General Election 2024

Election panel: Can the Tory manifesto change the party’s fortunes?

Our panel of experts on whether the Conservatives’ campaign pledges will make any difference

June 11, 2024
Rishi Sunak launched the Conservative manifesto today. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Rishi Sunak launched the Conservative manifesto today. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s election season. Prospect has invited writers and experts to an election group chat. Imagine a WhatsApp group of your most politically informed friends from across the ideological spectrum on-hand to discuss the biggest and smallest issues. 

Yesterday, we asked our panellists whether Reform could win over a significant number of Tory voters. Today, as the Conservative party released its manifesto, we ask: can it make any dent in Labour’s lead? 

Emily Lawford: Could this manifesto change Tory fortunes? And how does the Lib Dems’ launch yesterday compare?

Marie Le Conte: I mean Rishi could always give furlough another try? People did like him when they got a lot of free money, may be worth another shot.

Tim Bale: “Vote Tory. Win a Microwave” (but probably not an election).

Frances Ryan: Yeah I’d also be interested in some sort of lottery. Three numbers for a crate of wine. Six for timely cancer treatment.

Peter Kellner: Very occasionally, manifestos can affect elections. Theresa May’s policy on social care in 2017 cost her the chance of a decent majority. Labour’s equivocation on nuclear weapons did the party no favours in 1987. In 2010, The Lib Dem promise to scrap tuition fees helped them capture student votes in 2010—and then lose them when the realities of coalition life forced Nick Clegg to abandon his promise in government. I doubt that today’s Conservatives’ manifesto commitments on national insurance, pensions, gender identity or anything else will do them much good this time. However, manifestos can matter AFTER the election—at least, the winning party’s manifesto can. Under the Salisbury convention, first set out in 1872 and given its modern form following Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, the House of Lords won’t block any bill that enacts a manifesto commitment. Keir Starmer’s government will start its life facing a large anti-Labour majority in the Lords. The detailed commitments it makes in its manifesto, being launched on Thursday, are unlikely to make much difference between now and 4th July, but they could matter a lot afterwards.

Philip Collins: Did the social care announcement really shift the Tory poll, Peter? I thought they ended up quite close to where they were on the day? The Labour vote certainly moved up a lot and I still don’t entirely understand what happened there.

Peter Kellner: According to Ipsos Mori, May’s satisfaction rating went from plus 20 before the social care debacle to minus seven afterwards. Yes, Corbyn’s ratings improved; but had May’s reputation not fallen so far, it’s implausible to suppose that she would still have lost her majority.

Philip Collins: Did the voting intention move? Is it not possible that people were very annoyed with her but still reluctantly voted Tory?

Peter Kellner: In the absence of an alternative universe to act as a control, none of us can be certain! What we know is that before the social care debacle, polls put the Tory + Ukip vote at around 50 per cent. It ended up at 45 per cent. It looks to me as if the squeeze in squeeze in Ukip’s support (which fell from 5 to 2 per cent) helped the Tories but was offset by votes May lost to Labour over social care. Can I prove this? No. But the slump in May’s rating is strong circumstantial evidence on my side.

Frances Ryan: There was a decent amount for the Tory faithful here, particularly those who might be tempted to vote Reform: tax cuts, despite crumbling public services; shipping asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite international law; more demonisation of disabled people who can’t work, despite a decade of benefits cuts and sanctions; a plan to halve migration, despite gaping holes in the social care workforce. But, of course, it will be a largely futile effort. Sunak has tried to run this campaign based on the future, not the past—which is understandable when you consider the government’s calamitous 14-year record. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, however, voters have not magically had their memories wiped which means that really any polices the manifesto offered today will do little to help Sunak’s plummeting fortunes. Or to put it another way: a pledge to increase the number of GP appointments means little if your party is the reason people can’t get one.

Moya Lothian-McLean: I think manifestos don't move elections now unless they either can be used by opposing parties to further bolster negative messaging (see 2019 election) about their rivals or they promise something so devastating to their own base it makes people stay home. Like Peter said, they matter more after elections—which is of course when we see if the promises are actually enacted.

