.  

Worse still for the prime minister, it would appear that this reality has acquired a brutal cyclical quality — as, first, the Conservative Party digests some great portent of the reckoning to come (a poll or a by-election, for example); this begins a lengthy process of introspection; the conservative press, as ever, provides a forum for the infighting; and, crucially, as Sunak spirals further into this doom loop, Labour’s woes simply do not feature. After all the huffing and puffing over Keir Starmer’s difficulties this week and last, it would seem Sunak has no less than lost his ability to shape the political narrative beyond the walls of Westminster — if he ever possessed it in the first place.

Therefore, this week — perhaps more than any other in recent months — has been singularly instructive as to the Labour Party’s enduring electoral strength. Undoubtedly, Starmer faces further political problems in Rochdale as the spectre of George Galloway looms; many more problematic Westminster story-of-the-day issues might arise in turn. But the electoral fundamentals, far more significantly, show no sign of shifting. 

After Wellingborough and Kingswood, it is simply far easier to imagine things getting worse for Rishi Sunak — both in the short- and long-term — than getting better. The Conservative Party’s doom loop trajectory continues in earnest. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

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