Cure for the blues? The Tories’ mid-term plight in perspective

History and the polls suggest replacing Boris Johnson might help. But a dozen years into power, it might not be enough to avoid the blame for deepening economic turmoil

May 18, 2022
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Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The local elections earlier this month emphatically confirmed the message from opinion polls. Since December last year, Labour has been ahead in nearly every poll, and support for the Conservatives has been consistently below any level recorded between November 2019 and November 2021. Given the electoral geography of the last general election, the Tories would lose their majority, and power, if they were less than 4.7 points ahead of Labour at the next election. Both the polls and the local election results suggest the government is on course to be well short of that threshold, and so lose office at the next election. 

The blues are suffering the blues. Aside from hoping things will work out, what could Conservative MPs do to recover their party’s fortunes?

The talk at Westminster, as so often, centres on the potential of change at the top. Some Conservative MPs might hope that the moral and constitutional issues arising from Boris Johnson’s behaviour over the Owen Paterson affair and Partygate take priority over political calculations. But politicians will give a lot of weight to political considerations which, in the current context, also threaten the PM. 

The polls and focus groups show that the prime minister is a liability for his party. The latest YouGov ratings, for instance, show 68 per cent rating the PM as doing badly, against just 26 per cent who think he’s doing well, a net negative balance of –42 points: far worse than Keir Starmer’s fairly lacklustre ­–23 and, insofar as it makes sense to compare, nearly all of Johnson’s rivals in the cabinet

A change of prime minister is not guaranteed to improve government fortunes, but the Tories do have a good success rate here. Since regular polling began in the 1940s, Conservative governments have switched prime ministers for political reasons on four occasions. Support for the party in the polls went up straight after three of those switches: to John Major in 1990, Theresa May in 2016 and Johnson in 2019. The one exception, Harold Macmillan, who took over in the traumatic aftermath of the Suez crisis in 1957, suffered a short-term drop in the polls, but nonetheless went on to win the subsequent election, along with all of the other three. 

History, then, is encouraging for the would-be mutineers. But rebellion can only ever bear fruit at the ballot box when backbenchers are willing to take the risk of toppling their leader. That risk is so rarely taken precisely because most of the time MPs on the government side can all too clearly envisage the disruption and division involved, but cannot be confident that it will improve things. 

Hanging together, hanging apart

One reason why Tory MPs may not want to change leader at the moment is because there is no clear alternative they can imagine their colleagues rallying around. And they can draw some support from the history books too. Of the 15 general elections since Conservative MPs began formally voting on their party leader in 1965 (Labour MPs had a formal role going further back), 12 have been won by the leader who won their party leadership election by the biggest margin among their own MPs. MPs have a particularly strong personal incentive to pick a winner for their party: their job depends on it. They also know the contenders better than members outside. And so if a big majority of MPs rally for one candidate, that person is likely to have winning leadership qualities.  

The bad news for the Tories is that Johnson was already in some trouble on this test of prospects for the next election, having been ahead by a slightly narrower margin in the MPs’ stage of the 2019 leadership race (with an edge of 23 percentage points) than Starmer enjoyed among nominating MPs in 2020

But as things stand, especially since Rishi Sunak’s recent difficulties over his wife’s tax status and business interests, it is hard to see anyone coming through a divided field with as big a parliamentary lead as Johnson enjoyed last time, let alone one to match Starmer’s.

There are structural reasons why it could be difficult for the parliamentary Conservative party to pull together. The local elections underlined afresh the different challenges the Tories now face in different parts of the country. Hammered by the Liberal Democrats in leafy parts of the south such as West Oxfordshire, while also confronting a Labour Party which, as my analysis for Prospect showed last week, is now bouncing back especially strongly in “Leaveland,” Tories in different parts of the country may reasonably reach different conclusions about what sort of message—and what sort of leader—will best help them save their seats. If MPs judge that the only alternative to Johnson is disunity, some may resolve to stick with him. 

But if there is a change at the top, the new prime minister might want to have an early general election to strengthen their position within a few months. Andrew Bonar Law (1922), Anthony Eden (1955), and Boris Johnson (2019) all did so with great success. Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown would probably have fared better had they done so. In the last century, only Stanley Baldwin went briefly awry with a general election as a brand new unelected prime minister, but he was back in power within a year.

Money matters

With or without a change of leader, the biggest question of all is likely to be whether the Conservative Party can respond to the major issues of the day in a way that leads to election victory.

Along with other groups, those who backed the Tories in 2019 but did not do so on 5th May overwhelmingly named the cost of living crisis as the most important issue facing them and their family. At a time of anxiety about rising fossil fuel prices, voters flocked to the more climate-conscious parties, not the energy-transition sceptic Reform UK party founded by Nigel Farage, which only got two seats out of the 6,819 up for election. The weakness of the threat from the right might encourage the Conservatives to move more to the centre ground and adopt popular policies suggested by the opposition, such as a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies. 

The Conservatives might be taking some comfort in the fact Labour only secured a five-point lead in the local elections Projected National Share (PNS) of the vote, despite the building economic turmoil. In 1990, Labour had an eight-point lead in the PNS, and the Conservatives still won the general election in 1992. But that was only after ditching Margaret Thatcher and abolishing her unpopular poll tax.

The Tories also won in 2015, despite having been seven points down in the PNS for the 2012 local elections. That poor performance was in large part due to the omnishambles budget, including the famous pasty tax. Such unpopular policies were easily undone though. George Osborne loosened the Treasury purse strings in time for voters to feel better about the economy before the general election. 

The economic problems now, by contrast, are not of the government’s own making in the same way—and so are less clearly fixable than those of 2012. Alleviating the current and coming economic hardship, caused primarily by externally-driven inflation, particularly in global energy markets, is likely to be difficult if not impossible. Resolution Foundation analysis suggests that living standards are on course to drop for every part of the income spectrum during the current parliament, in a way not seen before in modern British history. 

Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan lost elections after struggling to manage the fallout from the oil shocks of the early and late 1970s. There are many differences between then and now. But the problems of energy and prices could prove to be just as unmanageable, and just as politically devastating for the government. If so, its current blues could prove less mid-term than terminal.