Election Countdown

Could the Tories snatch another 1992-style victory?

Rishi Sunak may be hoping to copy John Major’s surprise election win. But the two leaders’ byelection results tell a different story

February 12, 2024
John Major outside Number 10 after his party’s surprise victory at the 1992 general election. Image: PA Images / Alamy
John Major outside Number 10 after his party’s surprise victory at the 1992 general election. Image: PA Images / Alamy

One question that has been asked recently—by Tories from hope and by Labour from fear—is whether the coming general election could resemble 1992, when John Major snatched victory from what seemed to be the rapidly closing jaws of defeat.

My sharpest memory from the night of that election is of just before the polls closed. I had entered the BBC results studio around 9.30pm. The huge screen at the centre of the studio had pink as its background colour—a visual indication that, as the interim exit poll figures had shown all day, Labour was ahead.

At around 9.50pm, as we straightened our ties and tested our microphones, the screen suddenly switched from pink to pale blue. The latest exit poll data had arrived; now the Tories had moved into the lead. Even then, the poll failed to predict Major’s overall majority. But it was the moment when, for me, the prospect of Neil Kinnock becoming prime minister evaporated.

This week should tell us whether the Conservatives have started recovering enough to justify comparisons with the 1992 election. Conventional wisdom says Labour will gain both Wellingborough and Kingswood in Thursday’s byelections. And so it should. Labour needs a swing of 18 per cent in Wellingborough and just over 11 per cent in Kingswood. Since Rishi Sunak became prime minister, the Tories have lost three seats to Labour, all with swings of more than 20 per cent. For his party to win either contest this week would warrant opening the champagne.

Byelections, of course, have lives of their own. The public crucify unpopular governments by voting against them or staying at home. But we can examine real votes, in contrast to opinion polls which politicians are apt to dismiss when they don’t like the figures. These days, optimistic Tories and fearful Labour politicians brush aside the clear polling evidence that, in the months before the 1992 election, John Major was far more popular than Sunak is today, and that Labour’s polling lead then was far narrower than it is today.

So what do the byelections tell us about the state of the Tories then and their condition today? Do they back up the polls or contradict them? Not only can we look at real votes; by looking at byelections in two separate eras we can make direct like-with-like comparisons. 

The chart below shows how much the Conservative vote dropped in byelections under Major and Sunak compared to the previous general election. Look at how the Tories fared in the four seats they defended after Major became prime minister, and in four (all excluding Uxbridge) they have defended with Sunak at the helm. That the number of voters dropped in all these byelections is no surprise. The issue is, by how much did they drop? Let’s take the 1991 figures first. The Tories were mauled in Ribble Valley, seeing their vote fall by 41 per cent. The poll tax had not yet been killed off. In the remaining contests, once the decision had been announced to replace the flat-rate poll tax with a relatively progressive council tax, the Conservatives still lost every seat they defended; but they shed fewer votes. 

What is more, Major’s byelection record was not as bad as that of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. In the six contests held in the 1987 parliament before she resigned, the Conservative vote fell by 44 per cent. The figure for Major’s byelections was 32 per cent—and that includes Ribble Valley. After Ribble Valley, the combined figure for the three other byelections was a fall of 28 per cent. These were still of course bad figures. But the byelections confirmed the story of recovery told by the polls.

Now take Sunak’s record. The Tories have lost twice as many votes (64 per cent overall) as they did under Major. Even their best result, in Uxbridge, was worse than any under Major—including Ribble Valley.

What’s more, Sunak’s byelection record is no better than Johnson’s. The overall loss under Johnson was 60 per cent; under Sunak, 64 per cent. Excluding the special circumstances of the Uxbridge byelection, and the Tories’ combined loss of votes in the other four byelections is 67 per cent. I wouldn’t make too much of the seven-point change since Johnson, from 60 to 67 per cent. But we can certainly say that whereas the switch from Thatcher to Major helped the Conservatives, Sunak has failed so far to improve his party’s fortunes at all. So far, the record bears out the messages from the polls.

Which is why this week’s two byelections matter. If any green shoots of Tory recovery are to be found, Wellingborough and Kingswood are the places to look. Let’s take them in turn.

Peter Bone won 32,277 votes in Wellingborough in 2019. If Helen Harrison, the Conservative candidate, matches the 64 per cent average in lost votes, she will win around 11,600 votes. She needs 14,500 votes, which would limit the loss to 55 per cent, for the party to be able to claim any real evidence of recovery—whether or not she actually holds the seat.

As for Kingswood, Chris Skidmore won 27,712 votes last time. The relevant figures for Sam Bromley, the Conservative candidate, are: 10,000 votes (64 per cent drop: no party recovery at all), 12,500 votes (55 per cent drop: limited recovery).

Really good results for Sunak would be to limit the lost votes to 50 per cent (winning just over 16,000 in Wellingborough, just under 14,000 in Kingswood). This would still be worse than Major’s record, but it would start to move the dial in the right direction. It might be just enough to hold Bone’s old seat, but not Skidmore’s. Mind you, if Harrison—Peter Bone’s partner and a candidate Sunak didn’t want—does much better than Bromley, this will do nothing to cheer the mood in Downing Street. It would be seized on by the prime minister’s Tory critics as evidence of latent support for his party if only he would get out of the way. On Friday we might be able to tell whether the Conservatives have begun to recover—or the polls are right, and Sunak is still stuck in the mire.