Election Countdown

Should the Tories oust Sunak?

After two more dire byelection results, the prime minister’s opponents in the Conservative party are looking to replace him with a new leader. But that may not be wise

February 19, 2024
Poor thing: over half of Conservative voters from 2019 believe Sunak is out of touch. Image: PA Images / Alamy
Poor thing: over half of Conservative voters from 2019 believe Sunak is out of touch. Image: PA Images / Alamy

The code is easy to break. Rishi Sunak’s opponents inside the Conservative party want to replace him; but publicly they talk merely of a “change in direction”. We have had more of it over the weekend, following the Tories’ dismal performance in last week’s byelections. It’s as if the prime minister might wake up one day and tell them: “gosh, I now see you are right. I am going to move sharply to the right, cut taxes and spend less on public services, reverse my policies on climate change and pursue a much tougher version of Brexit.”

Fat chance; and his opponents know that. They want him out. They blame him for Labour’s big leads in the polls, and the continuing haemorrhage of Tory votes in byelections. They believe that the best chance of a Tory recovery is to replace him with a more right-wing leader. Are they right? 

Let’s start with Sunak’s reputation. Poll after poll reports terrible satisfaction ratings. However, the views of the whole electorate, though interesting, are not the most important thing. Millions of voters would never vote Tory or think well of its leader. Sunak’s real test is his standing among those who voted Conservative at the last election. He needs to retain as much of their support as possible.

He is failing, and failing badly. YouGov regularly tracks what people think of the party leaders. Do those who gave Boris Johnson his 80-seat majority think Sunak is strong, decisive, trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people? As the chart below shows, the answers are no, no, no and no.

When Sunak became prime minister, Conservative voters thought well of him—though there was an early warning in the fact that only 22 per cent of them thought he was in touch with ordinary people. A majority, 56 per cent, said he was out of touch. This gave him a net rating of minus 34. Since then, his reputation has taken a hammering. When he became leader, his net rating on decisiveness was plus 54 (decisive 65 per cent, indecisive 11 per cent). It’s now minus nine (37-46). On only one of the five qualities does he still enjoy a positive rating: competence. But a net rating of plus 53 has been cut to plus 17.

All in all, millions of Tory voters have lost faith in Sunak. So, presumably, the Conservatives would do better with another leader?

Not so fast. Here are four obstacles that Sunak’s critics must overcome.

First, voters say the Tories are a divided party. YouGov finds that this is the view of 72 per cent of all voters, and as many as 79 per cent of those who voted Tory last time. It’s not a reputation that any party wants—especially if it lingers, as it has with the Conservatives throughout the past 12 months. The only way to prevent electoral damage is for one side to overcome its rivals and be seen to reassert control over the whole party.

Second, most voters who express a view—including most Conservatives—regard themselves as either centrists, or “slightly” right or left of centre. Just 22 per cent of Conservatives say they are “fairly” or “very” right-wing. Yet 33 per cent of them say the party is currently right-wing, and 41 per cent in or near the centre. Any change in the party’s outlook that is seen to shift it further to the right would risk losing more votes than it gains. It is more likely to close the gap with Labour if it moves nearer the centre, not further away.

Third, tax cuts do not necessarily win votes. The 2p reduction in National Insurance did nothing to boost the Tories’ poll ratings, either when it was announced in November or when it took effect last month. Tax cuts can enhance a party’s popularity if they are seen as a reward for managing the economy successfully. Otherwise, they risk looking like a cynical bribe that robs the NHS and other public services of the money they need—or, worse, an act of fiscal irresponsibility, as with the Truss/Kwarteng fiasco.

Finally, Sunak’s opponents think he has handled Brexit badly. Most voters agree. However, when his detractors want to break with the EU more decisively, most voters disagree. According a Deltapoll survey of seats that the Tories gained at the last election, most voters would be happy to accept EU standards if this meant more jobs and greater prosperity. The same poll found a majority backing the right of any EU citizen to come to Britain if they have a job to come to. In both cases, less than half of those who voted Tory at the last election back the hard-Brexit alternative backed by Sunak’s critics.

Taking account of Sunak’s dire ratings and the obstacles to benefitting from a change of leadership, is there a way forward?

Actually, I think there is. Well, sort of. Sunak would admit his failure and retire gracefully. This would avoid the spectacle of a savage battle to force him out. Just one candidate would then come forward to succeed him. This would prevent a horribly divisive contest lasting weeks. The new leader would be a pragmatist who is happy to cooperate with Brussels, continue to fight climate change and oppose tax cuts at a time when the public finances are so precarious. Finally, Sunak’s right-wing critics would accept all this and rally behind the new leader without a peep of protest.

If you think any—let alone all—of that is likely, I know some bookmakers who would love your money.