Election Countdown

Is Sunak the new Corbyn? This election will show us

The prime minister currently has even less support than Labour’s leader had last time

May 22, 2024
The prime minister announcing the election outside Downing Street. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
The prime minister announcing the election outside Downing Street. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey would have called it a courageous decision. Exclusive new polling for Prospect shows that Rishi Sunak starts his election campaign in a worse position than Jeremy Corbyn last time—and Keir Starmer in a better position than Boris Johnson.

To dig beneath the surface of conventional voting intention polls, Deltapoll has repeated a pair of questions it asked 18 months ago when Sunak had just become prime minister, and that YouGov asked during the 2019 election which delivered the Conservatives a majority of 80.

This new poll, completed on Monday, reveals a limited enthusiasm for Starmer’s Labour party—but a voracious appetite for feasting on the carcass of Sunak’s Conservatives.

Our questions invited respondents to imagine how they would react to alternative election results: a) a majority for Sunak and the Conservatives, and b) victory for Starmer’s Labour party. The survey offered a range of reactions, ranging from delighted to dismayed.

The latest figures show that just 20 per cent say they would be delighted (7 per cent) or pleased (13 per cent) by a Sunak/Conservative victory, while 57 per cent would be disappointed (25 per cent) or dismayed (32 per cent). Corbyn’s figures were not quite as disastrous: 28 per cent positive, 52 per cent negative. 

Against that, the figures for Starmer’s Labour party—38 per cent positive, 31 per cent negative—are better than those before the last election for Johnson’s Conservatives: 35 per cent positive, 44 per cent negative.

The figures also show that Starmer’s advantage over Sunak has grown since December 2022, shortly after Sunak succeeded Liz Truss as prime minister.

That said, public support for Starmer falls short of a standing ovation. Just 14 per cent of the public say they would be “delighted” if he became prime minister—the same as Corbyn’s figure last time. The difference is that many more would be “pleased” if Starmer won—24 per cent, against Corbyn’s 14 per cent—or “wouldn‘t mind” (22 per cent versus 9 per cent). Add those figures together, and 60 per cent say they could live with a Starmer premiership. Corbyn’s figure was just 37 per cent, and Sunak’s current total 36 per cent.

In short, forget the idea that voters find Starmer exciting. Past oppositions have won elections by offering the stimulus of change, while governments appeal to the reassurance of safety. This time, it is the opposition that embarks on the election campaign miles ahead as the party of safety. 

Four other findings from Deltapoll’s survey are worth noting.

First, only 38 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2019 say they would be “delighted” or “pleased” by a Sunak victory; almost as many, 34 per cent, say they would be “disappointed” or “dismayed”.

Second, people who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum—the bedrock of Johnson’s victory—now divide 49 per cent disappointed/dismayed by the prospect of a Sunak victory, just 26 per cent delighted/pleased.

Third, Liberal Democrats would be significantly happier with a Starmer than Sunak victory. This is further evidence that tactical voting could cost the Tories some of the seats they might otherwise hold.

In contrast, Reform supporters are equally hostile to either a Starmer or Sunak victory. The Tories are hoping to reduce Labour’s lead by squeezing Reform’s support. After all, the great majority of them voted for Johnson last time. But many had previously been Labour supporters. On the basis of this new data, what they did in 2019 was a one-election fling that they might be reluctant to repeat.