I think the Lib Dems in 2010 was the last time I remember a promise being made for the “good” that shifted the election result—and it was betrayed so quickly afterwards it bottomed out Lib Dem reputation for a long time. People don't trust politicians anyway; they don't trust their promises. Add to that existing political disengagement and party manifestos pre-election are barely read by people who might change the results.

Peter Hitchens: Well, at least the Tories don’t seem to have followed the Lib Dems’ pledge to legalise marijuana, a policy as stupid in practice, on its own terms, as it is immoral. Increasingky I wonder about the lost childhood of Rishi Sunak before his days at Winchester. Did someone make him learn by heart Felicia Hemans’s tear-jerking poem “Casabianca” in which ‘The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled’? I am actually unexpectedly moved by the way he just carries on, affably and calmly, amid the storms of exaggerated abuse and contempt. And I have no brief for him. Interesting to see that the BBC’s Nick Robinson, now growing a scrubby beard, which looks much as I imagine Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment does, could not even be bothered to struggle into a tie to interview the King’s Chief Minister last night. I hate ties myself, but even I will wear them sometimes. It appeared contemptuous, and the supposedly tough questioning did too. Yet Mr Sunak kept his temper and parried questions and (needlessly frequent) interruptions, with coherent answers. As he is always being told he has lost the election anyway, you can see why he might just hide away, or lose his rag. 

I am increasingly concerned at the use of polls to influence the vote. Years ago I remember being scornful when the current Speaker’s father, Doug Hoyle, suggested banning polls during actual elections. Now I see his point. In a normal old-fashioned British election this would be an indifferent but respectable manifesto aimed at shoring up the base. But in this weird festival of hyperbole, it was hardly worth the journey.

Philip Collins: I thought that was Sunak’s best performance in a long while. If only he had chosen to govern according to the mood of that speech he might have been in a better place than he is. One thing puzzled me though. If flights to Rwanda were set to take off in July, why not wait? Why rush to the election?

Frances Ryan: Presumably he’s not sure the flights will actually take off? And that the summer’s weather will bring more small boats that will further highlight the policy’s practical as well as moral failure.

Moya Lothian-McLean: Do we have any evidence they were actually going to take off? Or is it a Sunak and team reframing of it as: “pesky Labour have got in the way of this but vote for us and we'll finally do it”?

Philip Collins: No evidence at all and I don’t believe flights would ever have taken off. Which in turn suggests Sunak is being loose with the truth.

Some losing manifestos end up being famous: Labour 1983. This one will not be among them.

Matthew d’Ancona: Not even slightly. Sunak could release the most compelling political text since the Gettysburg Address—including the Gettysburg Address, actually—and it would make not a scintilla of difference. You can’t turn toast back into bread.

Matthew Lesh: The Tories' fate was sealed long before the manifesto announcement or even the start of this election campaign. Rishi Sunak has not only demonstrated a serious lack of political talent but has also faced a track record of broken promises over 14 years, the almost inevitable result of being in government for so long yet unwilling to undertake serious reforms. But I also wouldn’t underestimate the broader structural factors. Covid-era leaders have been voted out in many places across the globe, from Australia and New Zealand to Germany and, most recently, Modi’s poor result in India. Emmanuel Macron is facing serious electoral challenges in France, Justin Trudeau will likely be booted out next year in Canada, while Biden is on weak footing for later this year. It’s a hard time for incumbents: a weaker economy, falling living standards, a less secure geopolitical context, and perhaps even latent frustrations from lockdown.

Nadine Batchelor-Hunt: It can’t make a difference, mostly because no manifesto can undo the frustration and fatigue the electorate clearly has with the Tories. They’re going to be held accountable for the last 14 years at the ballot box. Also because this manifesto doesn’t have any big, bold and extremely popular policy announcements.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Tomorrow, our panel will be back to answer yet more burning questions about the general election. Got a question for the panel? Email