Week-in-Review: The Conservative doomsday clock strikes midnight

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Political failure, anticipated or actualised, is typically understood by some manner of metaphor. Think “landslide” — a word that literally describes the rapid downward trajectory of a great amount of soil and rock; unless you are analysing the dynamics of an election campaign, in which case it signifies a drastic victory and/or defeat. Parties who thwart likely landslides are deemed to have “defied gravity” — their unfortunate opponents might have “imploded” or suffered some “meltdown”. Ultimately, the ousted party can be regarded as having been the victim of a “routing”, (a term I like because of the visceral agency it affords the voter). 

In the context of the 2024 general election, however, the metaphors commentators are employing have taken on a more ominous quality. To put it simply: suggesting that the Conservative Party will succumb to a landslide defeat on 4th July, no longer does justice to the scale of the expected reckoning. Commentators refer instead to a “Tory apocalypse” or an “extinction-level event”; in this contest, the tenor of recent columns would suggest, there is no such thing as hyperbole. 

Back in 1997, during the BBC’s election night coverage, guest expert Professor Anthony King faced this very same dilemma: how do we narrate the development of an unprecedented result using our common stock of language shaped, necessarily, by past experience? As host David Dimbleby reflected on the result of the exit poll, therefore, King pushed back: “Landslide is much too weak a word”, he declared. 

King’s assessment, delivered at 10.35 pm on election night, would have shaken even the most assured Tory: “I offer you the following metaphor — this is an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth.” 

The 1997 general election reduced the Conservative Party in parliament from 343 to 165 MPs; and King’s analysis was informed by an exit poll that placed John Major’s party on 180 seats. Today, poll after poll predicts that Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives will return to parliament later this year with less than 100 MPs. In short, the meteor set to strike Sunak could put Major’s to shame: we’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

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Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, evoked King this week when he told PoliticsHome that the Conservatives could face an “apocalypse” this election. “We can say this right now four weeks out: the meteor can hit, this can be the dinosaurs getting wiped out”, Ford said. “That’s what’s on the map, it’s there in all the data.”

It is, indeed, all in the data. One of the main characters of this election — political parties and spokespeople aside — is the MRP “mega” poll. An MRP (Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification) is a statistical modelling technique that allows pollsters to use a national sample to work out accurate estimates of support for parties or candidates in small geographic areas. Technicalities aside, MRPs occupy such an elevated position in popular discourse this election because of the striking results they consistently produce. The first MRP of the election, conducted by Electoral Calculus, left the Conservatives with 66 seats. Subsequently, Survation’s MRP landed the Conservatives on 71 seats. YouGov’s inaugural election MRP, meanwhile, placed Rishi Sunak’s party on a relatively stronger footing of 140 seats. 

There are other possible measures: The New Statesman’s Britain Predicts model, for instance, has the Conservatives on 86 seats. But whatever your preferred yardstick, all the data suggests that the 2024-2029 parliament will be one relatively desolate of Conservatives.

In the end, the destruction of the Conservative Party, because of its historical lineage, is the sort of thing that should remain unthinkable until the moment it happens. But the structural protections afforded to Toryism in Britain have slowly eroded over the course of the 2019-2024 parliament; as Ford noted this week: “There’s no safe seats left”. As a consequence, the Conservatives’ political annihilation — once an eccentric pipe dream of professional contrarians — is a potential election outcome worth taking seriously indeed.

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In the 1997 election, Michael Portillo’s brutal ejection in Enfield Southgate provided a defining moment — one which has lasted long in Britain’s collective memory. But on 4th July, “Portillo moment(s)” are set to arrive thick and fast. The spectacle of collapsing cabinet ministers will seem relatively customary by sunrise: the law of diminishing Conservatives would suggest there comes a point when an additional cabinet routing results in a lessening of the overall shock factor. 

In total, seven serving cabinet ministers lost their seats at the 1997 election (namely, Michael Forsyth, Roger Freeman, Ian Lang, Tony Newton, Malcolm Rifkind, William Waldegrave and, of course, Portillo). The recent YouGov MRP — a relatively rosy reading for the Conservatives compared to, say, Survation’s finding — predicts that 12 cabinet ministers are set to lose their seats, including leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, defence secretary Grant Shapps and chancellor Jeremy Hunt.

A “Portillo moment” is necessarily less potent when it is repeated, perhaps many times over, in a single night. In this regard, far more instructive in terms of the Conservative Party’s fate and near future, I contend, will be the “Charest moments” (pronounced sha-ray). Jean Charest was one of just two Progressive Conservative MPs who retained their seats in the 1993 Canadian general election — as the party collapsed from 43 per cent vote share in the previous election to 16 per cent. Returning 2 MPs may well be below the UK Conservatives’ floor of support this election — but the Canada ’93 allegory is a reminder that all political parties, even the most long-lasting, have their lifespan. Repeated political failure takes a toll; and a wrathful electorate knows no mercy.

That we are even considering the impermanence of the Conservative Party is a product, in recent times at least, of Rishi Sunak’s repeat failures. Sunak, some long nineteen months ago, was shunted into 10 Downing Street to stop the Conservatives’ political rot; by virtue of not being Liz Truss, he succeeded — initially — by default. But in recent months the rot has begun to worsen; today, it expands with Truss-like severity. 

It is no secret that the Conservative election campaign has been strewn with errors — each seemingly more graven than the last. And matters culminated this week with the debacle over the prime minister’s attendance, and then shock non-attendance, at the commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day. 

The prime minister saw no issue in curtailing his participation in the ceremonies, sending defence secretary Shapps and foreign secretary Lord Cameron in his stead — nor, of course, did any of his infamously insular inner circle of advisers and political aides. But the fallout has been nothing short of brutal: Penny Mordaunt’s first contribution to the BBC election debate last night (Sunak again sent a surrogate) was to brand the prime minister “completely wrong” for his premature D-Day departure. Veterans, Mordaunt said, should be “treasured” as she highlighted her own credentials as a former defence secretary.

As political miscalculations go, it is grimly perfect. On the doorstep, activists of all parties already attest that Sunak’s absenteeism has cut through; the episode looks set to entirely depress the Conservative base — whose morale has been the central focus of Sunak’s ill-fated campaign; it casts further doubt over the prime minister’s judgement and values; and, worse still perhaps, Sunak’s decision to leave Normandy on Thursday saw Keir Starmer look more prime ministerial than ever. 

Above all, however, Sunak’s D-Day disaster is a gift to Nigel Farage. The Reform leader’s central mission this election is to exploit the manifold grievances of traditionalist, nationalistic voters; Farage, that arch-political schemer, couldn’t have devised a more politically propitious development. 

That the debacle will have some form of effect on the polls, therefore, is beyond doubt; the Tory parliamentary totals listed above — 66 seats (Electoral Calculus), 71 seats (Survation), 140 seats (YouGov) — look set to substantially lessen over the coming days. But here’s the real stinger: not only will Sunak’s D-Day disaster undoubtedly depress his poll ratings — the fieldwork for these polls was conducted prior to Farage’s sensational return to frontline politics this week. Together, the D-Day and Farage factors will collaborate to make a Conservative electoral cataclysm — Canada ’93-style — a genuine possibility on 4th July. 

Accordingly, no longer do Tories fear an ephemeral polling “crossover”, whereby Reform merely leapfrogs the Conservatives in a few polls between now and the election. Rather, the Conservative Party’s very status as the foremost institutional expression of British right politics is at stake. 

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Every standard poll conducted since Farage’s return (no MRP yet) has exhibited a significant boost in Reform’s standing. Redfield and Wilton has Reform rising by 3 points to 17 per cent; while Survation, which has hitherto been more sceptical of Reform’s prospects, has Farage’s party up 7 points to 15 per cent. (It’s worth stating that these polls were conducted prior to Sunak’s D-Day debacle).

The most striking poll this week, however, came from YouGov. Like Redfield and Wilton, the pollster has Reform climbing to 17 per cent in the polls — a mere 2 points behind the Tories. But crucially, YouGov recently switched up its methodology to make its standard poll results more in line with their famed MRP surveys. Had YouGov not made these changes — i.e. had the pollster stuck to its old methods — Reform and Conservatives would have been tied on 18 points. 

At this juncture, as Reform rockets, it is worth remembering that its forebear, the Brexit Party, did not stand in Conservative-held seats at the 2019 general election. It meant that 298 Conservative MPs (the number of incumbents then standing) did not have to face an insurgent Faragist force. As such, while the Brexit Party depressed the Conservatives’ vote in a series of opposition-held constituencies, it did not do so in an election-defining way — not nearly. It is a difficult fact to come to terms with, but it means that Reform’s vote will jump from 0 to around 18-20 per cent in around 300 constituencies this election, (assuming the party outperforms its polling, even slightly, in Tory heartland areas). It is a fact that makes the Liberal Democrats’ task in the Blue Wall, in particular, far easier — and cabinet routings even more likely. 

The bottom line is this: ahead of polling day, due to a multitude of factors, the Conservative Party’s doomsday clock may have already struck midnight.

The return of Farage and the PM’s D-Day debacle are likely to define an arduous month of campaigning for the Conservatives. After two weeks of campaigning and two TV debates, any kind of comeback has never looked less likely

The meteor, in short, has hit. On 4th July, we are left to judge what remains of this cratered party. 

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

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